The following is the second in a three-part series examining violence in sports, and its role in society.
This past weekend I attended an amateur mixed martial arts (MMA) event.
Overall, it was great. Three of my friends competed, two against each other. They all performed well, and nobody was seriously hurt. They had some minor bumps and bruises, but they were all adults and their wounds healed in a few days. Heck, one of them even trained with us the next day (you’re crazy, Steven).
But there was one part of the event that really disturbed me. Prior to the MMA matches, there were a number of kickboxing contests, in which the combatants wore the larger, softer gloves (16-ouncers). One match involved a 13-year-old boy. Along with his big gloves, he was wearing shin guards and head gear.
His opponent, on the other hand, was only wearing the big gloves. Absent on him were the shin guards and head gear.
Turns out, this 13-year-old’s opponent was an adult. They were the same size, probably around 100 pounds. However, I heard the adult was 20. Whatever his exact age, he was clearly more muscular, had crisper strikes, and was much more explosive.
Not too far into the match, the adult combatant had grazed his younger opponent’s head with a roundhouse kick. The match continued as I watched silently in disgust.
Shortly thereafter, that same roundhouse kick connected squarely with the 13-year-old’s head, knocking him to the mat. He failed to get up immediately and laid on the ground for about a minute, rolling side to side, as the referee stopped the match.
I was furious. I wanted to make a scene and yell, “Why was this allowed to happen?!” I wondered what coaches would allow this? What parents would allow this? What state legislators would allow this? But it was allowed.
The youngster eventually got up. As he walked back to the stands, head down and looking at the ground, he feebly shadowboxed, gloves still on, and appeared to me as though he was on the verge of crying.
Some may be thinking, “Geeze, that so-called sport of MMA or kickboxing disgusts me!” But this article is not about MMA. It’s about sports in general.
What I witnessed this past Saturday is merely indicative of what happens across the world when parents and coaches care more about youths’ success in sport and less about the youths themselves.
In the 1970s, our sporting culture began a drastic shift. Sports became big business. Although professional athletics certainly existed before this, sports historically considered amateur for youth, were, in reality, becoming more and more professional in terms of long-term objectives.
Youth soccer, basketball, football, and hockey leagues were being increasingly defined as breeding grounds for future pro athletes, rather than as organizations that taught fair play and provided a safe place for having fun and making friends.
This trend in professionalizing youth sports has only intensified over the decades, such that, today, parents and coaches, obsessed with children’s athletic success, often encourage youths to specialize in one sport year-round. Obviously, children’s bones and musculature are not nearly as developed as those of adults.
Still, parents and coaches see exceptions like the Williams sisters in tennis or Tiger Woods in golf, and think their kids should start incessant specialized training in one sport at the earliest age possible.
Experts, however, know that when children engage in the same type of physical movements repeatedly, stress fractures and tendonitis are far more likely to develop and cause permanent damage (Cary, Dotinga, & Comarow, 2004).
And it’s not just in the sports considered stereotypically macho where youthful athletes are abused by parents and coaches.
The 2008 Olympic Games are right around the corner, in which the world will focus in on the hallmark sports of track and field, swimming, and gymnastics. Earlier this week, I noted the danger of gymnastics here.
What the mainstream media spotlights are the heart-warming success stories, but what they often ignore are critical facts about gymnastics (and other sports), buried in academic journals and critical magazines. Many gymnasts, only 10 years old, are forced to train six-to-eight hours a day!
A study carried out by the University of Utah found that 59 percent of elite U.S. Olympic hopefuls in gymnastics admitted to having at least one type of eating disorder. Another study found that 62 percent of college gymnasts (generally considered too old for world-class competition) practiced at least one form of anorexia (vomiting or the use of laxatives, diuretics or diet pills) (David, 1999).
Why don’t we hear these stories, and the other stories of elite gymnastics coaches who abuse children?
Because only 3 percent of the top gymnasts make the Olympic Games. Hence, the multitude of abused athletes (mostly minors) are lost in the sporting machine’s wake, while the success stories are profiled in short “feel good” biographies that draw in mainstream viewers.
And then there are the parents of youths who have yet to make it to the elite sporting levels (and probably never will), the enraged moms and (more so) dads, who try desperately to recreate their own athletic dreams through their children.
Although the most horrific types of violence are not common, homicide and manslaughter have been known to occur when parents of youthful athletes lose control.
In 2000, an enraged parent was so upset about violence occurring in practice that he became violent himself and the supervising coach was killed (Docheff & Conn, 2004; Lord, 2000).
And lesser, though still very serious forms of parental and coaching violence flourish, too often unchallenged by others. Most sports fans can recall examples in which they've witnessed parents and/or coaches publicly demean young children who “fail” in various sporting endeavors.
The bottom line is too many young children are exploited by parents and coaches, who justify their abusive actions by arguing that they are molding the children for future success, stardom, and wealth.
The reality is no matter how hard (or early) an athlete begins perfecting his/her sport of choice, the odds of making the pros are minuscule, especially given the prevalence of severe injuries that can transpire in athletics.
Our laws do not allow children to work, least of all for excessive hours per day, but we venerate parents and coaches who push juvenile athletes to the extreme physical and emotional limits. The abused child-athlete is much like the child physically abused by way of family violence.
It’s common knowledge that abused children frequently blame themselves and will do almost anything to please their parents or other familial abusers.
Likewise, the youthful athlete, still developing physically and emotionally, will internalize his or her athletic failures and do whatever the coach/parent says without complaint, hoping one day to finally gain acceptance via the ultimate symbol of success.
Yet how many athletes in a particular sport or event win the gold medal?
Most of my writing pertains to MMA. For those readers familiar with this rapidly rising sport, think about Joe “Daddy” Stevenson and UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Forrest Griffin, who, after losing to B.J. Penn and Keith Jardine, respectively, literally sobbed in front of thousands of fans in the arena and millions of viewers on television.
Said Stevenson of his emotions that came to a climax after his loss, “I put everything I had into it, so it was OK” (Acosta, 2008).
Now imagine a young child, who has put everything he or she had into excessive practices in order to please a parent or coach, but subsequently did not get the win. Would he or she be OK, too?
Don’t be silent like I was when I witnessed that young 13-year-old take a brutal roundhouse kick to the head. Ensure that sport is an institution used to promote fun.
Despite the distorted images of sporting success and wealth celebrated on television, hardly anyone makes it to the Olympics or the pros. And you know what? That’s OK.
Let the kids know that’s OK, too.
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 three, "Sporting Violence: The Fans," will be posted Monday.
Cary, P., Dotinga, R., & Comarow, A. (2004). Fixing kids’ sports. U.S. News & World Report, 136 (20), 44-53.
David, P. (1999). Children’s rights and sports: Young athletes and competitive sports: exploit and exploitation. The International Journal of Children’s Rights, 7, 53-81.
Dochefff, D. M., & Conn, J. H. (2004). It’s no longer a spectator sport. Parks & Recreation, 39 (3), 62-70.
Lord, M. (2000). Parents are dying to win. U.S. News & World Report, 129 (4).
(Photo by David Mayeda; note: photo not taken at event described in the beginning of this article).