The Cargo Cult Revisited

The “Cargo Cult” is the name of a religion that sprung up in the far islands of the Pacific after the second world war. When the war was in full swing, the Western Allies came in and brought all kinds of different foods, technologies, and the like. To the natives on these islands, who didn’t have the concept of how these goods were manufactured, the term “cargo cult” was coined to define the religious connotations that they placed on these goods. To an educated Westerner, most people probably had a brief chuckle at the thought of people treating day-to-day manufactured goods as objects of religious reverence.

Bizarrely enough, it was the cargo cult that leaped to mind when I read this very interesting article in a recent issue of New York Times magazine. According to the article, girls suffer serious injuries while playing in competitive sports such as soccer and basketball at a rate significantly higher than men playing the same sport. On a typical soccer team of 20 girls, for example, the injury rate (ruptured A.C.L.’s, a major injury) would be on average 4 out of 20.
Hurt Girls
The article describes how a typical high performing traveling team generally has a large number of injuries, but the girls keep playing through the injuries, buoyed by the same “small group cohesion” that SLA Marshall wrote about in his analysis of US WW2 veterans (whether SLA Marshall was ultimately discredited is grist for another post). This cohesion bonds the girls to their team mates, and they keep playing through injuries despite the pain and risk of long term debilitating injuries.

Another part of the article I found interesting:

“There is a fascinating parallel in research on injury rates in US Army basic training… women are shown to suffer injuries at substantially higher rates than men, with stress fractures to the lower legs a particular problem. But one large study also suggester that the women are both more frequently injured and tougher. It takes a bigger injury to knock them out of the service.”

While men engage in dangerous and risky sports for a variety of reasons, there is at least a lucrative professional career out there for the highest performers, and tangible financial rewards that could (theoretically) compensate for these risks. Even if you make a major division I program, for example, you can benefit from a huge alumni network that will remember you and give you a break in employment or potentially give you coaching opportunities.

The reason that the “Cargo Cult” brings a snicker is that those practicing it are following rituals but these rituals are disconnected from the original and logical processes that created the output. In a similar way, the girls who are heavily invested in these sports take many of the processes and rituals of male sports, such as team unity, willingness to suffer severe injuries (an A.C.L. is nothing to sneeze at later in life) and dedication but for a goal that doesn’t offer any of the “upside” that originally justified those risks in the first place, which would be either playing professionally or being part of an alumni network which is either valuable in and of itself or as a “signal” for the ability to compete at a high level, or moving into some sort of coaching capacity. This doesn’t apply to sports where women have an active and robust and active professional or secondary market (coaching), such as gymnastics, tennis and golf. For soccer, which seems to be a large contributor to the above injury plague, the professional market is absent and even the Olympic cachet is limited.

None of this takes away the dedication that these girls obviously feel to their team, and their willingness to get hurt and play hurt throughout. As the military noted, women can make tough soldiers.

The final odd element is that these “helicopter” parents, who would conceivably do almost anything to help their children get ahead, allow (encourage) their daughters to play a sport that is possibly more dangerous (to them) than football is to boys, without fully considering the outcomes.

The conclusions that the parents encourage, aid and promote a sport that has a significant likelihood of injuring their daughters with little / no conceivable upside is odd, indeed. Maybe I only get the “Cargo Cult” analogy, but it seems like there is some sort of significant disconnect embedded in here somewhere, with the effort present but the purpose absent.

Cross posted at LITGM

15 thoughts on “The Cargo Cult Revisited”

  1. Sometimes I think diplomas are cargo cult artifact.

    This seems different. But I’ve been struck by the kind of attitude you describe, but have heard enough discussion by mothers to know what it reflects in many cases. The parents think that they are doing their daughters a favor by encouraging them to engage in male sports, on the field with males. They think they are “liberating” their daughters, giving them freedoms, striking a blow for women’s rights. This can be quite effective in sharpening the girls’ skills (a woman at my old business insisted when she was hired on having Saturdays off and coming in early enough so she could get off to take her kids to soccer practice; both girls got full college scholarships on the strength of their soccer skills). She was subtly critical (because she was a nice person and I was her boss) of the fact that my oldest was going through a fairly strenuous ballet regimen with a teacher of the classic style. As both of our daughters matured, I came to believe that while our decision would not have been the best for all, there was a real problem with putting your daughters onto a field where they were likely to be eventually bested (even great athletes like these) by male players.

    This kind of “gender equity” leads the youth to judge an athlete’s skill on a scale that emphasizes male strengths and minimizes women’s. Taking pleasure and pride in what a woman can do strikes me as more productive than taking pleasure in a woman’s ability to play on the same field as a man. I tried to bring my girls up to believe that they were as good as men, but not the same as them. My mother was one of the first Wave officers; she believed that she owed a responsibility to her country when it was going to war as much as my father did. She didn’t want to be in combat. That doesn’t mean that her role in recruiting and intelligence work didn’t add to the war effort.

