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Neil Francis: Bulls*** medical letter misses the point - 70 so-called experts lack the qualifications necessary


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This one is about failure in the media, more specifically failure to question. I read the financial press every day.

On a regular basis I come across articles where I am told that some Gordon Gekko-type hedge fund principal or financier tells us he is really worried and he thinks sterling will devalue by two or three per cent in the next month. The explanations as to why this will happen are somewhat plausible but please . . . no panic. There is no byline, no author, and no references - nothing under the piece to suggest any attribution. We have no idea where it came from or who penned it. It just appeared.

There is nothing to substantiate it or no counter-argument or editorial to challenge it. So we read it and repeat it to our mates. I see Gordon Gekko says sterling will devalue by two or three per cent in the next month. It then becomes a fact. What is indisputable is that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The boys have all short positions in place and when the forest fire starts, they collect. A month later we are all blown away. That fella Gordon Gekko is a bloody genius. Put something out there in the newspaper and if nobody checks or challenges it, well then it is a fact.

Wednesday evening came slowly and my editor calls. I thought I was going to lose the will to live if he suggested an Italian preview. "That schools tackling ban thing" . . . he didn't want a preview either. Later that evening a couple of calls came through to see if I would go on radio/TV and talk about this letter penned by the 'Sport Collision Injury Collective' and sent to all the appropriate governmental bodies on these islands. Seventy medical doctors, academics and healthcare professionals had signed their names to the letter calling for a ban on tackling in rugby union at schools level.

There is active debate on this after all, so when this collective of medical professionals makes a call like this it is prudent to listen to what they have to say. I didn't go on the airwaves. How objective could I be? I was part of the problem, big ol' me running over or through little Jimmy and sending him off to hospital. I had a reasonable thread of thought prepared when I thought I better read the letter. If 70 respected medical professionals and academics had co-operated on this project then I had better have a look at what they are saying.

Sure enough there was merit in some of what was being outlined, and on the third and fourth pages of the letter were the names of 70 people from a geographically diverse arena. It transpires that the letter was co-written by Allyson Pollock, Professor of Public Health and Policy at Queen Mary University of London and Eric Anderson, Professor of Sport, Masculinities and Sexualities at Winchester University, formerly King Alfred Teacher Training College. I have to confess I had no idea what that title meant but I was intrigued enough to find out. It turned out to be a little bit of a Pandora's box I'm afraid.

Professor Anderson left California to come to Bath University, where he stated that the university "practically ran me out of town because they couldn't stand my research". The research that Anderson does is available on his wiki page and on the Winchester University website where he currently resides.

It would seem that the Daily Mail, The Sunday Times, The Spectator and a number of UK broadsheets as well as The Sun have been examining what Professor Anderson has said in lectures and articles over the years.

Here's one from a lecture in Oxford University where students reported him to have said: "I'm going to cuss a lot and I'm going to break down all kinds of hegemonic structures. If you're offended by discussions of anal sex, vaginal sex, rimming, cheating, having cum all over [your] face then you should probably leave."

He then claimed to have had sex with "easily over a thousand people".

"I like sex with 16, 17, 18-year-old boys particularly, it's getting harder for me to get them but I'm still finding them. I hope between the age of 43 and the time I die I can have sex with another thousand, that would be awesome even if I have to buy them - of course, not a problem, you pay for all kinds of entertainment and pleasure."

He also explained that he and his boyfriend like to travel on cruise ships because "it's like sex tourism, which is just amazing" and "I always screw the dancers". He went on to say "we stop at a different port every night, go to a club every night and have sex with people . . . you don't need to know their names".

When asked, Professor Anderson admitted with a laugh that he is a sexual predator and - worst of all in the current climate of concern about child abuse - he as Professor of Sport claimed that team sports are more damaging to adolescents than sex.

"The damage that's caused by child molestation is socially constructed by the western world," he said, and contrasted this to other cultures where children engage in sex with adults as a rite of passage.

Professor Anderson also gratuitously referred to the former Archbishop of Canterbury, now Master of Magdalene College Cambridge, Rowan Williams as an "arsehole", "a total bigot" and "a fucking liar".

What Anderson said is on the record and is substantiated. There are a number of other unsubstantiated claims made about him. I can't comment on that.

What I can comment on is that I find it inappropriate that a 46-year-old man in a position of responsibility would boast about this to a packed lecture hall. Irrespective of what the age of consent is or the individual's sexuality or sexual preferences, what parent could be happy that they send their 16/17/18-year-old son or daughter to a university where a predator like Anderson resides?

