Tommy Conlon: Tap-dancing along fine line between reckless and malicious
Another week, another round of alarms about rugby union and those who play it. This time it's a letter signed by 73 concerned experts addressed to government ministers and chief medical officers. They are calling for the tackle to be banned in schools rugby across Britain and Ireland.
They argue that the majority of rugby injuries occur in the tackle or during collisions such as the scrum. One of the main campaigners, Professor Allyson Pollock, tells the BBC that evidence collected over 12 years shows that teenage players have a 28 per cent chance of getting injured over a 15-match season.
An array of stakeholders in the game, including the global governing body World Rugby, duly refutes the evidence and rejects the call for a ban.
Slowly but surely, however, the game appears to be losing the public relations battle. Slowly but surely it is developing an image problem. And it is developing an image problem because it obviously has a problem in substance as well. The material reality of the game as witnessed by millions on television includes plenty of attractions such as thrilling speed and evasion skills, top class drama and entertainment. It also includes excessive physical danger and bodily damage.
The interested observer does not need a report from academics and health professionals to highlight the risks involved; he or she can see it for themselves. They can also see the schism between those who come from within the rugby culture, and those who don't.
The latter see incidents on a pitch that they find disturbing, even shocking at times. Rugby's insiders are more inclined to shrug their shoulders and rationalise what has happened: it's not as bad as it looks, it's within the rules, it's part of the game, etc etc. They are not necessarily in denial; they're just conditioned to accept it. They are immune to various kinds of behaviour which to the outsider look ludicrous, if not downright frightening.
In the court of public opinion, Mike Brown last weekend looked like he was kicking Conor Murray in the head at a ruck. In fact he did kick Murray in the head. But in the court of rugby opinion, he was just going for the ball. He was entitled to do so.
It was the 71st minute at Twickenham. The television match official Shaun Veldsman, having watched sundry slow motion replays, delivered his verdict: "That was accidental by white (Brown), it was not deliberate." Referee Roman Poite: "Okay." Instead he issued a yellow card to Danny Care for "not rolling away" at the same ruck.
And there was the rugby culture in a nutshell: Care punished for a technical infringement, Brown swiftly exonerated.
Murray is lying on the ground with his arm around the ball. The England full-back jams his left boot in between the ball and Murray's face. He has no room to swing a kick at the ball. So he brings his foot back an inch or two for leverage. He catches Murray on the nose, but with little impact.
Murray immediately turns his head and buries his face in the turf, his arm still wrapped around the ball. So Brown has another go, this time releasing his foot forward to try a swinging backheel.
He misses the ball completely and catches Murray in the face, with much greater force this time. Murray instinctively recoils and twists his body, the ball now clutched up around his chest and side. Brown takes a step back and draws a kick on the ball with his right foot; he misses; so he tries to kick it free again.
All of this time, the ball is within inches of Murray's face. The Limerick man eventually walks off with a trickle of blood running down from the corner of his left eye. The injury received from Brown's boot subsequently requires eight stitches.
Back in the RTE studio, Shane Horgan, Brent Pope and Conor O'Shea are all agreed that Brown's actions were "reckless". Horgan says that Brown had a duty of care to the prone player. And while Brown was technically within his rights, he should still have received a yellow card. So the pundits did not try to whitewash the incident.
But equally they were all agreed that it wasn't "malicious". How did they know? What, precisely, is the difference between "reckless" and "malicious"? They hadn't access to Brown's inner thought processes any more than Veldsman did. But there was a rush to clear him anyway of any intent - that old chestnut.
Brown is entitled, one could argue, to the benefit of the doubt. But in sport the benefit of the doubt all too often becomes a kind of benevolence for the accused. Players at this level, in any sport, know where their feet are; they know where the bodies around them are; they have a sixth sense for contact and space. They don't even have to see players around them to sense their presence. Brown, as it happens, also had the use of his eyesight on this occasion: he was looking down at Murray as he delivered his kicks.
And yet, it wasn't "deliberate" and it wasn't "malicious". Outside the rugby bubble meanwhile, Brown's behaviour looks nuts. The game itself, in moments like this, looks nuts.
And as the 73 experts proved last week, the people in white coats are starting to congregate, wondering what they can do about it. They won't be going away.
Sunday Indo Sport