  2. There is also a lot of Title IX money out there. At my daughters’ prep school, lots, lots of the girls’ athletics were directed at Title IX scholarships at first class schools. Wehn school starts costing $200,000 there’s real money in them tar ACL’s.

  3. “While men engage in dangerous and risky sports for a variety of reasons, there is at least a lucrative professional career out there for the highest performers, and tangible financial rewards that could (theoretically) compensate for these risks. Even if you make a major division I program, for example, you can benefit from a huge alumni network that will remember you and give you a break in employment or potentially give you coaching opportunities.”

    I can directly relate to this part, in my gym, and personally. I picked up Muay Thai over a year ago for a couple of reasons – I wanted to get in better shape, and always wanted to take a martial art. The benefit for me thus far is that I now have a rock solid body, an insanely high level of cario fitness, and am equipped with a skill that I can use in the case of hand to hand combat. Not to mention I have a lot of badass friends now (who are actually pretty great people).

    The risks that I have detailed at my blog are the injuries, of course. I have had many bumps, bruises and scrapes but nothing major..yet. Advanced MT (what I am in now) is not tiddly winks and peole get dings and bruises all the time. It is worse if you don’t know what you are doing, as beginners find out all the time.

    We have pro fighters at my gym and they have an added benefit of at least making a little money on the side (very little imho) but with a gigantic risk of receiving a knee, or kick to the head (or any of a number of other injuries), as you saw at the fights we were at a few months ago. The amateur fighters make zero. Professional MMA fighters take on a completely extra set of risks (chokes, armbars, etc.) for not much more money than a low lever pro MT fighter.

    There is really nothing to explain taking this sort of risk to me besides the possible benefit of the rush of competition or seeing how far you can go. MMA fighters in leagues such as the UFC do make enough to earn a living, and those at the top make a lot of money. As there are more participants in MMA than practically any other sport as of this writing, the odds against becoming one of the few at the top, as in any professional sport, are staggering.

    Hardly any MT fighters outside of Thailand or the K-1 fights (not really MT, but definitely kickboxing) make enough money to cover gas.

    Granted these people don’t have parents pushing them, they are simply pushing themselves after their day jobs to see what they can do. So why do it then? Why get into the ring and put yourself up to this? Money isn’t everything, and it is difficult at times to assign conventional risk/reward scenarios to everything as this example shows.

  4. Growing up in the less protective environment of the 50s and early 60s, the boys rough housed at even pre-school age. Yes, there was a broken bone, lots of lacerations, black marks, and the like, but we learned ‘limits’ as well to our abilities in circumstances, applying our past experience to the next generally in a manner of judgment earned. It was all part of early socialization. Unless the lass was a Tom Boy or grew up as the only female in a family with lots of brothers, girls generally didn’t get that training early. Today, those activities would get a visit from Child Protective Services. Everything has been geared down to zero tolerance in the case if injury to the very young. So while boys and girls can play soccer together at a very early age, they’re not playing ‘combat’ soccer. That’s still reserve away from the controlling eyes and ears of parents somewhere off the schedule. The boys are learning their limits and developing the ‘cost benefit analysis’ of life. The ladies, it appears, get that experience later in life.

  5. Professional MMA fighters take on a completely extra set of risks (chokes, armbars, etc.)…

    Dan from Madison, I wouldn’t say that MMA fighters take on an extra set of risks; they simply face a more diverse set of risks.

    The addition of grappling reduces the amount of striking in a fight, and submissions (chokes, arm-bars) are unlikely to cause serious injury unless the guy on the receiving end wants to take his chances. Tapping is quick and easy.

    A more legitimate concern is that MMA fighters are wearing lighter gloves and they occasionally get a clear shot on a downed fighter, with gravity on their side.

    Of course, an MMA bout typically ends once one guy gets really “rocked”; the victim doesn’t get propped back up for more punishment.

  6. Isegoria – MMA fighters continue to take punishment from striking even when on the ground. Sounds like you know the sport, so I am sure you have seen some bloodbaths in the past where a guy gets cut open pretty severely by an elbow during ground and pound, and the fight continurs.

    So, to me, it is an extra set of risks. Where in MT there is only the striking, with MMA you have everything MT has plus the submissions.

    I have seen guys not tap and have a broken arm, but it is rare. it is only a matter of time before someone dies in the ring, but that risk is inherent in any contact sport such as football, MT or whatever.

  7. According to the article, girls suffer serious injuries while playing in competitive sports such as soccer and basketball at a rate significantly higher than men playing the same sport.

    Hmmmm, one might almost think that differences in physiology make women less resistant to violent, wrenching forces on their bodies. All the pluck in the world can’t overcome the limitations of the biology. A minivan can’t defeat a muscle car in a drag race.

