Outrage over girls' kickboxing reeks of hypocrisy
I saw a kid get badly hurt on the weekend, playing sport. Kicked in the head. A bad enough injury that this kid, who is one of the toughest little nuggets I've ever met, was laid out on the ground with a nurse and a medic tending to him for 10 minutes. But that was a rugby match. Not a martial arts tournament. And he was a little boy, not a little girl. So in the suburban weekend world of full contact sport, it was an unremarkable happening.
No investigative journalists were dispatched to investigate. No ministers were called to minister to an obvious policy failure. No outraged lobby groups called for inquiries or outright bans. The rugby union authorities of Queensland did not throw themselves into a rhetorical cage fight.
Because it happens every weekend, and we don't just accept the danger of that particular full contact sport, we celebrate it. We eventually make heroes of the children, the young boys, who survive these trials of the football field and prove themselves elite performers in whichever code they play.
What then is the difference between the hundreds, or even thousands of kids, both boys and girls, who threw themselves into full contact sport last weekend, and the two young girls who fought in a Muay Thai tournament on the Gold Coast? A contest which appears to have induced a fit of the vapors in sports minister Phil Reeves, where the death of boxer Alex Slade in early October last year did not.
More on Slade later. But first, a declaration of bias. I do not come at this question –of children learning some form of combat art, or of children applying their knowledge of that art in a sports fighting environment– objectively. I believe there is much of value for children to learn from the martial arts, when they are taught with respect for the strict codes of behaviour and ethics which inform the traditional schools of many arts, be they Japanese, Chinese, Thai or even western fighting methods such as boxing or wrestling.
Not everyone will agree and there's nothing we can do here to resolve those differences. At a fundamental level you will either be cool with your children being taught unarmed combat, or you won't. It’s not my intention today to disrespect anyone in the latter camp. Just to let you know where I'm coming from.
Having said that, I have a few issues with the reported details of the weekend tournament. And I stress "reported". I wasn’t there and can only reflect on what I've read and seen online.
If it is true that the bout took place in front of an audience consuming alcohol, and that the audience rewarded the contestants with tips – money thrown into the ring as is the custom in some adult fights – then I have some serious misgivings. Such a scenario seems crafted more towards entertaining the drinkers than educating and improving the contestants – the fighters, to do away with any euphemism. But again, I wasn’t there, and frankly I’m not willing to accept second hand media reports.
A couple of minutes ago, John Wayne Parr, a champion kickboxer and the father of Jasmine, who won the fight, left the following comment in the thread below. I'm republishing it in it's entirety because it throws into stark relief some of the hysterical bullshit that's been swirling around this story:
Thank you sir, finally someone that doesn't think the goverment should take my kids off me. Jasmine has had a sparkle in her eye ever since I told her she would be fighting 4 weeks ago.
I was the promoter, plus the father of Jasmine. There was 15 fights on the show, the girls were just one of the fights. It was held at a PCYC with 20 uniformed police, the police were the ones in fact to arrange the alcohol licence and all profit from alcohol go back to the police who put it back into the community. People are saying "but there was 500 people there", yes, that is amazing, that means there was 500 people giving a standing ovation to two little girls who put on a better fight then Anthony Mundine and Danny Green. Do kids who play football have a adult crowd cheering when Johnny scores a try and applaud as he does a victory dance in excitiment??
Thank you so much for giving me some confidence back in the media, yesterday's stunts to set me up as worst father of the year hurt alot and left me defending myself for close to 24 hours.
I wish I could shake your hand.
John Wayne Parr
father of Jasmine Parr
So, if all that happened on the weekend was that two girls fought, and it happened to be videoed then, really, what is the big deal? Why are people so upset by this, when thousands of other kids take part in contact sport every weekend? Aware that I am biased – my own children train in a martial art at my insistence – I checked my initial incredulous reaction against Damon Young, an Honorary Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, who also wears a black belt earned in Goju-Kai Karate and co-edited the brilliant collection of essays Martial Arts and Philosophy. (He replied via email, hence the 'unpolished prose' of his answers. Please indulge him in this. He writes beautifully, but I didn't know I wanted to quote him until after I read his reply.)
Damon thought much of the "shock" which attended the media around this event was explicable in gender terms. "It's girls", he emailed, "which muddies the waters. But I reckon they can do anything the boys can do, and any government saying otherwise is asking for a kick in the mandate."
