Risk is an inherent aspect of our everyday lives, with almost every action exposing ourselves to danger of some sort. When we cross the road and look both ways we are carrying out a risk assessment; observing and analysing risk-variables whether we’re conscious of the process or not. Risk is unavoidable and it is something we accept to varying degrees dependent on the magnitude of both the danger, and the reward, should the risk pay off. As we accumulate more knowledge – on an individual or societal basis – our approach to behaviours and activities change as our understanding of the corresponding risk becomes better informed.
Nowhere has this been more evident in recent years than in sport, with the long-term impacts of the professionalisation of many sports only becoming clear as athletes have reached old age and questions – or symptoms – have emerged in relation to the effects of these activities. Sport is fun, and while our understanding of risk in sport is more likely to refer to trying to hit the ball over a lake playing golf, or a late-ditch tackle in your own penalty area playing football, it’s obvious that by taking part in these activities you’re subjecting yourself to greater risks – a pulled muscle or a sprained ankle – than if you were sat inside watching television (in the immediate at least).
While the risk of injury is understood by the vast majority of people who play sport, contextual changes mean the rules of games must be adjusted to protect those who play them.
As sports have become professionalised, athletes have grown, bigger, faster and stronger, and the risks present have increased – particularly in contact sports like rugby. In addition, we are only beginning to understand the damage caused by accumulated, seemingly innocuous, collisions in sport – especially with regard to the head.
Globally, the most high-profile version of this story has emerged in American football with the relatively recent discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and its prevalence within retired NFL players. A subtype of this disease called ‘dementia pugilistica’ was studied in the 1920s culminating in a 1949 paper by British neurologist Macdonald Critchley titled “Punch-drunk syndromes: the chronic traumatic encephalopathy of boxers”, with CTE – at that time – thought to be confined to boxers and not other athletes. The early 2000s however, saw the discovery of the condition in NFL football players and it is now thought that 40% of former NFL players have signs of traumatic brain injuries based on highly sensitive MRI scanning – compared to 12% in the general population; with a $765 million dollar lawsuit settled by the NFL thrusting the issue into the public domain. As a result, a 2014 survey showed that 50% of US Adults wouldn’t want their son to play the sport compared to 43% who would want them to play the game.
The figures are more striking when we break down the data; the figure who would not want their son to play the game rises to 56% in under 35s, with just 29% of over 65s – those far less likely to be currently raising children – sharing these concerns. 62% of college-educated respondents stated that wouldn’t want their children playing the sport.
While this has been an enormous story in the United States, we are likely to be confronting similar issues closer to home, with the effects of heading a football now strongly linked to CTE.
In the United States, ‘soccer’ has succeeded partially as a result of greater understanding of risk, but it is possible that as knowledge develops of the long-term negative impacts of the sport, even safer alternatives may be sought by worried parents.
We have written before about the ‘assault on pleasure’ with regard to increasing interference of government on our daily lives – particularly regarding health – and the use of legislation such as alcohol consumption guidelines, but this is slightly different. Heading might not be banned in football – though my suspicion is that its days might be numbered – but parents may still point their children towards activities they might perceive to be less dangerous; eSports is the latest medal event to be added to the 2022 Asian Games though this pursuit is not without its own risks as this ‘guide to gaming injuries’ makes clear.
As our knowledge develops, it is likely that previously unknown risks will continue to emerge, changing the way we feel about sports and activities and whether we – or our children – participate in them. For now, these decisions on whether you participate are up to you – however we can’t rule out the instruments of the assault on pleasure choosing for you.