Dangerous sports and assumptions about gender and risk

I have a teenage son who loves team sports. You’ve read about him in an earlier post about sedentary athletes. He hasn’t met a team sport he doesn’t like. He also likes tackling so his fave sports are football and rugby. He loves basketball too but it’s the other two I get the most grief about from friends, relatives,  and other parents.

They’re dangerous sports. I’ve read lots about the risks. My partner and I exchange journal articles on the subjects of concussion and the long term impact of head injuries. You might think we’re making a bad call letting him play. But it’s an informed bad call at least.

For me, I compare it to what his friends who don’t play sports are up to, computer gaming and television mostly. I think about the risks of not getting enough physical activity. I know there are other sports but he won’t play them. I know some kids prefer music and theatre. I have some of those kind too. But that’s not him.

In fact, I’m thinking about dangerous sports and risk while drafting this post at a coffee shop near the try outs for the Ontario rugby team on which he hopes to play. I even called up one of my favorite philosophy papers on this subject to remind myself of the “pro-risk taking” arguments. If you’re interested in the value of dangerous sports for children, read “Children and Dangerous Sport and Recreation” in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport Volume 34, Issue 2, 2007 by J.S. Russell.

It’s behind a journal pay wall so you won’t be able to read it unless you have access to a university library. (Insert rant about the need for open access publishing here.) But here’s a sample of Russell’s exploration of a view he dubs the “uncommon sense view.”

The uncommon sense view “asserts that at a certain point in child development physical risks should be tolerated, and children’s choices (and adults’ choices on their behalf) to engage them should frequently be respected, even if the risks of such activities are greater than necessary to promote the developmental goods sought by the common sense view—and thus represent unnecessary threats to the goods that the common sense view aims at securing. I call this “the uncommon sense view” because although I think it is pretty obviously correct, it would appear to take uncommon philosophical sense to recognize it, for the most prominent official and philosophical positions about obligations to raise and care for children oppose it in principle. The uncommon sense view, however, is reflected widely in our institutions and practices of children’s sport and recreation. Consider popular but risky young persons’ sports and recreations such as American football, rugby, horse jumping, gymnastics, cheerleading, freestyle skiing, skateboarding, wakeboarding, hockey, diving, motocross, and the like.”

When I heard Russell give an earlier version of this paper as talk at the International Philosophy of Sport meeting one of the things that struck people in addition to the arguments were the injury rates of  sports such as gymnastics, figure skating,  and cheerleading. Lots of head injuries, no helmets. It’s a familiar theme.

And then today while waiting for my son’s try outs to end, this news story came across my Facebook news feed, Doctors to vote on whether cheerleading is a sport.

You might wonder why the American Medical Association cares whether cheer leading is classified as a sport or just a physical activity. It’s a good question. And here’s the answer.

“Cheerleading has become a competitive activity in its own right, and there’s a considerable risk of serious injury, including concussion, spinal damage and broken bones. So it ought to get the same attention to health consequences as other sports, including the training of coaches to minimize injury risks for cheerleaders, proponents say. A 2011 report from the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research found that “high school and college cheerleaders account for approximately two-thirds of the catastrophic injuries to female athletes.”

Yes, you read that right: High school and college cheerleaders account for approximately two-thirds of the catastrophic injuries to female athletes.

I don’t know if this is correct but I once heard someone claim that the head injury rates for figure skaters were worse than that of hockey players at the junior level. I can sort of see why they don’t compete wearing helmets, grace and beauty and all that. But why don’t they practice wearing helmets?

I think there are a whole host of gendered assumptions in our collective worries about danger in sports. Why are we so concerned about football players but not cheerleaders, hockey players but not figure skaters? I think part of the story is that the public face of one set of these activities is all beauty and coordination, grace and team work, while the others are more combative and injuries result from athletic competition and conflict that’s built into the game.

Head injuries in figure skating and cheer leading result from mistakes, from accidents and failed moves. In football, rugby, and hockey they happen as part of the game played well. But that doesn’t make the former injuries less real. It just means we tend not to think about them as they’re not part of the ideal of the sport.

