Rugby's bubbling beer conundrum
PLUS: The Week That Was and the Weekend That Will Be.
Today saw the release of the “NZ Rugby Health Report: the health of retired NZ male rugby players compared to non-contact sports and the NZ population”. It’s an interesting document that I can’t give full justice to in this space1, but I want to hone in on what I view as rugby’s paradox.
Broadly, the results of the study showed that during their playing career, higher percentages of the rugby groups reported having sustained concussions - 94 percent of elite players had been concussed, 82 percent of community or grassroots players had, while just 26 percent of those in non-contact sports had.
Nearly three times as many elite rugby players had injuries requiring hospitalisation than non-contact sport participants; nearly three times as many rugby players had suffered career-ending injuries than non-contact sportspeople.
There was more than a one-in-three chance that elite rugby players will develop osteoarthritis, compared to a little more than 1 in 20 for non-contact sportspeople.
In terms of general health, however, all sportspeople, including rugby players, reported better health, were more likely to be in long-term relationships, generally had higher incomes and were less likely to smoke cigarettes compared to New Zealand males in general.
But that’s not what I want to focus on.
Instead, I point you to this finding:
Rugby players had higher levels of hazardous alcohol consumption (38% elite, 40% community) in retirement than non-contact athletes (25%).
This is a developing narrative within rugby circles and it is hugely problematic for the sport.
My most dedicated readers might remember my sneering cynicism at World Rugby’s brain health initiative, that pointed to the 12 factors associated with dementia, while never once pointing out that only one of them was a common factor in all cases of CTE - head impacts.
The subtext those at the coalface fighting for those players who are suffering from early-onset dementia and probable CTE read into it was: it’s not rugby that caused you or your loved one’s condition, it’s lifestyle issues (read, drinking).
This is admittedly a simplistic way of looking at it, but what else are you meant to take out of it when it is launched as rugby’s administrators are facing a lawsuit that argues they did not adequately inform their players about the risks of head impacts2.
This study could feed into this narrative, but here’s the problem for World Rugby: they can’t have it both ways.
They cannot on the one hand say, “dementia among our former players is tragic, alcohol is a factor,” and on the other hand go to the market and say, “Asahi has replaced Heineken as the official beer sponsor of the Rugby World Cup.”
Steinlager has been the name on the side of the All Blacks since 1986.
England’s premier rugby competition was, for years, the Guinness Premiership.
Europe’s premier rugby competition was, for years, the Heineken Cup.
It’s hard to imagine the Highlanders without Speight’s, or the Springboks without Castle Lager.
Rugby and beer are inextricably linked yet alcohol abuse has been cited as an issue in rugby players since the mid-90s. There have been academic papers written on it.
In “Alcohol Sponsorship and New Zealand Regional Rugby Unions: Crisis Point or Business as Usual? (Gee, Batty & Millar, 2020)”, it states: “It is undeniable that beer and sport are key signifiers of masculine identity. The sport of rugby has a long association with drinking culture, hegemonic masculinity, and alcohol sponsorship. Historically, rugby was [a] male-dominated and male-defined space where men confirmed their masculinity through physical combat [and] the consumption of alcohol.”
This latest study, authored by professors Patria Hume and Alice Theadom, associate professor Gwyn Lewis (all AUT) and New Zealand Rugby chief scientist Dr Ken Quarrie, graphically illustrates the high levels of “hazardous” drinking of former players. Two in five players are problem drinkers as defined by the World Health Organisation.
World Rugby itself has implicitly stated that alcohol use is a contributing factor in dementia in ex-players.
Surely the answer is simple then: either stop taking alcohol money, or stop trying to shift the blame for the long-term cognitive issues suffered by players away from where it really lies - with repetitive head injuries.
At the moment World Rugby is trying to use alcohol when it suits them, and blame it when it suits them.
THE WEEK THAT WAS
Hamish Bond retired, as was revealed in a newsletter not far from here.
Here’s a nice wrap on his career in the NZ Herald ($).
Missing the final at the 2008 Olympics in the coxless four after winning world championship gold a year earlier was traumatic, but led to the wonderful union with Eric Murray.
"When a partnership's foundation is hard work and you never have to question the effort that someone [is] going to put in, it's a really easy, positive place to start," said Bond. "Next to each other, we thought we were the best."
The All Blacks revealed their new jerseys. It is mainly black.
THE WEEKEND THAT WILL BE
The Super Smash has produced some wonderful cricket this season, albeit in a deeply flawed context, some of which was covered off a couple of newsletters ago. With the best will in the world, and with all honorable intentions taken into account, the current format doesn’t work.
Nothing illustrates that better than the fact we have two finals on the same day, turning a three-and-a-bit-hour format into a seven-hour marathon, and the Wellington Blaze and Otago Sparks are playing their showcase match in Hamilton. What has worked, however, is that the most talent-laden sides are meeting in what should be cracking finals.
Wellington v Otago (W), Seddon Park, tomorrow 3pm, Spark Sport
ND v Canterbury (M), Seddon Park, tomorrow 6.50pm, Spark Sport
Who would have thought it: even without a certain decent player, the Australian Open has been a cracking tournament, full of final-set deciders and a whole bunch of “absolute knob” type angst. By the time some of you read this, you’ll know whether Matteo Berrettini or Rafael Nadal made the final, but tonight’s other semifinal promises to be a classic. Tomorrow, Ash Barty will try to become the first Australian woman since Chris O’Neil in 1978 to win her home Open.
Daniil Medvedev v Stephanos Tsitsipas, Melbourne, tonight 9.30pm, Sky Sport 1
Ashleigh Barty v Danielle Collins, Melbourne, tomorrow 9.30pm, Sky Sport 1
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The NFL Championship round cannot possibly live up to the Divisional round, but counting Monday morning as the weekend, this will still be worth watching.
Kansas City Chiefs v Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas, Monday 9am, Spark Sport & ESPN
Spoiler alert: it doesn’t once mention CTE.
There is a chance, possibly even a likelihood, that there could be a synergistic effect between repeated exposure to head impacts and binge drinking that increases further the chances of developing dementia illnesses but again, it doesn’t take away from the fact there is only ONE common factor in CTE - repeated exposure to head impacts.