Doing ourselves an injury: Men, sport, and health

John Webb questions cultural norms in the physical activity of sport.

The shape of that most quintessential Australian man, the Australian Rules Football player, is changing. Comparing players' ages, heights and weights over the last decade it emerges that the new player is younger, shorter and yet heavier than his predecessor. The player of today has greater muscle bulk in order to give and absorb more punishment in the modern game's speedier environment. The new recruit may be told to take a season off and report to the weight training room before beginning to play in order to 'bulk up';. While youth, stamina and greater speed have created a more entertaining game for the spectator and television cameras, they have had an unintended effect which is a greater possibility of injury.

Looking back ten years the Australian Rules football player was older, slower and taller. There was likely to be more of an open style of play which meant that there were fewer collisions and/or heavy tackles. The shorter, faster and heavier modern player in comparison can accelerate quicker, has a higher top speed, and therefore a greater probability of collision with greater force when marking or tackling. This may explain why injury lists the morning after the game are now as important as the player lists before the game.

Young heroes

THE individual player's career expectancy in the Australian Football League is getting shorter. There are no more Michael Tucks, the Hawthorn player who retired at forty years of age with more than 400 games to his credit. New players will be spotted in their late teens at the Teal Cup, (national schools competition). Justin Fletcher is one such player who played his first game with Essendon while still at school. At their recent Premiership, Essendon was nic-named the baby boomer side, a pun on the baby boomer phenomenon. Essendon are not alone in their recruitment strategy. New sides such Fremantle have also opted emphatically for youth, unencumbered as they are with older players from their former lists.

The shift towards youth will intensify the experience for the young player. The team will become the 'gang', the vehicle between youth and maturity for the new player, with the benevolent but dictatorial coach who together with the Club will provide an all-encompassing discipline and direction to the young lives in their care.

Prematurely ejaculated

AS the focus in reporting of the game becomes increasingly focussed on personality, style and the clash of individuals, the mark over the spoil or tackle, the injured, the sidelined, the destroyed will be heard from less and less. Increasingly there is the likelihood of a brief and intense playing life ending at thirty and being followed by steadily deteriorating health, arthritis and the necessity for hip and knee replacement surgery. There is also an increase in the possibility of a player's career being prematurely ended by a high speed collision with an opponent causing bone or ligament injury.

The most frequent and dramatic injury of recent seasons has been damage to the cruciate ligament. This sort of damage has suddenly become a major factor of the longevity of a player's career. After a Melbourne player David Schwarz's knee collapsed under him at training he was back playing within six weeks, only to have it collapse in a more comprehensive and final way. Such injuries can only be expected to increase as smaller, denser bodies (muscle is more dense than fat) will put bones and ligaments under increased strain when under pressure from rapid turns and twists.

Only occasionally are stories heard of the pain endured by players in achieving and maintaining the playing weight which the coach dietitian, team physiologist and strategist require. Such goals were behind the bulimia of Essendon's Mark Harvey, which began in 1987 when he suffered three broken legs. "Playing weight, that's what it was", says Harvey. "I'd do anything to get down to that playing weight, and if that meant eating then spewing, well, that's what it was. It's a different side of football that people don't know".

Regimented playschool

AT this point I run into three difficulties. The first is stepping outside my experience of the team as the sporting unit. The second is the perception of sport which flows from the regimen of the team. And the third is the domination of Australian sporting life by Australian Rules players as a specific exemplar of our national culture and values. The desire to be on a team and the struggle involved is a vivid part of my memory of the team in adolescent years. I recall a careful nonchalant way that I suppressed my nerves as I hung around notice boards waiting for the team list to go up. I recall the desperation which made me push myself as hard as I did at training and in the game, and how I would sooner go to my family doctor than risk the school or club doctor who might ban me, because once I was in the team, I wanted to stay in it.

The perception of sport from which I still suffer after all those years of training in adolescence is that sport is somehow work; that I need to create around it the same mystique and aura of the sacred that protects the time I allot to work; and that I need to commit myself to sport with the same degree of humourless fanaticism I bring to other activities in which I engage the details without considering the process or its endpoint.

When it comes to cultural ideals, many men deal with the difference between cultural ideals and their bodies. Much of the time it just depends on how men negotiate with themselves in order to create the necessary credible physical presence. Those who do not have the raw material of the cultural ideal must struggle more strenuously to create a plausible physical persona.

In representations of Australian Rules, the pain undergone to acquire the necessary body is glossed over, and the pain which follows its lose through injury is also not recorded. That pain is often the barrier that others perceive lies between their body and the cultural ideal. It is only by looking at the edge of the picture that men can begin to find examples which allow the questioning to start and to see the pain in their own pursuit before recognising it elsewhere and in others.


First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 5(3), Spring 1995. XY, PO Box 4026, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 1995