The old saying goes "rugby is a game played by thugs, watched by gentlemen whereas football is a game played by gentlemen and watched by thugs". This is a terrible generalization but it is the notion of "thug" that underpins this blog.
Unusually I watched some of the England versus Argentina rugby union international on Saturday. It was unusual also for the two dismissals that occurred. Red cards are actually pretty rare in international rugby and it was interesting from a medical point of view to see what had caused the ultimate sanction. Another myth that gets perpetuated is that a good referee is one that goes unnoticed. The Italian football referee Pierluigi Collina points out in his autobiography that if a referee issues two red cards and they are both the right decision then the referee is good but he or she is not going to go unnoticed. I am no rugby union expert but I am of the belief that the referee was entirely correct in dismissing both players. World rugby has launched a crackdown on anything that puts the head and neck in danger and I am strongly in support of this measure.
The England versus Australia game in the rugby league 4 nations tournament showed a rather different side of an argument. England's talisman Sam Burgess punched David Klemmer in the face. Not the worst punch of all time and one borne out of frustration but a blow to the head nonetheless. The attitude taken was that, as Klemmer had instigated the incident, he somehow deserved it! An interesting aside is that there were no sendings off in the entire NRL competition down under during the last season. Sam Burgess is not the first to throw a punch in rugby league but the atmosphere around sport and particularly around head injuries is changing and needs to do so.
If one was to search the internet for sport related violence there would be many video clips from many different sports showing games descending into fights. The issue here is that there is seemingly a good number of people who think it all a bit of fun and part of the game. Hooliganism in football has often be referred to as "the English disease" but examples of sporting violence on the field can come from anywhere in the world. With greater awareness of the short and long term consequences of head injury, the age where this kind of incident is seen as par for the course has simply got to go. Firstly due to player welfare but secondly the example set to the rest of the world.
The Huffington Post has published on the important area of men's mental health with suicide being such a significant killer of young men. It might surprise readers that anther big killer of young men is the pavement. The consequence of a normally drink fueled post pub or club interaction between young men which has become common place. The throwing of punches is the start point but not what kills, the fatal blow is head to pavement. A Channel 4 documentary recently analysed the phenomenon of the so called "one punch death". The bottom line is that young men would be alive today if punches had not been thrown.
Academics will examine the reasons behind all this and will come to the conclusion that the reasoning behind these deaths are multi-factorial. Alcohol plays its part, as do some other drugs, the raging hormones of the adolescent body or the adrenaline fueled sports star in the heat of a game. We do however have to examine the machismo culture that seems to value violence over education. Everyone's school days are different but most will have memories of it being the "hard" lads who were idolised whereas anyone who took an interest in learning became a swot or teacher's pet and would suffer because of it.
Sports like boxing and rugby can provide outlets for aggression in a controlled environment. Both sports have rules however and transgression of these rules which puts the safety of the participants at risk needs to be properly managed by the authorities. I acknowledge that boxing is about punching but that is only within the confines of a boxing ring. Some of the aggression shown by boxers out of the ring over recent times has frankly not helped those of us who wish to defend it. Similarly, rugby players who punch one another or engage in other types of foul play bring their own sport into disrepute and, perhaps more crucially, set a poor example to others as to what is acceptable.
The link between sports violence and one punch deaths may seem far fetched to some but, as a society we really do need to educate our young men that fists are not the answer to their problems and that the rest of the world will not continue to be impressed by the number of people they can seriously hurt. I am aware of stories of fathers who think teaching their sons "how to look after themselves" is more important than reading and writing. It is that attitude that leads us to bringing up children who think violence is the norm. Just like the sports stars previously mentioned, parents (as difficult as some may find it) must find it within themselves not to make this acceptable. We have I am afraid, got to learn quickly.
HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around men to highlight the pressures they face around identity and to raise awareness of the epidemic of suicide. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, the difficulty in expressing emotion, the challenges of speaking out, as well as kick starting conversations around male body image, LGBT identity, male friendship and mental health.
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