And I’m not claiming that sports such as rugby, football, and hockey aren’t dangerous. I know they are. But I think we ought to worry too about some of the sports more traditionally associated with girls, though of course I know girls who play rugby and loads of boys who do gymnastics.

I especially worry that some of the beautiful sports such as cheer leading and figure skating don’t get protective gear because to do would a)remind those watching of the risk and danger involved and b)take away from the beauty of it all. I think not seeing the danger is connected to our view that these activities aren’t really sports at all.

I was persuaded of cheerleading’s athleticism watching Western’s Mustang Cheer Squad. They’re amazing. They’ve won the Canadian Championships 1985 through 2012. I’ve seen them often at Western football games (much prefer rugby, less downtime). There’s a lot of footage of them on YouTube. The one below is from the 2011 championships. Visible ab trigger warning!

I also love the segment Rick Mercer did with them a few years ago, in 2006. It’s very funny about Western, about cheer leading, and about Mercer’s potential to make a spot on the squad.

About Sam B

Philosopher, feminist, parent, and cyclist!

15 thoughts on “Dangerous sports and assumptions about gender and risk

  1. Emily Ryall says:

    Really interesting comments regarding protective clothing. Rugby obviously doesn’t have as much protective clothing and it seems to go in popularity waves. A few years ago more players wore scrum caps but now many in the scrum seem to have returned to just taping up their ears (so that they don’t get ripped off in the scrum). Though there are a couple of cases of international backs (who don’t normally wear scrum caps because they’re not in the scrum) who are only allowed to play if they wear scrum caps (yes, parents still have that much influence over their children!).

    Cricket’s another example of the change in protective gear. Even twenty years ago few international batters wore helmets, now it almost unheard of not to wear one. Maybe bowling rates have got slightly faster, but I expect it’s more to do with it becoming compulsory for children to wear them and these children continue to wear them as they get older.

    Perhaps our assessment of risk is changing. I went through a whole season a few years ago no longer wearing a mouthguard in rugby (it was originally due to having a brace on my teeth which stopped me wearing one). It was fine. And wearing a mouthguard in rugby almost seems over-protective to me now. The laws have changed over the last few years which means you no longer end up at the bottom of a ruck getting your head trampled on! I think you’re much less likely to have your teeth knocked out than you are to break a bone.

    I’ve heard that in the case of American Football, the injury rates have actually increased due to helmets. And this has been argued to have been the case in rugby too where players who are wearing body armour and head gear are more risky in their tackling due to holding the assumption that they are better protected.

    • Sam B says:

      I’ve come to think that the gear in American football is as much about offense as it is about the protecting the player wearing it. They make better battering rams wearing all that stuff. And as you said, people worry less since they are protected.

      But why no helmets in gymnastics, figure skating, and cheer leading? At least for practises…..

      • Emily Ryall says:

        Good point. I initially thought that it might be because a helmet would affect the ability to carry out those manoeuvres. But then compare those sports to skateboarding. I don’t know any skateboarder that wouldn’t wear a helmet on a vert-ramp where they are doing similar ‘aerial’ acrobatics. I suppose in gymnastics you’re less likely to hit your head (and more likely to break your neck) since there is a softer floor but this isn’t the case for figure skating or cheerleading.
        I don’t know. I suspect you’re right in the gender assumptions that girls don’t do dangerous activities and aren’t as ‘gung-ho’ as boys therefore don’t need as much protection, and in the fact that they need to look more beautiful and protective gear gets in the way of this.

  2. Pam Sailors says:

    Certainly cheerleading requires athleticism, but that doesn’t seem sufficient to characterize it as a sport. Andrew Johnson and I have a paper, “Don’t Bring it On: The case against cheerleading as a collegiate sport,” that makes this argument and also contains a good bit of information about the risks. I believe it will appear in the next issue of Journal of the Philosophy of Sport; it’s already available online at the journal’s website.

