TOPIC GUIDE: Contact sports

"We should accept the risk inherent in contact sports"

PUBLISHED: 26 Aug 2016

AUTHOR: Adam Rawcliffe

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In September 2015, the American National Football League (NFL) reached a $1 billion settlement on a lawsuit filed by a group of over 20,000 retired players, which accused the league of not warning about, and hiding, brain injuries associated with the sport [Ref: NFL Concussion Settlement]. The settlement brought closure to a five-year court case that engulfed the American media, spawned its own movie and brought to light the considerable risks associated with playing contact sports, particularly head injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) [Ref: IMDB]. The severe psychological damages caused by CTE came to public attention following the 2012 suicide of NFL player Junior Seau, who was posthumously found to be a sufferer of the disease [Ref: NPR]. Since then many former players have revealed the dark episodes and suicidal thoughts that have plagued them since their retirement [Ref: MMQB], and a plethora of other sports have also experienced concussion controversies: Welsh Rugby Union were criticised for allowing George North to play on during the 2015 Rugby World Cup after suffering two severe head blows [Ref: Telegraph]; the football Premier League were lambasted for not doing enough to protect player safety when Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper Hugo Lloris carried on playing after being knocked unconscious [Ref: Independent]; and boxing fans and commentators reacted with disgust when Chris Eubank Jnr put opponent Nick Blackwell in a coma following Blackwell’s refusal to give up a fight he had clearly lost [Ref: Guardian]. These instances and others have brought the issue of sports safety to the fore with many now questioning the legitimacy, and even humanity, of contact sports at the professional, amateur and youth levels [Ref: ESPN]. Critics argue that the rules and culture of contact sports must change to protect athletes from their desire to win at all costs; ultimately, the game must change to put safety first [Ref: Huffington Post]. Yet others, including many sportspeople, disagree. Should we trust athletes to understand the consequences of contact sports and make a rational choice to take a risk for their love of the game? Or is it necessary that we protect athletes from themselves?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Taking a risk
CTE, colloquially known as “punch drunk” due to the disease’s association with boxing, is a progressive degenerative illness found in people who have had a severe or repeated blows to the head leading to, in its minor forms, dizziness and headaches, and in more severe forms erratic behaviour, memory loss and dementia [Ref: Wikipedia]. Scientific research continues to bring to light the association between CTE and contact sports such as American football, rugby, boxing and mixed martial arts [Ref: Economist]. In March, an open letter signed by over 70 doctors and health experts called for a ban on tackling in school rugby games due to the risk of “fractures, ligamentous tears, dislocated shoulders, spinal injuries and head injuries” when playing high-impact collision sport, and “the short-term, life-long and life-ending consequences” such injuries can inflict on children [Ref: Guardian]. Many commentators have since called for significant changes to the rules of contact sports to protect participants, including to concussion protocols, safer tackling techniques, and even the removal of unsafe elements of sport for children under the UN convention on the Rights of the Child [Ref: Guardian]. Nevertheless, when weighing up the risks associated with contact sports, some critics are adamant that despite rule changes, improved technology and ‘smarter’ coaching, “no matter how you play football, head injuries are inevitable…[and] at some point, we might have to acknowledge the only way to play smarter football is to not play it at all.” [Ref: Guardian] But those defending contact sports, such as NFL Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, argue that today professional athletes are fully educated on the risks, and make an informed choice to continue playing the game they love [Ref: MMQB]. Concerns over player safety must not destroy the spirit of the game they have dedicated their lives to. Similarly, others observe that a cultural aversion to risk-taking is being enforced on sports we have known are dangerous since their inception, and athletes and children should be both free to, and at times encouraged, to take risks [Ref: Guardian].

Winning at all costs
In order to deal with the potential for injuries, some commentators argue that we not only need to change the rules, we must also change the culture of contact sports [Ref: Huffington Post]. Athletes inherently carry a “win-at-all-costs” mentality and are encouraged to “shake-it-off” or “tough-it-out” in the face of injury; a mindset 7 out of 10 youth American football players attest to [Ref: MMQB]. To protect sportsman from the considerable risk of head injuries we must, it is suggested, change the endgame of sports from winning to enjoyment at both the amateur and professional levels [Ref: Huffington Post]. Contact sportspeople, it is argued, need adequate information about concussions, models of safe play must be enforced and, most importantly, athletes need to be encouraged not to play on in the face of injury and put their safety first [Ref: Guardian]. But critics of this approach counter that the very desire to ‘fight on’ is why contact sports are so valuable. Professional boxers Chris Eubank senior and junior argue that the “warrior” mentality to stay in the ring regardless of the punishment from an opponent is at the heart of boxing’s code; the “honour and integrity” behind this mindset elevate contact sports to a higher plane and is an inherent part of its value - “You do not play boxing”, as Eubank puts it [Ref: Guardian]. Furthermore, advocates of contact sports maintain that they teach children important ideas, such as courage, discipline, togetherness and toughness, whilst offering increased confidence, self-respect and the potential for individual betterment [Ref: Telegraph]. In short, contact sports teach things more valuable than player safety. But those opposed to this outlook continue to argue that athletes cannot be trusted to make decisions on their own safety, as they will continually sacrifice themselves in pursuit of victory [Ref: New York Times], although perhaps a recent spate of NFL players resigning due to concerns over their long-term health might suggest otherwise [Ref: SB Nation].

The humanity of getting hurt
One recent retired American football player, Chris Borland, began to view the NFL, and contact sports more broadly, as a dehumanising spectacle akin to blood sport [Ref: ESPN]. For Borland, American football is, “like a spectacle of violence, for entertainment, and you’re the actors in it… it’s a trivial thing at its core. It’s make-believe” [Ref: ESPN]. In contrast to Chris Eubank and his son calling boxing a “merging of souls”, akin to only a woman giving birth in the field of human experience [Ref: Guardian], Borland believes, in essence, that contact sports are so violent they strip away the humanity of those taking part, as well as the spectators. However, for others, like former NFL player Richard Sherman, there is a fundamental and profound humanity in making informed choices that may result in getting hurt. He cites other dangerous sports such as NASCAR and boxing, highlighting that they all involve an element of known risk to participants, and suggests that in the case of the NFL, “playing with injuries is a risk that guys are willing to take.” [Ref: MMQB] So what is the solution? Do we tear out the “soul of the game” in the name of safety? [Ref: Guardian] Do these sports pose such a considerable danger that the only option is not to play at all? Or, do we allow those athletes who choose to embark on these careers to take risks, and if we “don’t like it, stop watching”? [Ref: MMQB] Should we put safety first, or is there something more valuable to be learnt at the heart of contact sports?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


We chose this profession

Richard Sherman MMBQ 23 September 2013


Sports culture must change to reduce head injuries

Debra Houry Huffington Post 24 December 2015

Why former 49er Chris Borland is the most dangerous man in football

Steve Fainaru & Mark Fainaru-Wada ESPN 20 August 2015



Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Schools and hard knocks

Economist 5 March 2016

Bang to rights

Economist 5 March 2016

Being smart about your child’s brain

Frank Bruni New York Times 19 December 2015

Chris Borland retirement: Is football worth it?

Amy Nordrum International Business Times 22 March 2015

Life after concussions

Nate Jackson MMBQ 25 October 2013

The first line of defense

Jenny Vrentas MMBQ 22 October 2013

Head trauma in football: A special report

Peter King MMBQ 22 October 2013

Phys Ed: Will Olympic athletes dope if they know it might kill them?

Gretchen Reynolds New York Times 20 January 2010


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

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