Nova Scotia

'Trophy bruises' a badge of honour hiding risks for some rugby players, says father

A retired teacher from Cape Breton whose daughter suffered two concussions playing rugby is warning about the safety risks of the sport as controversy swirls across the province.

Retired teacher says daughter suffered 2 concussions playing rugby but kept them quiet

School administrators in Nova Scotia are authorizing high school rugby games to continue even though the sport is no longer sanctioned by the Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation. (Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

The father of a former Nova Scotia rugby player says his daughter and her teammates wore their "trophy bruises" sustained while playing the game as badges of honour, sometimes hiding injuries so they wouldn't miss a game.

Patrick Morris, a retired teacher from Cape Breton, said he always had reservations about his daughter playing the contact sport, and he is adding words of caution to the controversy surrounding rugby across the province.

"It's a grinder sport. They're throwing their bodies against each other," he said in an interview. "Kids aren't going to always be as up front about these things because they think they're invincible. They don't want to miss out on play and they will deliberately keep things to themselves."

Safety has been at the forefront of the debate regarding the status of high school rugby in Nova Scotia. The Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation abruptly cancelled all games last week, but on Tuesday struck an agreement with the province allowing Rugby Nova Scotia to manage the remainder of the season.

Advocates for the sport say — like all contact sports — there is an element of risk but those risks can be mitigated through rules and training. Some of Nova Scotia's top doctors even questioned the numbers cited by the NSSAF, which claimed there were more injuries in rugby than football, hockey and soccer combined.

'She was throwing up'

With his wife at home with a disability, Morris couldn't make it to all of his daughter's practices and games in 2013.

"One evening after her practice she was sick, she was throwing up and so forth and she had to take the next day off from school. She still wasn't feeling well and I questioned her of what's going on," he said. 

Morris's daughter shrugged it off as the flu. 

Kids aren't going to always be as up front about these things [injuries] because they think they're invincible- Patrick Morris

The next week Morris's older daughter witnessed her sister get injured during a game. She told her dad what happened. 

Morris took his daughter to the doctor who assessed her and concluded she suffered two concussions. 

Right around the same time, an Ottawa high school rugby player Rowan Stringer died after suffering repeated head trauma playing rugby.

"I saw the parallels that put quite a scare into me because ... I know my daughter is very headstrong about the sport," said Morris. "I think what really motivated me to comment about this online as with what's going on with the debate is that she was so adamant about keeping these injuries to herself because she didn't want to get benched."

More forethought before pulling the plug

While he doesn't think rugby is the safest game, he said he doesn't believe scrapping the entire league in the middle of the season is the answer and believes the sports federation should have proceeded with "little more forethought."

Six years later, Morris said his 24-year-old daughter suffers headaches, but it's unclear if those were from her years on the rugby pitch. 

"That worries me as a parent now thinking what are the long-term consequences for her injuries," he said. 

By the time Shannon made his journey to the North Pole in 2009, he'd already completed a 9,000-kilometre-long trek across Canada to promote inclusion for all Canadians. That trip was made over 197 days in 1997.

Dave Shannon, a lawyer and adventurer who broke his neck playing rugby in 1981, said he was "extremely surprised" by the Nova Scotia federation's decision to suddenly cancel rugby. He said safety has greatly improved since his time as a player.

Shannon, who attended junior high and high school in Dartmouth, N.S., became a quadriplegic during a tryout for the University of Waterloo varsity team. He was in a scrum — where a group of players lock shoulders together and engage the opposite team head-on. It collapsed, sending Shannon head-first into the ground.

"I felt a jolt of electricity run from my neck or shoulders straight out my feet," Shannon told CBC's Mainstreet

Since then, changes have been made to the way players on opposite teams engage in a scrum. Opposing scrums must be slowly brought together, and must be in control before the play continues. This has lead to fewer scrum collapses.

A scrum is a state of play where a group of players lock their shoulders together and engage the opposite team head-on. (Submitted by Claire Avery from Charles P. Allen High School)

Despite his injury, Shannon remains a fan of rugby and values the lessons he learned playing the game.

"It did teach me those important life lessons of team play, loyalty, the value of setting goals, meeting objectives, staying healthy — which has been for me personally very very important lesson," he said.

"I mean I'm 38 years after a spinal cord injury that probably should have greatly reduced my life expectancy. I think I like to think that some of those lessons in health and personal development were born out of my experiences as a rugby player."

In those 38 years, Shannon became the first quadriplegic to reach the North Pole and to parachute out of an airplane at an altitude of over 7,600 metres. He earned a law degree from Dalhousie Universitty and a masters of law at the London School of Economics. He also served as the head of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commisson.

Shannon has won numerous awards and honours, including the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada for his work advancing the rights of the disabled and other minority groups around the world. 

In terms of how to make the game safer, Shannon said a greater focus on player and coaching development could help. He also suggests matching players with those of similar skill level could help players develop a safer approach to the game. 

With files from CBC's Mainstreet

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