    • Sam B says:

      Thanks. I’m looking forward to reading it. My starting view is that I wonder about drawing lines between competitive athletic activity, on the one hand, and sport, on the other. Cheer leading is certainly the first of those things. And what drew me in really was the AMA’s very pragmatic argument about the training and qualification of coaches given the injury rate. I’m much more interested in the danger and risk arguments than in the line drawing arguments, though I get that lines need to be drawn and I’m happy philosophers are engaged in the project. Again, thanks for reading and I look forward to reading your paper.

  3. Tracy I says:

    Excellent post that raises great philosophical questions about the asymmetry of attention paid to risk. I also loved that video of the mustangs team. They sure have to have a high level of athlectisim. But wow does it ever look dangerous.

  4. Sam B says:

    And of course every jump is perfect in the video. Often done on concrete! Imagine when people fall–and it’s the women who are being thrown mostly–that must cause serious damage.

  5. Caitlin says:

    I was thinking about this post last night because I started reading “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes” and the lists of debilitating injuries suffered by famous gymnasts were really freaking me out. Young teenagers with fractured hips and ripped tendons and stress fractures in their vertebrae? I am not sure I will ever be able to watch gymnastics again without thinking about this.

    I am glad that football and hockey are getting a lot of attention for the fact that they carry a lot of risk for their participants, but the comparative silence on female-coded sports like cheerleading and gymnastics is really problematic, especially when you consider that both sports are among the most dangerous for participants. There ought to be enough concern and resources to go around instead of just dedicating them to whatever sport happens to be in the spotlight at the time.

    • Sam B says:

      Agreed. It made me wonder about gender and why some sports are easily perceived as dangerous, they involve fighting, and others but so much, often they involve grace and beauty. One is about person to person impact, and the other about falls. Gymnastics is incredibly dangerous but I don’t think you hear parents criticized for letting their children do it.

      • Craig Burgess says:

        I think it’s more than just ignorance about the dangers involved in gymnastics. Most men have never done gymnastics, and so don’t appreciate that something that “graceful and feminine” could be really dangerous. If told, they would respond: “That’s nothing I’ve ever heard.” They don’t “take it in” because they have a prejudice against seeing anything quite so graceful and beautiful as having nothing to do with anything dangerous in a macho way, which they care about. If you keep yapping at men about it, they’ll just say: “Well then, I guess they shouldn’t do it. Who gives a sh*t? Bit I’ll tell ya, I like watching those cheerleaders sometimes, and I really couldn’t care less whether do anything acrobatic. Heheheh!” And so men are dismissive of it almost completely. When you ask what they think about it even after you give them information, they’ll say very little, because they’re still dismissive of it. Most or at least alot of men have played football, hockey or rugby and have been injured playing it, and so intrinsically understand that there are dangers involved. Women (or men) doing “women things” though – they refuse to relate. To relate to it would be “womanly”, in their minds. That’s how bad it is.

  6. Alison says:

    Very interesting post! I don’t want to distract from the topic, but would like to quickly add that many public libraries also subscribe to licensed databases that carry academic journal articles. Not quite open access, I suppose, but open to many, many more people than university library services.

  7. Craig Burgess says:

    So – in short, women who cheerlead are looked upon as objects, no people or athletes. They are for men’s “consumption”. As for figure skaters or gymnasts, well, who gives a sh*t? So to put them in helmets – well, that might actually wake men up to the belief that the sport is dangerous, i.e. that’s it’s a dangerous and difficult athletic activity. In other words, the helmets will have to be worn before most men will recognize it as an athletic activity.

  8. Craig Burgess says:

    Lastly, I think men also believe something along these lines: “What’s with all this flipping and twirling if you’re not going to use it for anything like kicking someone in the head? What? Just to look good? Points for “style”? That’s for women, who can look sexy doing it. And that’s cool. But men doing something like that just to try and look sexy? Pleeease. Count me out.” So it’s all again about sexualizing such activities. It’s not about the sport. And let’s face it – most of these “sports” are highly sexualized. The Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders in helmets and shoulder pads without any sexualization of them? It’s unheard of. Even figure skating and gymnastics even are highly sexualized. That’s the problem.

  9. […] Dangerous sports and assumptions about gender and risk (fitisafeministissue.wordpress.com) […]

  10. […] I’ve written a bit about the value of dangerous sports and about gender and risk here. […]

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