The abnormal normalisation of collision sports


‘Contact sports’ is a term that sounds almost coy, as if describing things like ballroom dancing, or playing tag, or a game of billiards. It’s a bit rougher than that. Within the larger ambit of contact sports, there is the more accurately described category of ‘collision sports’. The American Academy of Paediatrics revised its policy statement in 2008 to underline the connection between contact and collision sports by pointing to their difference:

‘In collision sports (e.g. boxing, ice hockey, American football, lacrosse, and rodeo), athletes hit or collide with each other or with inanimate objects (including the ground) with great force. In contact sports (e.g. basketball), athletes routinely make contact with each other or with inanimate objects but usually with less force than in collision sports. In limited-contact sports (e.g. softball and squash, contact with other athletes or with inanimate objects is infrequent or inadvertent.’

So while cricket, and more obviously football, are contact sports — where ‘bodylining’ (fast leg stump bowling aimed at hitting the batsman’s body) and fouls are controlled and penalised by the rules of the games — sports like boxing and, to a less extent, wrestling, are by definition and purpose ‘collision’ sports seeking out to harm.


The spectacle of watching two men – and women – ‘beat the hell’ out of each other within a code of generally accepted rules gives boxing the legitimacy of a sport, the glamour of a prize contest. But as Joyce Carol Oates writes in her 1987 book, On Boxing:

‘Observing team sports, teams of adult men, one sees how men are children in the most felicitous sense of the word. But boxing in its elemental ferocity cannot be assimilated into childhood….

…Spectators at public games derive much of their pleasure from reliving the communal emotions of childhood but spectators at boxing matches relive the murderous infancy of the race. Hence the occasional savagery of boxing crowds… and the excitement when a man begins to seriously bleed.’

In collision sports like boxing, wrestling, and judo, like the dancer, the boxer, wrestler and judoka his or her body, and is totally identified with it. In this respect, collision sports has its origin in the gladiatorial contest, the most famous version of which were standard sporting entertainment in ancient Rome.


The ‘Gladiator,’ swordsman in Latin, risked their lives to engage in violent confrontations with other gladiators, wild animals, and condemned criminals, to provide entertainment for spectators. Most were slaves, socially marginalised and segregated. They were essentially ‘harvested’ for the purpose of providing literally blood sport entertainment, most of the time the final scoreline ending in death of the loser.

The class element of contact sports – especially collision sports – has not changed. Most collision sportsmen come from the working or lower middle-classes, forming legendary rags-to-riches stories of their own. The monetary rewards come they provide their body as service and become brand merchandise.

While contact sports like modern football actually have their origin in British Victorian public schools with its own set of criteria of ‘maleness’ and ‘making men’, it has grown into a profession where the body is ‘sacrificed’ for the purpose of entertainment. This is unlike non-contact sports like golf or tennis, where skill does not put the body purposely in harm’s way. It is usually played by athletes coming from a higher socio-economic set, game and match.

Concussions and the neurological condition of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) are prevalent in collision sports like boxing and American football. CTE can be a fatal brain disease associated with traumatic brain injuries and dementia, along with various mood and behaviour changes. A 2019 study, ‘Concussion Incidence and Trends in 20 High School Sports,’ published in the journal, Pediatrics, found that most concussions shown up in MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) were caused by contact with:

  • Another person (62%)
  • A surface (17%)
  • Equipment (15%)

As Oates mentions in On Boxing, ‘All athletes age rapidly, but none so rapidly and so visibly as the boxer… as spectators we know not only how a fight but how a career ends. The trajectory not merely of ten or fifteen rounds but that of an entire life.’

And yet, collision sports, with its code and rules, legitimises and glamorises battering, violence of a scale that would otherwise be illegal. What is even more ironic is how sportsmen rationalise their self-harm. Studies find primarily two reasons why students in the US aged between 13 and 18 do not report concussions they have received in collision sports:

  • The desire to remain in the game
  • Fear of having their relationship with teammates and coach jeopardised

Result? Under-reporting of the physical damage caused by collision sports. Not to mention the glamourisation of an ‘alpha male’ culture of damage to bodies trained and honed to receive and deliver damage.


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