Crying wolf: When media reports distort research evidence

As a researcher who has spent a considerable period investigating the risks of injury 1 2 in rugby, and setting up and evaluating injury prevention programmes designed to mitigate the risks 3, I read the BBC media report of July 4, 2010 ( quoting Professor Allyson Pollock that ‘high tackles and scrums should be banned in schools’ with some interest. This was especially so given that Professor Pollock was referring to recently published research she has been involved with that describes injuries sustained by Scottish schoolboy rugby players over the second half of the 2008-2009 season.

After accessing the research paper 4, I found myself puzzling to reconcile the claims made in Professor Pollock’s media statements with the evidence presented in the study. The paper describes a pilot study of methods used to collect rugby injury data prospectively from schools.  Data were collected on a total of 37 injuries. Twenty-six of the injuries occurred during matches, of which two were from the scrum. The site and severity of the scrum injuries is unable to be determined from reading the text. Most of the injuries resulted from tackles, a finding that has been consistently observed in full-scale investigations of injuries at various levels of the sport5-7. No confidence intervals were reported for the injury incidence statistics presented, but because of the small-scale nature of the study and the low number of injuries reported they would have been very wide, meaning that the study provides very limited evidence for drawing conclusions from the observed rates. In fact, the inferences drawn from the data that are reported in the published paper appear to be appropriately circumspect. Notably, there is no mention in the research report of banning scrums or high tackles – presumably because there is insufficient evidence presented for such claims to have withstood peer review.

A few days after reading the research article I happened upon a letter written by the lead author of the paper, Dr Andrew Nicol, which appeared in the Glasgow Herald (July 8, 2010). In the letter, Dr Nicol expresses disappointment that ‘the results have been inaccurately used as a springboard to launch an unwarranted attack on rugby’. Dr Nicol confirms that the study provides no evidence to form a credible basis for banning scrums in school rugby. It seems Dr Nicol was placed in the unenviable position of having to take public issue with a colleague, and I applaud him for acting swiftly to clarify his position. It was therefore notable that in a follow-up article Professor Pollock claimed:

There is no disagreement. I and Dr Nicol are in agreement over the findings of the paper. We must not lose sight of the key finding that it is relatively easy to collect good data on injuries among children playing rugby across Scotland. This needs to be implemented, without further delay.

Unless she made other comments that went unreported, it appears that Professor Pollock has not resiled from the statements she made in which she misrepresented the facts of the study.

So, on what basis was her call to ban scrums and high tackles made? Professor Pollock has extensive experience in communicating her views via the media, thus it would seem unlikely that her statements were made on the basis of naiveté.

It would also appear improbable  that the claims were made in ignorance of the existing state of risk management in rugby 8 9 were it not for the fact that (as noted by Dr Nicol) the call to ban high tackles is otiose, since they are already illegal within the sport 10 (presuming that ‘high tackles’ refers to tackles above the shoulder line, or those that start below the level of the shoulder but subsequently involve contact with the head of the ball carrier). If by ‘high tackles’ Professor Pollock meant tackles to the upper torso but below the level of the shoulders, then it might be of interest to her that a study of 140,000 individual tackles over 434 matches revealed that on a per tackle basis the risk of injury is higher for low tackles than it is for high tackles – especially for tacklers 10. Given this fact, a law change to enforce low tackles may well lead to an overall increase in rugby injury rates.

Likewise, awareness of the effectiveness of programmes to manage the risks involved in scrums and tackles without banning them from the sport 3 11 seem to have passed Professor Pollock by. In the New Zealand situation, for example, there was one scrum-related spinal injury resulting in permanent disability over the period 2001 to 2005, down from nine in the previous five year period. The incidence of less severe injuries (concussions, neck/spine, shoulder and knee) also decreased 12 13. These decreases coincided with the introduction of a compulsory nationwide injury prevention programme entitled RugbySmart, which included substantial training for coaches in safe scrummaging and tackle techniques. There have been no permanently disabling spinal injuries to players in New Zealand aged less than 14 in the past 33 years as a result of their participation in rugby 3. For children in New Zealand, the contact elements of rugby (scrums and tackles) are progressively introduced over a period of several years. I note that as of 2009 the Scottish Rugby Union has implemented a similar programme, as well as regulations about minimum standards for coaching, pitch-side medical care and the minimum age of players permitted to play in Under 18 and senior rugby.

Are there risks involved in playing rugby? Certainly. Are the effects of permanently disabling injuries catastrophic for those involved – players, families, and their communities? Absolutely. Is the risk of serious injury while playing the sport too high?  Fuller, 8 who has conducted an extensive review of the issue, concluded that the risk of sustaining a permanently disabling injury while playing rugby was:

generally lower than or comparable with the levels reported for a wide range of other collision sports, such as ice hockey, rugby league and American Football. In addition, the risk of catastrophic injury in rugby union was comparable with that experienced by most people in work-based situations and lower than that experienced by motorcyclists, pedestrians and car occupants. 8

Many researchers have had the experience of the media misconstruing or misreporting their statements; in some instances this is because ‘sensational’ claims are more newsworthy, on other occasions the meaning of complex or technical research findings may be lost in translation when reported. What is particularly concerning about the media reports quoting Professor Pollock, however, is the likelihood that she acted in full awareness of the fact that her comments were not made on the basis of evidence from the study she was involved in, but were deliberately designed to shape public opinion on an emotive issue by applying a veneer of scientific credibility to what are, essentially, her own opinions. On the face of it, it appears that Professor Pollock has done a disservice to the Journal of Public Health by leading the media to believe that research published within the journal provided a basis for her comments about the risks of rugby injury and the steps that should be taken to manage them when it did not.

I am glad that Dr Nicol, Professor Pollock and colleagues have set up a surveillance system in Scotland to monitor the risks of injury in rugby. I hope that the system continues, collects good quality data, and yields useful information to inform risk management decisions in rugby. There remain many areas in which the effect of participation in sport on long-term health outcomes is uncertain (for example, the effect of concussions on long-term cognitive function) – in time such relationships should be clarified as new evidence comes to hand. The surveillance system being developed in Scotland, and similar ones in other centres, will help provide such evidence. It is to be hoped that the comments of Professor Pollock do not have the unintended consequence of alienating those involved in rugby whose goodwill is required to enable such data collection to proceed.

Debate about the level of risk that is acceptable in sports, as in other activities, is to be encouraged, and I recognise that people have differing views on the appropriate methods and actions needed to achieve reductions in risk in activities that are perceived to be ‘high risk’. Of course, Professor Pollock is as entitled as anyone else to hold opinions on the risks involved in rugby, and the best ways to deal with those risks. It was beholden on Professor Pollock, however, to make it clear to the journalists with whom she dealt that her comments reflected her personal opinions, rather than research evidence from the study to which she referred.  Scientists occupy a privileged position in society with respect to the public discourse of facts derived from research. Because of this, they have an ethical obligation not to permit – or even suffer – claims regarding their research that are not supported by the facts to enter the public domain. Statements that are not supported by the research evidence not only diminish the credibility of the researcher(s) who make them, but over time undermine the trust the public places in scientists as a professional group.

Ken Quarrie, PhD

Rugby Injury Researcher

Wellington, New Zealand


Ken Quarrie is employed by the New Zealand Rugby Union in the role of Senior Scientist, Injury Prevention & Performance. The views expressed herein are his own and should in no way be interpreted as reflecting the position of the New Zealand Rugby Union on any of the issues addressed.


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