Masculinity Today

Men, sexuality, and relationships.

Masculinity and Sport-Induced Head Trauma

How softening masculinity might save tomorrow's athletes from head trauma

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a progressive neurological disorder caused from blows (not just concussions) to the head, even when wearing a helmet. The problem is not how much padding exists around the head; instead, it concerns the brain’s coming to a rapid stop within the skull. No amount of padding can prevent this. Having similar symptoms as Alzheimer’s, CTE begins with behavioral and personality changes. It is followed by disinhibition and irritability, before the individual moves into dementia. It takes years for the initial trauma to give rise to nerve-cell breakdown and death, but chronic traumatic encephalopathy is not the result of an endogenous disease like Alzheimer’s. It is the result of traumatic brain injury—the type routinely occurring in contact sports.  

There are over 60,000 annual reported concussions in American high school sports alone. However, these numbers are vastly under-representative, as they only reflect medically-diagnosed concussions. Researchers predict there could be as many as four million sport-related concussions per year in America. It is this latter fact which has made concussion a social problem. Out of fear of not being judged tough enough, men oftentimes do not report concussion. Less than half of football players who receive a concussion report it to their coaches or medical personnel. More so, self-sacrifice is a deeply engrained and highly esteemed attribute of teamsports. It is this culture which inspires athletes to play on injuries, causing a life-time of pain for a moment of youthful sporting glory. 

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Today’s youth (including athletes) do not value notions of self-sacrifice to raise their masculine capital as men used to, for masculinity itself is less valued.

 In my extensive research on American high school and university athlete’s masculinity styles, I used to find that young, heterosexual men would prove their heteromasculinity through participation in competitive, combative teamsports, like football. Here, they were encouraged to risk their health and use violence against others. Trying to prove themselves as manly (and heterosexual), they would act in hypermasculine, violent, and dangerous ways toward themselves and others. This includes colliding heads, tackling with the head, getting hit with a ball in the head, or intentionally hitting a (soccer) ball with the head. Traditionally, if an athlete fails to do this, s/he is criticized for not being tough enough. It is for this reason that I call traditional notions of homophobic masculinity a public health crisis.  However, as homophobia declines masculinity also softens and young men re-evaluate masculine scripts. In light of the softening of heterosexual men’s masculinities over the previous three decades, the practice of accepting traumatic injury for the sake of team victory may be under assault. Increasingly, I see athletes willing to defy their coach, taking themselves out of games, and skipping workouts if they feel like injury is imminent. Young men increasingly understand the risk of brain injury, and are seeking to protect themselves against it.

Wearing helmets in cycling, skateboarding and BMX biking is increasingly viewed as acceptable within masculine youth culture. Thus, I suspect that we are perhaps on the cusp of providing our athletic youth the same respect for health that we provide our personal computers: one would shudder at the thought banging a computer against a wall, why not shudder at the thought of banging one’s head?  

Changing Policies 

Our awareness of CTE is new, occurring only in the last few years, but there has already been a swift, if limited, response to practice and policies concerning using the head as a weapon in sport. The American Association of Pediatrics has issued new guidelines for concussions.  More encouraging, the youth sport league, i9 sport, has not only changed tackle football to flag football, but they recently removed heading the ball in youth soccer as well. This is because of the high rate of concussions that occur when two players hit heads after going for a header. 

Likely in response to these publicized studies showing significant long-term brain damage for former NFL players the NFL has instituted new rules on tackling, and recently changed helmet design. The NFL also revised, multiple times, its concussion policies between 2009-2011.  One reason the NFL has continuously been altering its rules in recent years is probably due to the threat of litigation. For example, in February 2011 ex NFL linebacker, Fred McNeil, filed suit against the NFL for occupational dementia.

There are now hundreds of lawsuits against the NFL from its former players. If the NFL is forced to change their practices in order to protect their financial interest, I suspect lower levels of sport will have to follow. It is likely that removing tackling from football (by changing the game to flag football) would be viewed as an assault against the history and traditions of the game to athletes of yesterday’s generation. But I suspect America is ready to take more serious action against using the head in sports, whether those who play or spectate it desire or not. This is because with increased knowledge of the enduring and devastating effects of head trauma, civil litigation will force a change.  

Eric Anderson, Ph.D., author of The Monogamy Gap, is an American sociologist at the University of Winchester, England.

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