The following is the first in a three-part series examining violence in sports, and its role in society.
We all know the benefits sports bring to our world. The classic and predictable clichés abound: “Sports build character, teach athletes to bounce back from defeat, and keep kids off the street.”
I’m not denying these and other sayings hold some credence. In many cases, they do. But let’s not kid ourselves: Like all major corporations, sporting institutions have their imperfections.
In athletics, the primary commodity that is labeled with a value is the human body. Bodies are manipulated by athletes themselves and those vested in promoting their commodities in hope of maximizing a financial return.
In other words, get as much out of the body for the longest time frame possible without risking a future loss on that investment. It’s a cynical reality of capitalism, and sports are hardly immune from falling into our economy’s pitfalls.
At some point, we need to ask if our societal obsession with athletics pushed the industry too far. In addition to the outrageous salaries prevalent in some professional sports, we need to question why we celebrate—even revere—various dimensions of violence.
Are our daily lives so mundane and saturated with occupational stress that we come to crave time off simply so we may fall into the foray of sporting violence?
I have to ask myself this question all the time. My fascination with mixed martial arts (MMA) made me question if I was a violent person, sucked into the spectacle of fighting as a sport. But as I entered the MMA world, I came to learn more vividly that sports in general tend to be violent, and, further, that sporting violence does not discriminate. No matter how invincible an athlete may seem, everyone is vulnerable.
Athletes, coaches, and fans generally don’t know how serious or pervasive concussions are in certain sports. Remember former Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Trent Green's head bouncing fiercely off the ground in a 2006 game, or his head colliding with a Houston Texans lineman’s knee the following year (Battista, 2007)?
Both of those injuries were Grade 3 concussions, the most severe. Research on NFL retirees has shown that those players who sustained three or more concussions during their career were significantly more likely to fall into clinical levels of depression later in life for no apparent reason other than the concussions (Schwarz, 2007a).
And it’s not just at the professional level. About 10 percent of all youths who play football and hockey report sustaining a concussion every year. For kids, suffering from a concussion is especially problematic. If a child sustains a concussion, the younger he or she is, the easier it will be for him or her to sustain a subsequent one, and the next concussion has a greater chance of being more severe (Schwarz, 2007b).
What’s worse, athletes rarely tell others when they have a head injury out of fear that coaches and teammates will ridicule them as weak (Essoyan, 2007), so, actually, the percentage of youth suffering from sporting concussions is higher than we realize.
It’s not just sports that tend to be popular with males, either. Girls and women who play soccer sustain concussions at the same rate as football players, and the rates are very high for girls’/women’s basketball as well (Sokolove, 2008). Not to mention the fact that, in those two sports, the rates of ACL tears for females are disturbingly high. In fact, females are two times more likely than males to tear an ACL playing soccer and three times more likely playing basketball (Arendt, Agel, & Dick, 1999).
And while medical technology has made it easier for athletes to recover from knee injuries, the long-term effects of knee ligament damage can be very detrimental.
“Blowing out an ACL can end a girl’s sports career, but doctors have also suspected that the injury sets the stage for osteo-arthritis, a degenerative joint disease that typically strikes older people” (Fackelmann, 2004, p. 9D).
And even young children are suffering from torn ACLs due to an over-emphasis in sports these days (Neegaard, 2008)!
At the elite levels in gymnastics—a sport that evokes celebrated images of Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug among mainstream Americans—women and girls suffer from ankle, wrist, and back injuries, many of which are chronic. Said one study of gymnastics, “as the skill level increases, the load during the workout will also increase, providing more opportunity for chronic injuries” (Meeusen & Borms, 1992, p. 337).
In fact, one woman I interviewed who's transitioned from gymnastics to MMA says that, although both sports are dangerous, gymnastics was a far more risky sport (Avila, 2008). Even cheerleading can be extraordinarily dangerous.
“Of 104 catastrophic injuries sustained by female high school and college athletes from 1982 to 2005—head and spinal trauma that occasionally led to death—more than half resulted from cheerleading” (Pennington, 2007).
And let’s not forget boxing. Those who recently witnessed Manny Pacquiao pummel David Diaz into virtual unconsciousness for nine rounds must know the vicious brutality of many boxing matches (Mayeda, 2008). However, even matches that do not end via some form of knockout can have horrible lasting effects.
Due to the constant head strikes in competition and practice, 17 percent of all professional boxers end up “punch drunk” (with chronic traumatic brain injury) in their elder years (Lewis, 2006). Not to mention the fact a handful of boxers consistently die each year during or immediately after a match (Newfield, 2001).
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge sports fan, and I can see how some may read this piece as a scathing critique of our sporting culture. It’s just that, having been a competitive athlete through college, I have seen the risks.
Some may argue these risks are outweighed by the benefits sports bring to our society by way of promoting pro-social values and providing entertainment. Furthermore, people get injured doing all kinds of fun activities. It is simply important to view both sides of the coin.
Violence is exhibited in many forms. Sporting injuries are merely one manifestation of violence that our society readily accepts and too often celebrates. In 2003, approximately 205,000 children between the ages of 5 and 14 had to go to an emergency room for an injury sustained while playing basketball, and 185,000 for an injury while playing football (Hospitals & Health Networks, 2006).
To say our society does not value the inherent physical violence of some sports would be remiss. It is critical that parents, coaches, administrators, and athletes know the risks that accompany strapping on a helmet, lacing up athletic shoes, and putting on combat sport gloves prior to competition.
Injury prevention means preparing for the risks beforehand. And, to be frank, we need to value athletes’ health more than we value the violence permeating our sporting world.
David Mayeda, PhD, is lead author of Fighting for Acceptance: Mixed Martial Artists and Violence in American Society, the first political book on mixed martial arts, based on in-depth interviews with 40 mixed martial artists, including Randy Couture, “Rampage” Jackson, Dan Henderson, Guy Mezger, Chris Leben, Antonio McKee, Frank Trigg, and Travis Lutter. The book’s Forward is written by Jason “MayheM” Miller.
Part two, "Sporting Violence: The Coaches and Parents," will be posted Wednesday.
Arendt, E.A., Agel, J., & Dick, R. (1999). Anterior cruciate ligament injury patterns among collegiate men and women. Journal of Athletic Training, 34 (2), 86-92.
Fackelmann, K. (2004 October 7). Girls’ knee injuries have later consequences. USA Today, p. 9D.
Hospitals & Health Networks. (2006). Youth sports: a trip to the injured lists? H&HN: Hospitals & Health Networks, 80 (9), 22-22.
Lewis, R. (2006). Why haven’t we banned boxing? Neurology, 6 (23), 5-6.
Meeusen, R., & Borms, J. (1992). Gymnastics injuries. Sports Med, 13 (5), 337-356.
Newfield, J. (2001 November 12). The shame of boxing. The Nation, p. 13-22.
Schwarz, A. (2007a May 31). An answer to help clear his fog. The New York Times, p. D7.
Schwarz, A. (2007b October 2). Girls are often neglected victims of concussions. The New York Times, p. A1, A20.
Sokolove, M. (2008). Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women’s Sports. New York: Simon & Schuster.
(Photo courtesy of Yahoo! Sports)