Do collision sports have to include violence?

I had to organise a birthday party with a dozen 9-year-olds when we were in Canada, and so I enlisted the help of Emmett, the tall, athletic 15-year-old son of a Canadian writer friend. The plan was that the kids would play soccer in the gym and then go to the pool. One kid had to sit out for the soccer because he’d broken his collarbone the week before being “body-checked” (an ice hockey move where you shoulder someone out of the way) in a school playground competition. A gorgeous bear cub of a kid, the boy sat on the bench with me, arm in a sling, longing to play. As he watched Emmett with the ball, the boy leaned over. “That guy’s good,” he said. “He is,” I said. “And you know what else?” The boy shook his head. “He did ballet and tap for years, and he reckons that’s why he’s good at soccer.” The boy looked at Emmett and back at me. “Really?” he said. He looked at Emmett again. “Really,” he said, shaking his head. It was as if I’d told him Frosty the Snowman was at the door to the gym.

I was keen to watch ice hockey in Canada, which I imagined would be beautiful and graceful, like Torville and Dean with a puck, nothing like some of the football codes in Australia with their love of violence. And ice hockey is graceful, I discovered, but it is also unbelievably violent. In the Stanley Cup, where US and Canadian teams vie for supremacy, brawls erupt regularly. Players lose teeth, lacerate faces. The body-checking isn’t bear cubs having fun. In the first game we watched, a player was upended, landing head-first on the ice, suffering concussion. At the next game, a player was folded like a piece of paper and slammed against the boards, seriously injuring his back. Advertising for games showcased the violence.

Athletes and medicos are now speaking out about the effect on the brain of repeated head injuries, which many collision sports, including ice hockey and football, have increased risk of. Dementia pugilistica, now called CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy – is something we’re still learning about. It’s caused by repeated head trauma and it triggers progressive degeneration in the brain months or even years later, causing memory loss, personality change, speech and gait abnormalities, and early dementia. The head trauma may not even have to be serious enough to cause concussion. The youngest athlete whose brain showed signs of CTE was a 17-year-old in the US who’d been hit in the head playing kids’ football. And while helmeted head collisions are part of the game in American football, Australian codes of rugby league, rugby union and AFL all have their fair share of head trauma.

So how do you reduce injury? Should players rest longer after injury or quit earlier? Should we stop our kids playing these sports? How do we stop our playful cubs from growing into grizzlies who really hurt each other? Injury rates are higher in collision sports because of collisions, but as I watched the Socceroos stand up so well to the relentless Netherlands team a few weeks back, and compared it to the State of Origin rugby league match just a few hours before, there was another difference. In the soccer, there was less violence, and when there was a misstep, a referee was there with a yellow card. The focus of World Cup advertising hasn’t been violence. It’s been grace, the Mexican goalkeeper’s unbelievable save, Tim Cahill’s mighty goal.

Some kids, including the boy on the bench at the party,  love to wrestle, compete, even collide. They’ll want to play collision sport. The least they should expect is that their heroes are not modelling violence, which we abhor in every other area of life and which offends sport. Olympic ice hockey has zero tolerance; it works. In Queensland, another interesting trend among kids might mix things up too, and help to prevent CTE in tomorrow’s adults. While interest in rugby league shows an increase in recent years, more boys are also dancing. More girls are playing soccer, and more boys are dancing. “Really.”