    The overall heavier muscles in males, especially in the upper body, also means heavy ligaments and tendons and denser bones. All these factors combine to make males more resistant to mechanical injury than women.

    Part of the problem here is that we have defined sports as “games that males play”. If your not playing a male game, your not playing sports. I think we do this part because there is little differential between male and female capabilities in prepubescent children so we let boys and girls play the same childhood version of the same adult male games. After puberty, male and female physiologies diverge creating a real risk in females when playing male games.

    The obvious solution would be to develop specific sports designed for the physiology of adult females.

  8. Isegoria, Dan From Madison,

    Actually, bare fisted punching is safer for the brain than gloves. Gloves protect the hand and let puncher strike with greater momentum without risk of injury. The glove spread the shock over the entire surface of the glove and the surface of the head it impacts which results in more effecient transfer of momentum to the brain. The gloves prevent surface injury to the head which fools referees into thinking no damage has been done.

    Bare fisted punches land with less force and the force that does land tends to concentrate at a small point of impact (such as the point of the knuckles). This concentration of force cause tissue to rupture and bone and cartilage to break which absorbs the energy of the strike and prevents it from reaching the brain.

    You can see an obvious difference in the post-bout behavior between boxes and MMA fighters. MMA fighters, even ones who’ve taken a pounding are usually alert and moving their heads. Boxers by contrast often appear dazed even if they look okay otherwise.

    In short, MMA fight look bad because the body absorbs the damage at the surface and it shows. Boxing actually does more real damage but it does so invisibly.

  9. Shannon,
    From my reading and experience I would have to concur. Many ex boxers are basically “punch drunk” all the time from hours and hours of sparring – absorbing blows to the head. The MT fighters in my gym don’t even do insane things like that, and when we do spar, we are sparring to score, not damage. That doesn’t mean you won’t get hit or kicked, though.

    The training in boxing simply isn’t like that. To boot, if you had full out sparring with MT or MMA your stable of fighters would be very thin indeed – one well placed and executed elbow or knee can cause a concussion or broken rib very easily. Elbows are forbidden in sparring at my gym even for the pro guys – too risky. Knees must be only token – to score only, not to damage. Tremendous force can be created by kicks as well.

    Gloves are a necessity in these sports so people don’t get eye gouged as well.

  10. Here’s the bottom line. At most schools, athletics are viewed as a ticket to free college scholarship. So parents pull out the stops to create a perfect athlete. In doing so, academics run a distant second as kids play on the school teams, traveling teams and club teams in the same year. I have students who regularly missed one day a week traveling to play soccer, volleyball, basketball or any of numerous other sports. Where are our priorities? And while you may think this is contrary, there was a book out a few years back called “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes” which discussed the actual abuse of girls involved in high level gymnastics and figure skating. We are talking ritual starvation, working through injuries and sustaining life affecting injuries. You can add to that the high level dancers. It is a serious problem and people don’t want to address is because on the surface athletics are seen as wholesome. I know girls who are on major league pain meds and who share them with friends. On the boys side, we have the well meaning idiot coaches and dads who don’t see the problem. On the girls’ side we have pushy moms who want their kids to have “Olympic dreams.”Trust me, it will get worse this year. It always doesn’t when the Olympic are in session.

  11. Ellen K – well put. When I was in high school, if we missed school for sports we got a zero. Don’t know how it runs today but I would bet that the athletes get a break when they road trip.

  12. A friend of mine has a son who by 4th or 5th grade was apparently a real talent at soccer. He was asked to be on a traveling team. My friend demurred. As he said, once he looked at what it involved, it didn’t seem worth it, particularly considering the strain it would put on the rest of the family, plus it just didn’t sound fun. (I always thought his best point was the last one).

    Women’s cross country has a very high rate of injury, so much so that most women peak in their sophomore year of high school, yet it must be addicting, because I’ve known women who just couldn’t stop running, despite the medical issues it involved.

  13. Dan from Madison, of course, “MMA fighters continue to take punishment from striking even when on the ground” — I said as much myself — but they take few hard shots on the ground. When they do take hard shots on the ground — and we can agree that they sometimes take some very hard shots — the fight typically ends.

    (Superficial injuries are another story. A fighter can definitely take a wicked elbow and end up with a gruesome cut without the ref calling the fight.)

    If you look at the FightMetrics from the last UFC, you’ll note that most fighters only take a dozen solid punches or kicks in a whole fight — and that was my main point. By adding grappling, we end up subtract some striking.

    As for the difference between gloved and bare-knuckle punches, which Shannon Love brings up, I think we need to note that UFC fighters aren’t wearing boxing glovers and aren’t going bare-knuckle either. They’re wearing just enough glove (and tape) to protect their hands, so their punches probably land harder than either fully gloved or bare-knuckle punches.

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