Which Is More Dangerous, Rugby or Football?

Argentina's Eusebio Guinazu lies on the pitch during a scrum against Italy during their rugby test match at the Olympic stadium in Rome on November 23, 2013. (Stefano Rellandini / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A long-time reader, Tim, has been following our debate over the NFL and shifts our attention to another contact sport:

Count me among the many who have drifted away from the NFL, for all the reasons your readers have named: cheap patriotism, endless games, nitpicky rules unevenly enforced, CTE CTE CTE. This as a Pats fan who for most of the 2000s was riding a high.

I also join reader Ed in switching my interest to rugby, in the limited way I can with a basic cable contract. The constant action and amazing athleticism is one reason. An equal one is the “culture of respect” that’s one of the game’s foundations and most carefully guarded traditions. Players rarely deliberately hurt one another; when they do, they are banned for months on end. Their infrequent scuffles are in the wrestling/bristling mode, not punching with venom.

And, crucially, the referee is The Law—and more in the Solomonic than the Draconian mode. Disputes and fouls are resolved swiftly, fairly, and decisively. This supercut of the legendary Welsh ref Nigel Owens explains the appeal of this approach, versus the NFL’s endless rulebook, far better than I can.

With a word (“Christopher!”) he ends a debate full-stop (and gets a schoolboy's meek “Sorry, sir” from a mountain of a man). After breaking up a big scuffle, he has the captains call all the players to him, puts out the flames, and resets the order of play, all while keeping the game’s competitive spirit firmly in the players’ hands:

I don’t want to make a big issue of this, OK? But things like that are not acceptable in the game. What happened here or what happened afterwards, I did not see it. It ends there. Is that clear? You’re adults. You’ll be treated like it as long as you behave like it. We’re going to go back to the original penalty down there.

It’s of note that Owens is openly gay—and that both he and the world’s best players are comfortable with that to the point that Owens even famously had a bit of fun with it. (The throw here is supposed to come in perpendicular to the sideline. When it doesn’t...)

Knowing how hard it was for Owens to accept himself as a gay man makes his acceptance by and respect from the game’s best all the sweeter to behold.

So which sport is more dangerous? Rugby players wear far fewer pads, but it’s those pads that enable and embolden someone to hit another player with greater speed and force—and it’s the sudden stopping, not the impact itself, that causes the brain to crash into the inside of the skull, causing a concussion. Rugby players don’t wear helmets, but rather scrum caps, which do little more than prevent cauliflower ear—though again, it’s the helmet that allows for harder hits and a harder projectile, so helmets can be more dangerous for players than caps.

Another key distinction comes from a sports fan on Reddit:

Rugby doesn’t have a system of downs like football, so it’s not as important to contest every single yard. In rugby, it’s more important that the man simply gets tackled—it’s ok if he drags you a yard or two as long as he doesn’t score. In football, that extra yard might mean a new set of downs so you get defensive players impacting the players hard and high—trying to stop the runner's forward movement immediately.

The Redditor also points to a 2008 study showing lower rates of injury in college rugby than college football. Another key distinction between the two sports comes from a rugby coach on his blog:

Another major contributing factor is that in football, offensive players are often looking backwards over their shoulder for the ball while the defensive player is in front of them. There is no way for the offensive player to see the hit coming and prepare himself for the contact. In rugby, the ball must always be passed backwards, and the defense is in front of the ball and much closer. The offensive player is able to see the ball coming and simultaneously the tackler, allowing the player to prepare for contact.

So, are there any aspects of rugby that are more dangerous than football? Football may have a bigger concussion crisis, and a higher injury rate overall, but rugby has a distinct and serious problem: spinal injuries. As The Guardian notes, “In rugby it is spinal injuries from scrums that are the most dangerous (110 rugby players in Britain have been paralysed by playing the game).” What’s a scrum exactly? This video vividly explains it and its perils:

Have you played football and rugby and can personally attest to the different risks? Drop us an email. Carly played at least one of those sports:

I find the condemnation of some other readers of the violence and “barbarism” of the NFL interesting. I played rugby throughout college and for awhile after graduation in a local adults’ league. There is something inherently, viscerally satisfying in putting my body on the line, in executing a solid tackle and bringing an opponent to the ground, or in stiff-arming a defender. It’s violent, but it’s a violence with rules and a code of conduct. It can be deeply invigorating and empowering. I don’t think the damage the players inflict on each other is barbaric. (The exploitation of the players by the owners, on the other hand … )

I ended up retiring from rugby after my 3rd concussion (I am a chronic klutz and was terrible at maintaining the proper form to reduce my risk for injury). Playing the sport was my choice to make, but I wasn’t helping make millions of dollars for my coaches or any administrative staff. Providing support for the physical trade-offs players make would seem to be basic consideration given the sums they bring in. Given the money that floods the NFL, every player ought to be given the best possible health insurance for life—insurance that should cover therapy and psychiatrists and anger management and couples' counseling.

That, and they could take some tips from rugby to speed the game along a bit. It’s crazy how a football game drags out!

Update from another reader, an expat from across the Pond:

I haven’t played both football and rugby, but I have watched them lots. To use a rather salty British expression (I’m an American living in Britain for the past 14 years, and in Ireland for the three years before that), it’s bollocks to say that rugby players who set out to injure opponents are routinely banned for long stretches of time. Just search YouTube for “Brian O’Driscoll spear tackle.” [A video of the O’Driscoll scandal is seen below, and here’s a video of “Top 5 Spear Tackles”—essentially picking a player up and dropping him on his head.]

The guys who did that [to O’Driscoll]—which could have killed the man or left him paralyzed — weren’t banned at all.

More recently, opposing teams have routinely targeted Irish flyhalf Jonny Sexton because he’s had problems with concussion. (Yes, I support Ireland.) And little is done. The International Rugby Board is much more unforgiving about eye gouging in the scrum.

That said, I believe rugby is a far better sport than its American cousin: the referee definitely rules the roost, the lack of hard helmets more or less eliminates the possibility of a Darryl Stingley-like event, no endless list of specialists who can be introduced whenever, no television breaks AT ALL ... and the beer and banter afterwards can’t be topped.