There are a number of on-going campaigns for Anderson's dismissal. So far there have been reprimands and warnings but no dismissal.

Where were we?

Oh yes, Anderson was one of two people who authored a letter asking that tackling in rugby be banned for anyone under the age of 18. In fairness he has done some research into "the social problem of collision trauma in contact sports" which we will come back to in a moment, but I'd like to focus on the 70 medical professionals and academics who put their name to the open letter.

When I first heard that this letter was sent to all of the governmental agencies and departments I was under the misapprehension that these people were engaged in the field of say neurology, orthopaedics and trauma surgery. You know, the people who have to deal with injuries on the other side of the equation. Hard evidence from years of dealing with youths who had been injured from executing tackles while playing rugby in the UK and Ireland - where these people wish to implement the ban. The only way to find out is not to assume but to check it out yourself, otherwise you are not certain.

Most of Anderson's colleagues from Winchester University who signed the letter are not doctors of medicine. They are people who hold a BSc in Sports Studies, an MSc in Sport and Exercise Science, and the Doctors are holders of PhDs in Sociology and Sport Management. A huge percentage of these signatories would never have been in a trauma room or surgery and could make neither head nor tail of an MRI scan. Where are they drawing their experiences from?

So if most of them wouldn't have drawn their objections from first hand and personal medical experience, maybe it was first-hand experience of playing or watching schools rugby? There are 28 signatures from people from North America on the letter. What percentage of that group would have seen a rugby match live? A rugby match on tv? A schools match? Anything?

What about Dr Kjell Eriksson, who is based at Malmo University. Malmo, the hotbed of Swedish rugby! For all I know he could have watched 500 schools games and decided it was too dangerous. Or Dr Johannes Fuss from the University Medical Centre of Hamburg-Eppendorf, who looks like he is a real doctor but he is a sex researcher and a forensic psychiatrist. How could this man possibly know anything about tackling in schools rugby in Ireland and the UK? There could be four or five Fusses coming up the tramlines in Clongowes Wood or Roscrea . . . maybe not!

How could a hugely diverse and geographically diverse group of people, most of whom have no experience of watching or experiencing schools rugby in Ireland or the UK, then call for a ban on tackling in Ireland and the UK?

Where are the new research studies on the harmful effects of tackling in schools rugby? Why aren't they indexed or attached to the letter? The representatives of this unwieldy group do not address any bona fide research or quote the studies or their authors. Anecdotes and obscure references. They have disseminated shamelessly unrepresentative details with no comparatives or results from other sports or activities.

Please tell me that these people did not append their names on the basis of a five-point programme that could apply to a dozen other sports - activities like cycling and trampolining carry proportionately heavier fatalities or serious injuries. Whose agenda is this? What is the motivation or real purpose behind the letter? Is the protection of schoolchildren really the core issue?

I listened to Anderson talking to Matt Cooper on The Last Word - it seemed like the lads were lucky to get him, as it was one of 20 interviews he had done that day - and he made the point that schoolchildren "were compelled to play rugby against their will". My eldest son played some rugby at Willow Park, didn't enjoy the game and so he stopped with his parents' approval. My middle boy prefers to read books and he won't be compelled to play rugby against his will, and I don't know of any child who is forced against their will to play if their parents don't want them to play. It is a preposterous assertion.

Whenever I see something like the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (article 19) - read it online - then I think these people are devolved from the real world.

There is legitimacy in trying to lessen risk at schools level, and I have to somewhat sympathise with Professor Allyson Pollock, whose son Hamish picked up three significant injuries. Pollock wrote a book explaining the dangers of playing rugby which was aimed at parents. I would agree with her sentiment that "rugby union in schools must distinguish itself from the very brutal game practiced by the professionals".

For Anderson to suggest that schoolchildren - schoolboys in particular - should take up Euro Tag or touch rugby until they are 18 completely misses the point about what makes young boys tick. Contact is what they seek. There is risk attached to all sport. There is merit in trying to tweak it and make it safer, but you can fiddle with every last single sport to make it safer. To sanitise any of these games is to take the essence completely out of them. I may respectfully suggest that this bullshit letter is not what this is all about.

The next time a spurious letter like this appears in the public domain the media might just background check a few things before it is just casually accepted as fact or with foundation.

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