Mark Reason is a sports columnist for Stuff
OPINION: Imagine a mouthguard with a microchip that monitors your every move. Imagine a mouthguard with a microchip that starts flashing when you are hit with excessive force. Imagine a mouthguard with a microchip that allows the coach to send instructions into your head.
It’s Orwellian. It’s Big Brother. And the scary thing is that one third of that surveillance future is already here. There is already a mouthguard with a microchip that measures the force of hits and the scientist promoting it says that the other stuff is not far behind.
Oh well, it’s all a matter of personal choice, right? Er, no, wrong. These mouthguards are to be mandated into all professional rugby competitions from January 1. And if you say that you won’t wear it, then you will be punished. If you say that you are worried that the microchip might chip a tooth, as has already happened I am told, then you will be denied the medical care that has been available to players for ten years.
In other words, World Rugby is blackmailing its players. If Ardie Savea, the world player of the year and a guy who has had issues wearing mouthguards before, says he won’t wear it, then he will be punished. If Savea suffers a suspected head knock in the game and he is not wearing the new mouthguard, then he will no longer be allowed to undergo a head injury assessment (HIA) to determine if he is really concussed – instead he will be removed permanently from the game.
Of course this will lead to non-compliant players hiding their symptoms. According to one rugby doctor that I spoke to, the initiative is “unethical, coercive, brought in with undue haste and no consultation, with little science to back it up.” The Players’ Unions are just as angry. They see a lot of benefits to the mouthguard, but they wanted to educate the players, not threaten them.
When Harlequins trialled the mouthguards, they found them hugely useful in monitoring the physical loads players were undergoing. When those loads became too high, they were able to stop the player from training. As a result, injuries were greatly reduced.
The benefits of the mouthguard could be enormous, but there are still far too many questions to be resolved. As more and more information is stored about individual players, who is going to be safeguarding the storage of that information and how?
Would you trust World Rugby to do so? I wouldn’t. These mouthguards cost $700. By mandating their use, World Rugby has just massively increased the value of the companies that make them. What is World Rugby’s relationship to these companies? We haven’t been told. There should be open disclosure. Particularly as it’s only a few months since Bernard Laporte, the WR vice-chairman, left his post after being found guilty in the French courts of various corruption charges.
But World Rugby won’t listen. It is a control freak. Regardless of what you and I think, it pushes on with its own agenda. The surveillance state that WR has engendered was never more in evidence than during the World Cup final when the television match official (TMO) made an absolute hash of things.
One correspondent wrote to me: “The recent All Black World Cup loss has exposed the concerns we all face into the future as faceless bureaucrats hiding behind cameras and computers, can make unilateral decisions and remove you from the game.
“Your life will be micromanaged – available to be rewound, replayed and analyzed to the smallest detail if the planned surveillance state and social credit systems come to fruition.”
Another wrote: “My husband has just been given life membership into our local rugby referees association. He is also a life member of our local rugby union association. We were watching the final and when Aaron Smith’s try was not awarded with the TMO going back sooo many phases he got up and walked out saying ‘Rugby is doomed, I can’t believe that just happened’… he didn’t come back. “
Those two messages echo the thoughts of many. The mouthguard is just an extension of the surveillance system practiced by the TMO. And it is ruining the game. The players are confused and unhappy, the coaches are confused and unhappy and the match officials are questioning themselves.
Football’s video assistant referee (VAR) is in a similar meltdown in Europe. All hell broke loose after a non-decision in the match between Arsenal and Newcastle at the weekend with Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta saying: “It’s embarrassing. A disgrace… You cannot imagine the amount of messages I got saying this cannot continue. I am wasting my time. We are wasting our time. I don’t want to be in the hands of these people.”
In Spain, Celta Vigo saw some hope in a bleak season when they were awarded a penalty at the end of their match against Sevilla. But then the VAR and his two assistants told the ref to have another look. The game freezes. The crowd despair. The ref goes to the sideline.
And when he changes his mind due to this surveillance coercion, the ref announces that there was no penalty after all. Iago Aspas, Celta Vigo’s furious captain, tells his players to walk off. He then picks up the VAR screen and throws it to the ground.
And that’s how we all feel. One of you called the ‘TMO final’ a bloody disgrace and many said they were walking away from the game they once loved. We want to smash up the TMO and VAR and throw it to the ground. We celebrate and are then told that the most beautiful try is not a try after all. Now fans are reluctant to cheer in case their joy is going to be wiped out.
Even former referee Nigel Owens wrote: “It just feels like the TMO is refereeing games at the moment and that’s not right… All in all, technology as a whole is being used far too much in the game. The TMO should only be used as a last resort. I would personally reel back their powers and only use it to check the grounding or the act of scoring a try as was the case a few years ago.”
I would even wipe out that pesky ‘or’. Just use the TMO to check grounding. That’s it. Many of us are still fuming about the Samoa try against England that the TMO wiped out after the conversion had been taken.
The TMO was only supposed to intervene for a “clear and obvious” error. Instead he needed multiple replays to take a punt on a Samoan knock on that many didn’t agree with. It was clearly not clear and obvious and it cost Samoa a historic win and an automatic place in the next World Cup ahead of Japan.
It is now nearly 50 years since Howard Beale, the prophet of the airwaves played by Peter Finch in the film ‘Network’, said: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” His words became the mantra of a people fed up with the exploitation of the broadcasters. Yet here we are, all these years later, still saying the same thing about the same people.
The TMO and VAR have got to go. Big Brother turns out to be some bloke with a few levers behind a screen getting it just as wrong as all the other blokes before him. Time to switch him off. Permanently.