A boxer was injured in a fight in Sydney last weekend. At the time of writing he was on life support. There have been injuries in boxing many times before, among as many as ninety percent of boxers, according to some US estimates. Boxing is a sport that pits one man against another for the entertainment of more fortunate people. Sport seems hardly the right word for such organised violence. Sport, as Orwell said, 'provokes vicious passions'. It is war without bullets:
Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.
And many men have died in war yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Once again, we are confronted with the idea that being a man is to live a life that is often filled with risk, danger, and the smell of death.
Traditionally, a man's life has been about work. And it probably is still true. A man who doesn't work feels useless and unimportant, according to my own research. Because a man's identity is caught up with his work and the lifestyle that work dictates. Get up at 6, get ready, have breakfast, be on the bus, get to the factory by 7.30 , or a meeting over breakfast. Work imposes severe limitations on men.
US sources say the most dangerous occupations seem to be in construction; installing power lines; farming; truck drivers; mining machine operators; roofers; air pilots; fishermen and loggers. And the most dangerous jobs are done mostly by men. Especially working-class men.
It starts much earlier than this. In a wide-ranging piece which provides much hard evidence about male fragility, Kraemer (2000) points out that the male's journey is downhill from conception to birth. And he continues on his risk-filled way. Though more males are born, they are more vulnerable than females to a whole range of problems. Thus hyperactivity, stammering, Tourette's syndrome, autism, and clumsiness occur three to four more times in boys than in girls. Males are attempting something extra throughout their lives. There is solid evidence for male fragility; some refer to this as the fragile X syndrome.
As a boy grows into adolescence and testosterone kicks in, he is at a peak time of risk. Young males dare each other to do all kinds of risky activities, from rock-climbing to swimming in shark-infested seas. Many life narratives by men talk of key incidents in which males of a certain age were shamed for being bad footballers or poor at some other sport. Many are egged on by peers and society at large to go for hard-edged masculine endeavours, at almost any cost. Thus, if you don't take the risks with sport – or driving recklessly in a car, or diving into a river – you are shamed as un-masculine.
Despite attempts to re-educate teachers, the demand on males to be tough is still there in schools. And we still have teachers reported by former pupils as saying "Son, if you can't kick a ball better than that, go home and put on your mother's dress".
The demand to be tough at all costs doesn't stop at adolescence. Whether in Australia, the USA, Brazil, Jamaica or Africa - men seem to feel they must display their carelessness about danger and flirt with death. They shouldn't care too much about themselves – that would mean running the risk of being called sissy or girly.A man who fusses over his clothes too much - a man who dabbles in the kitchen - or hesitates to do what his mates dare - there are harsh terms used to shame such men.
Later in life risks for men continue, biological as well as social. Diseases due to poor circulation, diabetes, alcoholism, and lung cancer are all commoner in men, although women have higher rates of some other disorders: depressive and eating problems, for instance. And one wonders how many males simply fail to report depression because to do so would be unmanly.
Male suicide rates continue to exceed those in females throughout life, and, as is universally known, women survive men by several years in almost all countries, and the gap is widening.
Being a woman is fairly self-evident. A girl grows up, and displays her figure to the world. But it seems a man has to define himself, argue Wheeler and West. In a key phrase, a man has to prove his masculinity. And he has to do that proving - which we could rephrase in its original meaning, as testing - over and over again.
High on the list of causes of death in midlife are suicide; land transport accidents; accidental drowning; lung cancer; and assault, said the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. It also found thatAustralian men aged 25 to 64 die of coronary heart disease at more than four times the rate of women. Men of colour are particularly vulnerable. The same source said that women over 85 suffer more from dementia and Alzheimer's disease than men at the same age; that is, if men survive that long.
But let us come back to the arena of sport, where we started. As if their lives were not threatening enough, men are also well over-represented in dangerous sports. The lure of adulation from the crowd, and the admiration of men and women, is too strong for them, to say nothing of the financial rewards. In rugby the worst risk is spinal injuries from scrums. One hundred and ten rugby players have been paralysed in the UK playing rugby, Khaleeli found. She quoted a professor at Leeds University who said there was an even more dangerous brand of football: gridiron. One study she cites of 35 former US professional football players found that all but one had brain injuries. Michael Messner argued that American football was one of the most dangerous games, severe head injuries being one of the most worrying patterns in the game. In a book called Out of Play, Messner quotes Jack Tatum, nicknamed 'The Assassin'. Tatum seemed perplexed that he was being blamed for breaking some guy's neck in two places:
It wasn't the first time a guy got paralyzed in football, so it really wasn't that unusual.
As long as the guy's on the football field, you're supposed to hit him.
And now we have our own Australian boy-who-is-making-it-in-America, Jarryd Hayne. He's had apparent success in leaving southwest Sydney, joining a team and playing in American football. His will be the money, the power, and the glory, his will be the constant media commentary on his every step and feint as he charges down the football field. I hope he knows the risks.