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Rough-and-tumble rugby has its head on straight

Rugby - which is coming back to the area - could teach football something about protecting players from serious head injuries.

FOR THE THIRD year in a row, the Collegiate Rugby Championship returns to the Philadelphia area at PPL Park on Saturday, June 1, and Sunday, June 2.

If you've never watched collegiate rugby - or what also is called "rugby sevens" - it is a sight to see. As the chair of the CRC Host Committee, I have gotten to know a lot about this amazing sport, and I can tell you that it is as fast-paced and action-packed as any sport out there.

Only seven players from each team take to a field that is 1 1/2 times the size of a football field to play two 7-minute halves. The athletes are incredible - strong, fast and with what seems like unlimited stamina during the hard-hitting action.

You might think that rugby is not a major college sport and is played only by East Coast, Ivy League programs, but you'd be falling victim to a common misconception. This year's CRC field includes such schools with major athletic programs as Texas, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Florida, North Carolina State, UCLA, Arizona and California. In addition to these national powers, the field includes Army and Navy, and more local favorites than ever: Penn State, Temple, Penn, St. Joe's, Kutztown and Delaware.

Rugby is an exciting sport to watch and Philadelphia is fast becoming the rugby capital of America. If you are fan of the movie "Invictus" like me, you know rugby is also an extremely popular sport around the world, and the Rugby World Cup is almost as popular as soccer's World Cup.

As further evidence that we are becoming the rugby capital of America, Philadelphia is rumored to be the favorite to host a match this fall between rugby's most famous team, the New Zealand "All Blacks," and the U.S. Rugby Team. Like some of the recent international soccer matches played here, the All Blacks game would bring a ton of international attention to Philly and also would have a significant economic impact.

Another reason to come out and watch rugby is that it just might provide the answer for American football's most serious challenge - head injuries. Concussions are plaguing football, and more and more parents are deciding not to expose their children to the violent nature of the game. Even President Obama has expressed concern over the risk of injury for children playing football, and said recently that if he had a son, he might not let him play football. If this trend continues, over time, it may threaten what seems like an inelastic demand for the sport and the NFL's domination of the sports landscape that commissioner Roger Goodell so desperately wants to protect.

Goodell is no fool, and in response to this growing problem, the NFL has taken strong and decisive action. The league has faced mounting criticisms and even class-action suits from former players claiming that the league did nothing to warn them about head injuries. So just recently the NFL announced its support of a campaign designed to make youth football safer called "Heads Up Football." The league last month put $1.5 million into the program, which provides education and teaching resources for coaches, parents and players.

I believe rugby can provide a road map for a solution to this problem. According to St. Joe's head rugby coach Sean Duffy, "One misconception that rugby has is the injury-prone aspect of the game. It's actually less dangerous than football, because when you aren't wearing a helmet or facemask, you take care of your face more."

Other proponents of rugby say this is why there are far fewer injuries in rugby than in football. Not everyone agrees with that notion, however, and a recent study in South Africa showed that rugby players have similar concussion problems. The science is not clear, but as Gregory said, "Football can still learn some valuable lessons from rugby, where hits above the shoulder are illegal." In rugby, you must tackle with your arms, and players are drilled on a technique in which the defensive player moves its head to the side of the opponent's body to avoid head-on collisions (known as the "cheek-to-cheek" technique).

Many believe (and Goodell certainly hopes) that it is not a stretch to think an NFL player could adjust to these rules, and the "Heads Up Football" program is geared toward making that a reality. Gregory put it best: "If they were truly taught to tackle like a rugby player - allowing shoulder strikes, say, but banning head tackles - they could adapt. And would the NFL lose a single fan? No. There will still be breathtaking and exciting plays and still plenty of violent tackles. Only those dangerous head-on collisions would be gone, but would anybody really miss them?"

I'm not saying that rugby will ever replace football, but it's certainly a great sport, in and of itself, and one that I know a lot of you football fans would absolutely love. So come check out the game for yourself in Chester next month, and you just might be watching a game that looks a lot like pro football in 10 years, assuming that the NFL has its way, and the players are finally playing "Heads Up Football."