BERKELEY — The family of a Cal rugby player who was paralyzed at the start of the team’s national championship game last spring is condemning a decision by the sport’s governing body not to discipline Cal’s opponent for causing the injury.
Debbie and Jeff Paylor also released a still photo taken moments before their son’s head was slammed into the turf May 6, in the early stages of the Varsity Cup championship match against Arkansas State. Two short, graphic video clips were also posted on the father’s Facebook page and Robert Paylor’s GoFundMe page showing the Cal student’s neck bent dramatically forward before the full weight of a group of players crushed down on him.
“We are very disappointed in both the result of this investigation and the duration of time it has taken since Robert’s catastrophic injury to come to this decision, nearly five months post injury,” the Paylors said in a statement Sunday. “Without this incident deemed as illegal contact and disciplinary measures taken, it constitutes this action as excusable.”
Calls and emails to USA Rugby were not immediately returned Monday, but online rugby magazine FloRugby said the sport’s governing body reviewed various camera angles and photos as part of its query and concluded that Arkansas State forwards were reckless, but there was no intent to injure and therefore no red card or further discipline would be issued. During the game, Arkansas State was penalized for “collapsing the maul.”
A maul is similar to a scrum, where a group of players interlock their arms and heads and push against one another. Players are required to try to stay on their feet and cannot purposely collapse the maul.
Paylor’s family questioned USA Rugby’s decision, saying that without consequences, the tragedy could happen again.
“Our son is not going to benefit from any change in safety measures or investigation, his days of playing rugby are over,” his mother and father wrote. “Our focus from the beginning has been toward the future safety of rugby players. Ideally, this incident should serve the sport as education and coaching opportunities as a living example of why players should not engage in foul play.”
A still photo and video show an Arkansas State player with his left arm wrapped around Paylor’s neck, almost like a head lock. The player does not release the neck as the pile of players goes to the ground.
“We question the definition of intent, as if an arm wrapped dangerously around his neck and not releasing all the way to the ground in a collapsing maul had no intent behind it,” the parents wrote. “If there was no intent, the arm should have released as it was not forced into that position. No one intends this outcome, but it is the result and the reason why tackling at the neck is considered a penalty to the extent of a red card during play.”
In June, Cal’s legendary rugby coach, Jack Clark, called Paylor’s injury “preventable,” and he was just as pointed Monday.
“The USA Rugby decision is shameful and without merit,” Clark said in an email. “The evidence clearly shows a lengthy flagrant penalty. Dangerous play such as this will result in serious injury more times than not. USA Rugby has failed Robert and failed the game.”
The Paylors also remain upset at Arkansas State.
“It is also shameful how neither the coach nor player responsible for this injury from Arkansas State have sent any condolence or concern personally to Robert,” they wrote.
In June, Arkansas State coach Shaun Potgieter released a statement on the incident.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Cal rugby program and player injured in this year’s title game. Words are often inadequate to express our feelings when we see a tragic accident in sports like this one,” he said.
Emails sent to the Arkansas State coaching staff Monday were not immediately returned.
The Paylors also criticized USA Rugby for claiming its probe was hampered by a four-month delay in the investigation, and said key individuals were not contacted.
“This is disturbing to us as we have been requesting this investigation for months only for the betterment of the sport and have not been contacted to provide any information, nor have the referees or both teams involved,” the Paylors wrote. “Policies and procedures surrounding serious injuries should be looked at and changed. We believe (USA Rugby) has failed the sport and its player by not contacting us regarding this investigation.”
Since the injury, more than $768,000 has been raised for Paylor in a GoFundMe account that aims to raise $1 million for his continued care. Dozens of updates show videos of Paylor beginning to use his hands and working with physical therapists.
Check back for updates.