Sports  Sacrificing bodies for reputation

McGill Rugby players talk about the expectations for athletes to play through pain

You need only see a few minutes of a rugby match to realize how incredibly beautiful, yet intensely brutal, this game can be. Rugby is masculinity personified: aggression bordering on violence, fierce competitiveness, teams as a brotherhood, and bodily sacrifice all in the name of victory. The status associated with this level of masculinity is certainly positive for the players involved, but the price they pay with their bodies can cost them dearly.

Ask any rugby player about their injury history and they will often have many stories to tell. When I interviewed McGill Varsity rugby players Josh Balloch (fly-half), Gideon Balloch (winger), and Valentine Sergeev (flanker), they all had this to say about their own injuries: “I’ve been pretty lucky.” They told me of broken noses, concussions, a week’s worth of memory loss, injured backs, and “dislodged” ribs. But even so, they are probably right to describe themselves as lucky.

A compounding factor is the tendency of elite athletes to refuse to call it quits after getting hurt, thus worsening the damage. “Everybody plays through injuries all of the time,” said Gideon Balloch. “It is emasculating to have to stop playing because of injuries. But there are also cases where it’s stupid, or impossible, to keep playing.” But what most people might consider “stupid” or “impossible” is probably a lot less than what it would take to sideline a McGill Redmen rugby player.

Since the expectation is that they will continue to play through pain, players who are not as willing to make the sacrifice can be judged. “I was definitely made fun of when I came off with the rib injury because I had continued to play, so it appeared that I could play,” said Josh Balloch. “That added to the illusion that I was being a sissy.” Not all players are equally under suspicion, however. “Knowing the person is really what makes the difference,” Sergeev explained. “Someone who you associate with being a little soft, I guess, you’ll automatically think that maybe he’s just being soft again. But [for] guys I’ve always seen as tougher, if they get injured I’m actually kind of worried. Because if they say it hurts, it hurts.”

This isn’t to say that injuries are not taken seriously in rugby; in such a dangerous sport, “you don’t really want to ever be on the field when you’re not 100 per cent,” according to Josh Balloch. But, at the same time, players pushing themselves too hard – sometimes at the request of their coach or other players – are far from unheard of. “I’ve seen some pretty uncomfortable things,” said Sergeev. “Sometimes player safety is definitely put after winning.”

There are myriad reasons why a player would choose to sacrifice their body for the game. “The overt motivations are winning and partaking in something as great as playing for a team,” said Gideon Balloch. Sergeev also listed school pride and playing for your teammates as contributing factors. But when bodily sacrifice is coded as  masculine behaviour – and players who fail to live up to these expectations are passed off as “sissies,”  “bitches,” or “girls” – is it really out of the question to suggest that fear of emasculation may play a role?

“I would say that there is a certain aspect of being emasculated or seen as more feminine that is involved there,” clarified Josh Balloch, “but I think at this point, it manifests itself under the surface. Sometimes people do call you a girl, but there’s sort of an understanding that is built when you’re growing up that this is masculine, this is feminine, and you don’t have to say it in so many words because everyone has a common understanding of that.” A fear of emasculation may not consciously contribute to risky on-field behaviours, but the conflation of masculinity with playing through pain in pursuit of victory is so firmly entrenched in the culture of contact sports that it does not have to be explicit – the effects are still there.

It is not a coincidence that many athletes often describe sports as a war. “This is a war. This is a battle,” said Sergeev. “People go to war, they sacrifice themselves, so you should too. They sacrifice their bodies and their minds for a greater cause, and that’s the same mentality you adopt in rugby. Is it a war? Yes, but not in the sense that you want to kill people or destroy things. It’s a war in the symbolic sense.” In war, as Sergeev explained, it is expected that soldiers will put their bodies on the line for their country. Sports culture often conflates competition with war, and these risks on the field are thought to be justified.

Perhaps the players are not consciously thinking about masculinity, but it is certainly implied in our feelings toward the game; in fact, masculinity may be the reasoning behind them. Masculinity is sacrifice. Masculinity is physical dominance. Masculinity is winning.

Masculine privilege is a double-edged sword. The players that are considered the most masculine – the hard-hitters, the top-scorers, the guys that never have to come out of a match – receive a great deal of respect from their teammates, their opponents, and their fans. In a lot of ways, masculinity itself is a competition: for some to win, others must lose. Being an elite athlete in an aggressive sport, particularly if you’re one of the best, is one way to win.

Of course, this all comes at a price. This is not particular to rugby, since playing through injury is common for most athletes – men and women alike. When considering the long-term effects, one need only reflect on the fact that the life expectancy of professional football players is twenty years lower than that of other men due to a lifetime of medical maladies and concussions. Injuries build up – they do matter.

The players that I interviewed talked a great deal about the benefits of playing varsity rugby: friends, school involvement, mental strength, physical fitness, life lessons on hard work and dedication, and even a vague mention of “rugby bunnies.” But you can’t ignore the price that almost every player must pay along the way.