Damon continued. "Let's de-gender the question: Should kids be fighting in Muay Thai? There are two parts to this question. Should they be training in the martial arts? Yes, because it teaches confidence, physical courage, robust self-awareness, is good for health, and so on. And to train properly in the martial arts, you need to test your skills against resisting opponents. So unless they (the government) want to ban martial arts altogether, they need to recognise that kids will train and compete (all with appropriate training, safety equipment, referees and doctors)."
No arguments, so far. The point about training against "resisting opponents" is important. A child who learns an art like Goju-Kai, or judo, or Muay Thai, or Tohkon Ryu jujitsu (my personal recommendation for all your kid's self defence needs) is not simply learning a set of physical responses, although the endless repetition of these responses form the basis of their skills. They are learning to master their will. Almost anyone can be taught to block a punch and to counterstrike, or to feed the energy of a punch into an arm entanglement or wristlock. But to do so in the real world, in the rush and panic of an actual attack is to exercise an act of will. Some might find that counterintuitive. Surely the purpose of repeating a defence drill, or a kata thousands of times is to render it a "thoughtless" response. To embed it so deeply in muscle memory that it manifests in the moment of need without conscious effort.
This is so. But most attacks do not come out of the blue. There is often a period of threat, even if only a few seconds, where the potential victim has to make a choice about whether to flee or to fight, and if the latter option is the only one available, about what level violence they should employ in their defence. These are all conscious decisions that involve an act of will, and it is the years of training against "resisting opponents" that hones the will and the ability to make the correct choice.
Many people will have shuddered in horror watching those two young kickboxers smash into each other. I totally get that. It is a confronting sight. But what I saw was two young girls learning to impose their will during a chaotic and violent confrontation, to draw upon their training, and learning eventually, to safeguard themselves. If I was their parent, I could not be more proud of them, no matter what the outcome of the contest.
On the issue of payment, Damon, like me, was uncertain.
"I think kids' sports ought to be amateur events," he wrote, "if only because making anything professional seriously changes what's expected of the competitors. I don't think kids ought to be pushed in that way. And kids' fights as entertainment makes me a little unsettled (perhaps this is a moral, rather than a legal, position)."
I wonder, however, would anyone have the same objection if the winnings for the day had been presented in the form of a book voucher? And John Parr's explanation of the event's licensing puts it into a very different light. It wasn't a boozy tent fight. It was a PCYC event, supervised by the police.
Neither Damon nor I had a child in that fight. John Parr, did. His daughter won, and she plans to buy a remote controlled dinosaur with her prize money. Maybe she’ll, ahem, kick on in the sport. Maybe not. But surely her parents and not Minister Reeves are the ones to decide what's appropriate for her.
After all, Reeves was nowhere to be seen when Alex Slade died. BT’s fine, two fisted sports writer, Phil Lutton, had filed a couple of excellent pieces about Slade’s death, and how it can be understood within the framework of unregulated combat sports in Queensland. They’re long, but totally worth reading if you want to understand why some people find Reeves to be a little hypocritical when he sounds off about kids' martial arts tournaments. The minister, who threw the switch to outrage so quickly after seeing video of those two girls – who were thoroughly padded up and supervised – is still refusing to commit the Queensland government to doing anything about the complete lack of any formal guidelines or control authority for running adult combat sporting events in this state.
What does that mean?
Well, he’ll huff and he’ll puff about school girls pulling on the gloves, but the sports minister has done nothing to ensure adult boxers, for instance, will have regular blood tests before stepping into the ring, where they will mix bodily fluids with their opponents. That sort of decision can apparently be left to the three warring boxing codes.
Queensland is the only mainland state without a combat sports regulator and even Tasmania is moving towards getting one. When Reeves starts talking seriously about his actual responsibilities perhaps he won't look like such an ass when he insists on blundering into the realm of parental responsibilities.
Finally, I will grant that tournament fighting is not self-defence training. Not in a pure sense. Not every martial arts school accepts the need to prepare its students to fight in sporting competitions, and many of those that do rigorously emphasise the difference between sporting technique and street defence. Myself, I think that hard, supervised sparring in the dojo will do much the same job of preparing both mind and body. But every school and every teacher will have their own approach. That is as it should be.
If you think this is all macho bullshit I’d ask you to consider last week’s survey of female students by the National Union of Students that found "one in six respondents had been raped and a further 12 per cent had experienced attempted rape, while two in three had an 'unwanted sexual experience'."
In the face of odds like that, I am uninterested in being told by Minister Reeves how to prepare my daughter to go out into the world.
Neither, I imagine, is John Parr.