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.