Thursday, June 12, 2014

Should women be encouraged to play football?

At Campbellsville University in Kentucky, a girl named Shelby Osborne has made the football team and will play as a defensive back, making her only the second female to play a non-kicker position in college football.

You can read about her experience in her own words here.

Equality is a popular cause in these times and consequently stories like this are often pushed as demonstrating the progress of egalitarian ethics in our modern society. However, there's an underlying assumption that I think deserves a closer look. Is it actually ethical to champion a woman playing a violent, contact sport with grown men? Is this behavior that we want to encourage from females in our communities?

There are some obviously inspirational themes to this story:

You have a person championing over the odds to pursue a dream.

You see someone refuse to back down to public pressure in pursuing what she feels is right.

Both of these are honorable themes, to be sure. But there were also some superficially honorable themes to the "Children's Crusade" and it'd be hard to argue that it was particularly ethical to allow that event to occur.

Personally I find three themes in this story to be disconcerting:

1). Football is not a safe sport, especially for women

The long-term brain damage commonly associated with football has many people wondering if the game should be changed so that we can encourage young boys and men to play in good conscience. We already have to mitigate fears that we are asking them to ruin the ends of their lives by incurring serious brain damage or suffering other injuries that could lead to chronic health issues.

These issues are magnified when we add women to the equation. As is common with egalitarian ethicists, many are ignoring the scientific fact that male and female bodies are different.

Females have weaker necks, which scientists believe is a primary reason that women's soccer has such a high rate of concussions. Because the brain is a free-flowing organ within the skull, violent collisions where our heads aren't stable can lead to brain injuries even when the head isn't contacted.

Violent collisions are the name of the game in football. Is it wise to encourage a 5'6", 140 pound female to play a sport in which these collisions are common?

Females also have smaller, thinner bones and less muscular bodies. Both of these are important factors in the event of a violent collision. After all, Force=mass x acceleration.

Smaller muscles means less acceleration and less mass for absorbing blows. If you create a collision between a 140 pound female and even a 140 pound male, as rare as they are in football, you are creating an equation that likely equal 1 injured female.

We are seeing the same thing with women in the military. Evolution has not designed women to engage in violent activities, especially against men. So we should encourage them to do so anyways? What does that prove again?

2). Shouldn't society look to protect women?

Call me old-fashioned but I think that one of men's primary roles in society is to protect women and children. Not to engage in violent competition with them and look to smash them.

Given that we already know women are inclined to be inferior at men at a sport like football, what can a man prove by beating up women on the gridiron? What are we teaching young men if we encourage women to engage in these sports?

That they shouldn't protect women? That they should take advantage of their natural strength to beat them up in competition? That physical aggression is not something to be reserved for use against men of comparable strength but used to dominate women?

3). What's the upside?

I was concerned with the motivation that Shelby Osborne included in her interview with SB Nation for wanting to become a football player:

"Well, it was the sectional championship game of my junior year, and we weren't playing so hot or even to the best of our ability. I said to myself, "I could play better than that," and that's what planted the seed in my mind that this might actually be possible!"

That doesn't strike me as a particularly noble aim, wanting to upstage the young men playing for her high school that she felt weren't good enough. Credit to her for putting her money where her mouth was, I suppose, although she apparently went on to play mostly JV ball and didn't seem to have actually played "better than that" after all.

But is this the message we want to send young men? "You aren't doing a very good job in society so we're going to try and replace you with women." well do we think that's going to work?

I think football's upside is that it teaches men to take risks, to channel natural aggression to work within a team construct to protect each other and advance towards a goal, and to hopefully learn lessons like humility and wisdom. Because of these reasons, while I'd like to see the sport become safer I think it's a valuable activity for young men.

What's the upside of encouraging women to play tackle football with men? Frankly, I don't see one that overcomes what seem to be obvious downsides.

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