Growing up with three brothers, I learned a lot about the masculine expectations that they felt they needed to adhere to. The idea that they had to be resilient to their own emotions and pain was a narrative they grew up believing. This narrative continues to exist within today’s society and especially in our sports culture.
It is time that we begin to recognize the consequences that hypermasculinity may have within the sporting industry. More importantly, we need to ask ourselves whether we are willing to lose male athletes as a consequence of its societal norms. At the end of the day, is it the human being that we value or their athletic abilities?
From watching countless sports movies and following along to mainstream portrayals of contact in sports, it seems to me that Hollywood and the media have a role in manufacturing the story of the injured male underdog. Seeing athletes return to a game and prevailing through injury has been a long drawn out trope which may have created negative implications for males and for society’s concept of masculinity. Not only has this glorification of overcoming injury likely affected our concept of masculinity, it has the potential to worsen the lives of many athletes who strive to fit within this hypermasculine definition.
Head injuries in contact sports are known to cause significant physical and neurological impairments in athletes. Every time we watch a sporting event with physicality, we often see spectators cheering at the sight of physical contact. Most notably are fights in hockey where spectators can be seen banging against the glass, encouraging the fight, or in football where big tackles — whether pertinent to the success of a team or not — are often celebrated. However, what some seem to ignore when celebrating these big hits are the consequences both physical and neurological that athletes (both male and female) may suffer as a result.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is one of the many potential repercussions of contact sports. CTE is a degenerative disease that is diagnosed following death, and is "believed to result from repeated head trauma." Research indicates that the consistent rattling of the brain and the skull that occurs when falling or being tackled is what endangers these athletes. The repeated trauma to the brain causes a buildup of protein which can lead to the development of CTE and impaired memory, judgment and emotion.
Interestingly enough, we can see recent changes in policy even within Football Canada (the regulatory body that creates policy for football leagues) that children under 12 years old, can no longer participate in full tackle football starting in 2020. These changes reflect a concern for athletes’ physical and neurological health. This is a concern that should be widely held within our own varsity sporting community, and a conversation that we should consider when thinking about the well-being of our student athletes.
The most popularized cases that speak to the consequences of CTE are the cases of Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, who both died by suicide while suffering from CTE. Recognizing the consequences of their illness, both former NFL players left notes requesting that their brains be studied and used to help others who suffer from CTE. Let their lives be an example to all athletes, whether at Western or elsewhere, that contact sports can have long-term health affects if injuries are not properly treated.
I can’t help but wonder if the death of these athletes could’ve been prevented if they were encouraged to talk about the pain that they were experiencing. With both Duerson and Seau playing football in a generation where little to no attention was drawn to neurological deficits or injury as a result of physical contact, they were inadvertently forced to prevail through these symptoms. Though, it isn’t assumed that all male athletes in contact sports are resigned to a fate like Duerson's and Seau’s.
After being the star of the Western Mustangs football team, and later rising to fame when drafted to the NFL to play for the Indianapolis Colts, Tyler Varga was faced with the question of whether retirement was his best option after sustaining a serious concussion which had him experiencing symptoms four months later. After studying evolutionary biology at Yale University, Varga was well informed of the symptoms of post-concussion syndrome. Despite being advised to take certain medications to aid his symptoms, Varga feared that his condition would only worsen. The reality of Varga's condition posed the question: should he continue playing, where he could sustain a further brain injury and potentially develop CTE, or should he quit playing football for good. Despite the potential expectation that he persevere through injury, Varga’s concerns with the consequences of playing caused him to quit.
So, what does this mean for our male athletes at Western? What message are they being sent about the importance of their physical and neurological health? Do players ignore signs and symptoms out of fear of losing game time or being portrayed as weak? Are the expectations placed upon male athletes a result of hypermasculine rituals that set them up for potential injury? We need to discuss these questions loudly and publicly. Ignoring the issue is simply not the answer.
— Julia Chiasson, fourth-year psychology and criminology student