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When narratives matter: men, sport, and spinal cord injury
  1. A C Sparkes,
  2. B Smith
  1. Qualitative Research Unit, School Sport and Health Sciences, St Luke’s Campus, University of Exeter, Exeter, Devon, UK
  1. Correspondence to:
 A C Sparkes
 Qualitative Research Unit, School Sport and Health Sciences, St Luke’s Campus, University of Exeter, Heavitree Road, Exeter, Devon, EX1 2LU, UK; A.C.Sparkes{at}


Experiencing a spinal cord injury (SCI) and becoming disabled through sport is a major disruptive life event that instigates a multiplicity of difficult and complex issues that the person has to deal with. One of these problems is how to restory a life and construct new body/self relationships and identities over time. To explore this process, we focus on the life stories of a small group of men (n = 14) who have suffered SCI and become disabled through playing rugby football. We illustrate the ways in which certain metaphors, notions of time, and kinds of hope, congregate and coalesce within three specific narrative types and how these operate to shape the individual experiences of these men following SCI. The implications of this dynamic process for the storied body/self and identity construction are highlighted throughout.

  • SCI, spinal cord injury
  • narratives
  • men and sport
  • spinal cord injury
  • medical humanities

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  • i The disciplined body presents itself as highly controlled and predictable and as lacking desire to engage and commune with other bodies. It is also dissociated from itself and isolated in its own performance even though this performance might be part of a collective institutional activity such as sport. The dominating body defines itself by force. It meets the challenge of events, like sport or SCI, by trying to beat it. The voice and narrative is dominated not by resignation or an imperative to develop the self, but by anger and frustration. It is also dissociated from itself and lacks desire, but it is dyadic in how it relates to other bodies. Thus, rather than communing with other bodies, it displaces its anger and frustration against its own limits on to others.

  • ii Athletic identity refers to the degree to which an individual identifies with the athlete role.2

  • iii “T” denotes thoracic vertebrae, and the “2” indicates the neurological level of damage.

  • iv The methodological and ethical principles informing this study and our work with these men has been described in detail elsewhere in Smith and Sparkes13,14,15; Sparkes,2,16,17 and Sparkes and Smith.18,19 Suffice it to say here that contact was made with participants via an open letter in a newsletter circulated by the English Rugby Football Union’s support network for injured players. The participants then contacted us and engaged in a series of confidential, tape recorded interviews that explored their life histories pre and postSCI. At the first interview the ethical principles informing the research were discussed with each participant—for example, participants were told they could withdraw from the interview or the study at any time without having to give any reason, that pseudonyms would be used, and place names changed to preserve anonymity.

  • v The restored self is an identity level at which people expect to return to their former lives following SCI. This is viewed as a “normal” or “natural” response. The men who desire this identity level thus aim both to reconstruct a similar physical self as before and assume continuity with the self they had before they became disabled. Restoring an entrenched self means being wedded to a clear self conception situated in the past. This self represents patterns of action, conviction, and habit built up over the years. These unchanged patterns had been a source of self respect before they experienced SCI and became disabled, and once science has “repaired” their broken bodies, resuming these patterns becomes the person’s major objective.

  • vi The communicative body attempts to live a life embedded in relationships that are other regarding. It recognises that bodies are unpredictable and contingency is accepted as normative. It is also productive of desire, needing to nurture and be nurtured by others. Thus, the communicative body relates to others, telling and listening to stories, and is aware of itself and the ongoing production of the body in daily life.

  • vii Rather than commitment to specific prior activities and prior identities, the developing self can be seen here as an identity whereby the direction of the person’s life concerns them, as well as the character of the self that they shape. The person also emphasises reconstructing their ability to shift, change, and explore new identities as possibilities emerge. Consequently, they commit themselves to growing and developing in the future.