Risking head and shin

This article first appeared in Farrago (Issue 4, 2012). Every issue, my column “Life S’port” will tackle a different sporting concept.

My Mum never let me play Aussie Rules. Even during primary school, while all my friends were spending their weekends in Auskick clinics, I was slaving away at Chinese school.

At the time I considered this child abuse; how was I supposed to be drafted into the AFL without being taught the basics? Who was going to foster my natural ability and turn me into a football legend? Certainly not my Chinese teacher; that was for sure.

These days I’m more appreciative of her protective motherly instincts. While she might admonish me for my dismal Mandarin vocabulary, at least my body is still in working condition. My brain is functional, my liver is healthy and I still have a full collection of ribs.

Had I pursued a life of violent contact sport, it might well have been a different tale.

Muhammad Ali was “the greatest”. But now he has Parkinson’s disease. (Image: Robinson)

As a daredevil trapped in a choirboy’s body, contact sports have unfortunately never been my scene. My physiological capacities have left me with nothing more than a metaphorical thick skin; all those years of being picked last in PE class were as predictable as they were painful.

Most people would have considered such experiences a deterrent and would have duly switched hobbies from contact sport to theatre sports. Yet I didn’t seem to take the hint. It didn’t matter to me that I was lanky and uncoordinated; I still adored the nature of competition with unreserved passion. My weak frame might have denied me the chance to turn professional, but it would take more than that for me to lose my appetite for humankind’s most daring pursuit.

Boxing is one such pursuit. Given how much we know about brain damage, let alone common sense, few of us would ever take that bold step into the ring. But boxing is schadenfreude at its best; we consider the notion of two men beating each other to death strangely attractive.

Likewise we revere history’s most brutal fighters; Parkinson’s Disease might have crippled Muhammad Ali, but pundits still consider him the greatest ever sportsman.

As sadistic and dangerous boxing is, is there a more masculine pastime? The sport seems to encapsulate every Western virtue: self-sacrifice, valour, recklessness and gratuitous violence.

We might not realise it, but Aussies place a huge value on physicality in the face of adversity, even when the results are nasty. Off the sporting field, Australia’s greatest heroes are the ANZACs, who at Gallipoli put their bodies on the line in an incomprehensible act of courage. Another of our national icons Kevin Rudd recently overcame eighteen months worth of chronic back-pain to put up a brave fight.

In the sporting sphere, we marvel at cyclists who hustle their way to the front of a peloton; we celebrate footballers who dispose of their opponents with forceful hip-and-shoulder hits; we cheer fast bowlers who rip into batsmen’s skulls with ominous bouncers.

There is, however, a conflict of interest for fans.

We cannot bear it when our soldiers go into battle half-heartedly. We condemn anything less than 110 percent animal effort, which – despite what all the commentators might claim – is a mathematical impossibility.

The flipside is that we have little patience for injuries; we cannot stand it when our favourite son is not fit enough to play. Indeed we lament individuals for being weak if they can’t overcome their cartilage damage for the big game.

The paradox causes practical problems whenever concussed footballers are carted off the playing field in a neck brace. Half the crowd stands to applaud the unconscious vegetable. The other half is left shell-shocked, fearful they might have just witnessed manslaughter.

Former Demon defender was a regular visitor to hospital during his playing career. (Image: Caligiuri)

Some footballers flirt with danger so often that they probably own a personalised x-ray machine. Brisbane’s Jonathan Brown is a notable visitor to the causality ward; his never-say-die attitude has ironically almost killed him on numerous occasions.

Former Demon Daniel Bell is another example. While he never had the physical presence of Brown, he nevertheless built a reputation for head-butting the limbs of opponents. Last year he publicly revealed that this brand of football had left him with a souvenir. Brain damage.

While I’d only ever say this to their face if they were in a coma, there’s a very fine line between bravery and stupidity. More often than not, the label depends on the outcome; sportsmen who succeed in their boldness are never mocked, while amateurs who vainly attempt the impossible are never glorified. Arguably both bravery and stupidity are unselfish acts. It’s just that foolishness is tainted by a shade of delusion or a lack of skill.

Perhaps we’re just playing with semantics here. Whichever way you look at it, individuals who risk everything, all in the name of competition, are unique. It could be gallantry. It could be idiocy. It could even be some anomalous chemical, hidden in the depths of their DNA.

Whatever it is, lay folk like myself just don’t have it.

And I guess I should thank my mum for identifying this before I died finding out.