Is sport getting too violent?

Posted on October 22, 2010

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I broke my first ankle in primary school. That’s not a typo; a misplaced “first”. I’m not trying to say I first broke my ankle in primary school, I’m saying that the first of six breaks occurred when I was quite young. That history of ankle-breaking means that I’m less than happy looking at 50-50 tackles when watching a football match. If someone goes up for a header from, say, a goal kick, I physically can’t watch them land.

It doesn’t ruin football for me, it just means that I watch it differently. When someone jumps, you concentrate on their upper body when they land and absolutely ignore their legs. If there’s a slightly dodgy-looking tackle from a wide shot, you don’t watch the series of replays from a variety of close-up angles in case you see a leg rolling over a foot or an extra point to a leg that shouldn’t be there.

Football (of the English kind) has been increasingly harmful to players in recent years. It started with Arsenal’s Eduardo, and has continued through umpteen other players. This season there has been a spate of broken legs from bad or mistimed tackles. There have been slow-mo analyses on television highlights (predicated by warnings) and grisly pictures on the back pages of papers for some of the least horrific, and a blanket ban on repeating the pictures on the worst. It’s become a cause which people are getting behind: football is now too dangerous.

“There are some players who are reckless and we have seen some reckless challenges,” said Harry Redknapp. “People have been coming in at 100mph and if you time it wrong then you are going to have a player’s career finished.”

Many people say that Premier League football is now too fast a game; players – even those who aren’t known to be reckless – are trying desperately to keep up with the pace the football is being passed and simply can’t. They end up mistiming a tackle and instead of taking the ball, take the leg.

This past weekend Arsenal, who thanks to Arsene Wenger’s protestations have before now been portrayed as the innocent victims in a tough-tackling pandemic, have become the bad guys. The issue is still prevalent in football, and rightly people think something needs to be done.

Also this weekend another kind of football – American – was doing some soul searching when it came to bad injuries. A college player was paralysed in a game the same weekend that numerous crunching (and arguably malicious) tackles connected in the NFL. “Some of them were legal, and some were unavoidable,” argued Mike Pereira, “but, plain and simple, they are cheap shots, and the league needs to deal with this immediately.”

It’s a similar argument to that used by those in and around the Premier League: a few are sheer accidents, a few are outright malicious, but the vast majority are in a sort of grey area. They aren’t outright scandalous, the sort of thing that makes you believe that the player responsible is an utter thug, but they are on the borderline. Players are now extending the boundaries set out by official rules – and the boundaries of taste – in their tackling. If they get the ball, great. If they break a leg, or cause a concussion well that’s an unexpected bonus.

It’s becoming barely-legal violence: the equivalent of the early days of mixed martial arts which were little more than bumfights. That sport travelled almost the diametrically opposite path that association and American football are now taking. It began as quasi-illegal and a bit tawdry, and gained respectability. The UFC is now a cultural behemoth with glitz, glamour and most importantly, strictly codified and enforced rules.

Injuries are always possible, but they shouldn’t become likely. No-one wants to see either football or American football become a non-contact sport. Many argue (quite rightly) that in many respects the English code of the game has become much less about contact and tussle; American football would lose its point if it became a game of tag football. But a line does need to be drawn, because people are getting hurt. It’s up to the people in charge of each sport to find that medium where it doesn’t become risk-averse but risk-reduced.

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