Talking Grass Roots: Safety first

“It’s the right thing to do.”

So concluded the Rugby Football League’s head of medical and integrity officer Laura Fairbank when I chatted with her last week about the requirement that clubs’ chairs and welfare officers must complete UK Anti-Doping’s Sport Advisor course.

The RFL is without the shadow of a doubt absolutely correct to adopt that stance. Indeed, there would be an outcry if they didn’t. Rugby League is simply following best practice, as to the best of my knowledge are all other sports, in adopting UKAD’s stipulations and recommendations.

There were concerns at club level rattling around social media last week as to whether this was yet another onerous task being heaped on already hard-pressed volunteers, with one or two wondering whether if, say, they failed to spot a player taking drugs around midnight on the eve of a game, they could find themselves in hot water.

The RFL has, happily, allayed those fears. Fairbank’s colleague Kelly Barrett spelled that out to clubs – in an email on Friday night on which I’m delighted to report elsewhere in this issue – that (and it’s worth repeating here, I think) clubs and volunteers “would only ever face any action in a select number of circumstances such as covering up drug use, supplying prohibited substances, or discouraging a whistle blower from reporting.”

All this is excellent, and a vast improvement on an episode a good few years ago when I sought advice from the RFL regarding how someone of my generation, as a club official, could monitor any suspected drugs misuse by players. My worry was that I’d no idea what I should be looking out for (at one game it was pointed out to me by others that one lad, a substitute who seemed to be slightly ‘out of it’ and was unable to leave the dug-out, had simply drunk too much high-energy pop – I didn’t even know, still don’t really, whether that could be seen as a banned substance).

From memory, the RFL was very supportive, but the advice was woolly. Basically, I think, it was on the lines of “keep an eye out for anything that might concern you.”

So it’s much better that the RFL is taking definite steps, starting with a webinar later this month, to educate folk like me. The war against drugs has to be waged, even if it’s one of those conflicts that is ultimately unwinnable.

I had in mind, when considering this offering during the week, of centring it on the growing responsibilities being placed on volunteers, and on how those pressures, which have been added to piecemeal over the years – for all the right reasons, it has to be stressed – can unfortunately deter folk from getting involved.

Although that’s not the case in respect of the anti-doping requirements, the concern still holds true – and not only for Rugby League, but for most team sports, certainly those that involved physical contact.

You can’t argue against any of the developments that have been introduced with player welfare in mind. It has to be a good thing that players are brought off if suffering from concussion and not allowed to go on again. It has to be a good thing that lads and lasses are not expected to continue with serious injuries (a coach at a club I played for in the 1970s once asked a mate of mine to ‘run off’ a broken leg. This is when first aid really did amount to a bucket and a sponge, in all sports and at all levels, with smelling salts the sole solution to getting knocked out.

Safety first is becoming more and more the mantra in all sports. In soccer, for example, there seems to be talk of abolishing heading, either in training or at younger age levels, following a spate of dementia cases in ex-players. That has to be a good thing.

Rugby union games can’t continue, I believe, if there aren’t enough specialist props on the field to form scrums, which are of course contested in the 15-a-side game. That has to be a good thing, especially as the eight-man scrum in union creates pressure on the centre, meaning that the hooker is in real danger of having his neck broken should the scrum collapse.

Then, in cricket, few batsmen would walk to the crease without a helmet these days (or stand at silly mid-on without one – the days when Brian Close would shout “catch it” after the ball bounced off his head are long gone). And that also has to be a good thing.

And yet, and yet. My worry is that Rugby League and most other sports are being made so safe – and pressures are being added to volunteers, even if that’s not the case in anti-doping – that many, which are already under pressure in attracting players, will be rendered so anaemic that they won’t be worth bothering with. In some ways I yearn for the more robust approach with which I grew up in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, even if quite a few of the practices we all embraced back then without so much as a thought are now totally unacceptable.

I’m starting to think that if amateur (and professional) Rugby League, and for that matter all other sports, are to survive, we have to somehow try to find a middle ground between the cavalier, indeed careless, stances of half a century or so ago, and what can sometimes seem to be an over-protective approach, in all walks of society, in the present day.

The above content is also available in the regular weekly edition of League Express, on newsstands every Monday in the UK and as a digital download. Click here for more details.