Nova Scotia

Top Nova Scotia doctors question sudden decision to ban high school rugby

The decision to cancel high school rugby has been widely skewered by students, athletes, coaching staff and parents, who have even garnered support from Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang.

Many people calling NSSAF's decision to cancel rugby across province a 'knee-jerk' reaction

These J.L. Ilsley High School students were among nearly 200 rugby players who showed up to protest Friday outside the Halifax Convention Centre, where the Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation was hosting a 'Celebration of School Sport Luncheon.' (David Burke/CBC)

Top doctors and some sports health professionals in Nova Scotia are questioning the sudden decision by provincial sports officials to ban rugby mid-season in the province's public high schools over safety concerns.

The move by the Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation has been widely skewered by students, athletes, coaching staff and parents, who have even garnered support from the province's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang.

About 200 players protested Friday outside the Halifax Convention Centre, where the federation was hosting a "Celebration of School Sport Luncheon."

The decision Thursday by the NSSAF to end the rugby season came a day after an international student who plays for Sydney Academy was injured during a game in Cape Breton.

The NSSAF said in the last five years there have been 149 cases of head injuries reported in high school rugby to the School Insurance Program — more than football, hockey and soccer combined.

But Natalie Randall Price, a certified athletic therapist and osteopath in Dartmouth, N.S., who has studied sports concussions, said those numbers are "absolutely inaccurate."

"It is statistically impossible that there was only one concussion in all of Nova Scotia high school hockey last year," said Randall Price, who has worked with dozens of teams in a variety of sports over the past 20 years, including with her stepson's high school rugby and football teams.

"The federation is in essence punishing an association that has been forthcoming and open and honest with reporting, and that's not the message that we want to be sending that if you're honest and you're forthcoming with reporting that your sport's going to be cancelled on you."

She told CBC's Maritime Noon she believes those involved in rugby are being punished for accurately reporting injuries — something lacking in other high school contact sports.

"We know that rugby, especially as a health-care professional, has been the leader in ensuring that we are reporting them, that we're getting safe treatment and care for the athletes, and we would love to see that being followed in other sports bodies the way that rugby has been leading the charge," she said.

Robert Green is an emergency room doctor and medical director of Trauma Nova Scotia. (CBC)

Dr. Rob Green, the provincial medical director of Trauma Nova Scotia, said in a 12-year study on major trauma in pediatric sports, rugby injuries didn't even register enough to be reported.

"Our hypothesis was that actually hockey injuries were the most common," he said. "But we looked at everything from cycling, to hockey, to football, and did look at rugby. Cycling was by far the highest contributor of major trauma in the pediatric population and rugby was not, in fact. Its numbers were too low for me to even report."

The study looked at 107 children between the ages of three and 18 years old who suffered major traumatic injuries. Those included any that were life or limb-threatening, that required a child to be admitted to hospital, for a patient to be put on life support or if they died.

On Thursday evening, Strang tweeted his support to bring rugby back to schools, linking to a petition demanding that rugby return.

Rugby players protest Friday outside the Halifax Convention Centre. (David Burke/CBC)

Many people are calling the NSSAF's decision a "knee-jerk" reaction.

Charlotte Thomas, a student and rugby player at West Kings High School in the Annapolis Valley, started the online petition in the hopes the federation will reverse its decision. As of Friday afternoon, it had more than 20,000 signatures.

She said the players were called Thursday to the school's lobby where the principal and athletic director told them the news.

"Really this came as a shock to all of us because it was so out of the blue we were really blindsided by it," she told CBC's Information Morning.  

"And I think one of the most crushing parts about the entire experience there yesterday was turning to my side to see one of my closest friends and fellow rugby players in tears because she was being scouted by SMU for a scholarship for rugby, and she's now losing this opportunity for her to go to university as a result of this decision."

She said she'll keep the petition going "as long as it takes," and hopes if nothing else it shows the federation and the public what the game means to players.

Rugby teams from Eastern Shore District High School and Prince Andrew High School are shown at a match on Wednesday. (Jenna Smaggus photo)

"They're taking a family away from all of the players and all of the parents and all of the coaches, and I'd really like to speak out and say ... we know what we're doing, and we know what we're playing, and we love it anyway, and this is why we love it."

Randall Price said rugby is one of the few sports that allows players of all body types and fitness levels to play. 

"You don't have to be a high-performance athlete since you were eight years old to be included," she said.

"We want athletes out there playing sports. We want kids included. We want kids feeling that social connection and you know there's thousands of really upset kids today. My heart breaks for them."

Nova Scotia Rugby's acting technical director Jack Hanratty says it's "a tragedy" that the Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation has decided to cancel public school rugby games across the province due to safety concerns. 5:13

With files from Maritime Noon, Information Morning

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