I felt sick yesterday when I saw this picture of Sharks prop Ben Ross after a brutal tackle. The footballer lay motionless on the field for many minutes, knocked unconscious by a bone-crunching tackle. In our house, footy season is welcomed heartily. Each Swans (me) and Lions (hubby) fan envisages with glee the trouncing of the other’s team. Coming Wallabies glory is eagerly anticipated and even a keen following of the Broncos and the Cowboys makes the grade for dinner conversation.
There’s no denying football is a violent sport that endangers its players physically and emotionally and the thought of my sons playing, frankly, scares me. But in the secret world of men, in this footy mad country, there is a special type of scorn reserved for those boys who have never played football. Even in our own family, with a union-mad dad and a great-uncle who played for the Wallabies, the general consensus is that boys who don’t play footy are a bit odd and are regarded with some suspicion.
The chances are better than even that my boys will want to play. In the case of my younger son, who is built like the proverbial brick outhouse, he’ll most likely be packing the front row, the most dangerous place in the scrum.
As a mother my job is to protect my children from danger. So in a couple of years I’m going to have to quell thousands of years of conditioning that compels me to keep my children out of harm’s way. How do I condone an activity that could result in serious physical injury?
Within our own extended family, the rift has never healed between a son and his father, who refused to let his son play for the very reasons I’m outlining. The son is still resentful, at age 30, that he’s been denied a time-honoured rite of passage that all boys in this country embark upon.
On the weekend the NRL embarked on its 100th season. Every code has its share of bloody weekend clashes where players are carted off the field concussed, broken-limbed and almost always in the “precautionary” neck brace. This weekend was no different.
SHARKS prop Ben Ross was discharged from Royal North Shore Hospital early yesterday morning after a sickening collision with Josh Perry left rugby league fans fearing he had broken his neck. Ross was out cold for four minutes after he clashed heads with Perry during a regulation hit-up.
How did Ross’s mother feel watching her son stretchered off the field? Chances are good that by now she’s made her peace with her son’s choices. How did she do it? How did any of the mothers whose sons play competitive football make their peace with it?
I understand that boys playing in the younger grades, especially in the very young levels, don’t tackle heavily but that doesn’t mean they’re not in danger. Researchers at Griffith University have looked at injuries in rugby league and found that in the younger levels, most injuries occur in the second half, suggesting fatigue is a factor, but also an “alarmingly high number of head and neck injuries” occur.
My second fear, to the risk that they’ll get hurt (let’s face it, minor injuries are all part of growing up and many, many players get through these levels without serious injury), but what if they’re good at it? What if they aspire to rugby league greatness? Or a Wallaby guernsey like their respected great-uncle? Then what?
Long term damage is just as much a factor as the immediate danger of a head-high tackle. We’re all familiar with Wally Lewis‘s story. As one of the greats of the game he’s taken so many blows to the head he admits large chunks of his career are lost to him. And while his epilepsy can’t be blamed on the violent sport he undertook as a professional we can safely assume it wasn’t helping his condition any. One of the greatest boxers of all time, Mohammed Ali is in a debilitated condition due to the repeated blows to the head he took during his career.
Let’s put aside the threat of injury for one moment. Sport promotes physical activity, discipline, team spirit, and a host of other positive attributes that I would like to see my children experience. There’s also the camaraderie and social networks formed that last a lifetime. I can’t deny my boys that aspect of their childhood.
Or can I? The camaraderie seems to be a little different these days than the mateship I remember from years ago. Now footballers are immersed in a culture of binge drinking, drug taking and womanising. Are these the life lessons I want my children to learn?
While I concede that if I truly felt strongly enough about it I could encourage my children to pursue less violent sports where they would get the same benefits without the high risks. Even soccer would probably be a little safer, without the tackles and scrums that are so dangerous in other codes. But rugby (league and union) is a family tradition and I don’t want my children to miss out on it.
So I guess I just hope and pray. Hope they have coaches who are attuned to a mother’s fears and can train their players in injury-avoidance techniques. Pray that the tackles that bring them down on the playing field do so only temporarily. Keep my fingers crossed that my boys are the lucky ones – not the unlucky few who are permanently injured.