Watching the American women win the all-around team gold in gymnastics in London last week, and watching Gabby Douglas win the individual all-around gold after that, I was struck by the fact that all the women on the team were born just before or after the publication of Joan Ryan’s Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, Joan Ryan’s book about gymnastics and figure skating that made it almost impossible for me to feel decent about watching those sports precisely at the moment that American participation in them peaked during my childhood. I wrote about this a bit for Slate:
Ryan chronicled the accident at the 1988 World Sports Fair in Tokyo in which Julissa Gomez was left a quadraplegic after attempting a Yurchenko vault. Gomez, who eventually died from complications of her injuries and treatment, was not proficient enough to perform the vault, but her coaches insisted on it as a way to boost her potential point total. Ryan devoted another chapter to the death from anorexia in 1994 of gymnast Christy Henrich, who shared a coach with Gomez. If they (and a young Romanian gymnast murdered by her coach in 1993) were the extreme outliers, the larger numbers who developed obsessive compulsive disorder or cutting were no more encouraging. For a nascent young feminist who also thrilled to Olympic skating and gymnastics, Little Girls In Pretty Boxes was to those sports what the debate over chronic traumatic encephalopathy is to football today, a challenge to the idea that they were redeemable.
And the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think there’s something to that comparison. It’s not an exact one, of course. Anorexia nervosa was not a competitive event in gymnastics in the same way hitting other people and making them fall down is part of football. The problems in gymnastics that were literally killing young women in performance and in the prime of their competitive years were more easily separated from the performance of gymnastics than hits are from football.
But there are similarities. There was a prevailing belief in gymnastics that lighter bodies resulted in higher heights during some elements, and more delicate performances, much in the same way that the NFL has developed a preference for significantly larger players, making hits harder and more dramatic. Safer helmets may not be a cure-all for hits that cause concussions, and may encourage players to hit harder in the belief they’re more protected, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to make football safer, or that doing so will kill the game. Gymnastics has adopted more stable vaulting tables and different points systems, and the sight of young girls doing astonishing things with bodies that now seem more oriented towards strength than fragility is no less thrilling for it.
That’s not to say that making football watchable will be easy, particularly since I’m not sure we’re at a critical mass of viewers who feel deeply uncomfortable continuing to consume a sport that destroys men’s brains and lives. And changing it is unlikely to happen quickly, particularly given that football players are conditioned to and rewarded when they hit extremely hard long before they reach the National Football League, with its hit-oriented highlight rules and bounty scandals. But if a generation of gymnasts could grow up and compete healthier in a world that Joan Ryan helped change, maybe a generation of young men can come up playing a different kind of football, shaped by the world of devastating reporting on chronic traumatic encephalopathy.