Murderball: Massacring Misconceptions
The quad rugby doc that changed how I thought about disability
Here’s a TL;DR up front: If you’ve never seen Murderball, go watch Murderball. It’s a hell of a sports saga about quad rugby (murderball) teams, international rivalries, and competition at the highest levels. It’s also a human story about people who have been through some shit and come out the other side with pride, self-confidence and the desire to slam into others in an armored chair. The quote below, from a many-year veteran of the sport, sums it up best:
The critics got one thing wrong: Murderball doesn’t dispel myths and stereotypes. It takes big fat bites out of those sugary sweet, pathetic images and stereotypes, chews ’em up and spits ’em out. It’s not a magic pill that will make pity and stereotypes go away, but it is quite simply the best film ever made on disability. It amazes me that these filmmakers were able to render such an honest portrayal of living life from the seat of a wheelchair. Somehow, either by the sheer exposure to the people or by some innate understanding, directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro “got it,” and this film is a joy to watch, especially the way we did, with family and about 12 other quads. This movie is funny. It is sad. It is fiery, fast, frank, explosive, sexy, tender, loving, and the action is bone-jarring, just like quad rugby, aka Murderball.Ed Hooper, a 13-year veteran of quad rugby, who coaches the Hoveround Lightning team from Sarasota, Florida, ranked third in the the U. S. Quad Rugby Association, in a review on RAGGED EDGE
You can watch Murderball for free on Plex or using your library card on Kanopy.
Killing it on the court
What even is the game of murderball (aka Quad Rugby)?
Quad rugby, originally called murderball, is a sport for people in wheelchairs who don’t shy away from, well, anything. It’s a weird mish-mash of other sports: played on a basketball court, with rugby-like interaction, using a volleyball and end zones like a football field.
“The chairs look like tricked-out bumper cars, with bucket seats, safety harnesses, angled wheels, and grills to protect the feet. When they roll over, the guys go with them,” explained the film’s producer Dana Adam Shapiro.
The rules go like this: there are four players on a side, and they’re ranked on their mobility on levels from .5 to 3.5, depending on their ability to move their upper bodies. Team mobility rankings cannot exceed a total of eight, so teams have to find a balance. “The most mobile players handle the ball,” said Shapiro. “The low-pointers act as human speed bumps.”
The documentary Murderball, disability theory and me
Murderball came out in 2005 and in some ways, it really changed my life. Today, between my freelance journalism, my work with the US Pain Foundation and my writing here on janetjay.com, I’ve spent the last few years pretty firmly in disability spaces. So it’s not easy to wrench my brain back to where I was in 2005. I was only beginning to learn to advocate for myself and constantly struggling with the idea of what qualified as “disabled,” or even just “disabled enough.” I wasn’t in a wheelchair so it didn’t apply to me, right? With my life-warping invisible disability I certainly didn’t fit in with the able-bodied, but there wasn’t really a home for me in disability spaces either. (At least that’s how it felt.) And I certainly didn’t have anybody I could ask who had been through something similar.
Despite having my teen years upended by chronic pain, I didn’t know that “disability theory” was even a thing until I got to college and was lucky enough to be thrown into a course whose professor opened my eyes to this entire field.
Off the Court
Murderball is the opposite end of the spectrum: when most people picture “disabled,” they envision someone in a wheelchair who is paralyzed in some way, like the paraplegic and quadriplegic members of the quad rugby teams featured in the film (which is now one of the highest-grossing documentaries of all time). But there’s more to it than what’s going on on the court. The film gives a lot of time to showing the daily lives and routines of these men (and they’re all men), talking about how life has and hasn’t changed for them, in terms of health, sex, family, sport, and how they’re perceived.
Abilities, Assumptions, and Attraction
Misconceptions swirl around these guys, mostly about what they’re capable of (answer: just about everything you’re capable of). The kind of life-changing accidents that the stars of Murderball underwent certainly affected their lives and how they grew and evolved as people, but those accidents don’t change who a person is at their core. These are guys who are athletes, who are thrill-seekers, who found their way through the darkness of their medical trauma into a new life that they have to navigate. If you’re an adrenaline junkie before breaking your back trying to jump a dirt bike, you’re not going to be thrilled with playing cards after your accident. Murderball– quad rugby– is for THAT kind of paraplegic.
“The guys we got to know get up earlier, exercise longer, eat healthier, travel more, get hotter girlfriends, and most of them can kick our asses,” said Rubin. One of the most… let’s say “engaging” parts of the film is a frank discussion of sex, from how people beat around the bush (pun not originally intended) about the question of whether someone can get an erection to different strategies for getting it on despite physical limitations. (However, they also talk about playing up their limitations, “acting pathetic,” to get women. Which is… sad and gross and scuzzy. But some people are like that, sadly, and these are just people.)
…And weighing risk
Unfortunately, quad rugby isn’t for everyone. It’s dangerous– these players are absolutely risking further disability. And only certain types of disabilities qualify to play. And chairs are ridiculously expensive. Coaches spoke of having to turn away many who were inspired by the movie but didn’t qualify to play.
Deconstructing (Some) Defaults
How the film came to be, and the ways it changed the views of its able-bodied filmmakers, is an interesting story. First, editor Dana Adam Shapiro stumbled over a newspaper piece discussing the rivalry between two local quad rugby teams. I think many people would react the same way he did: “The article was pretty mind-blowing for me, because I had thought all quadriplegics were like Christopher Reeve — very mild-mannered and weak and fragile. Not playing this violent game and driving and having sex. I guess in my ignorance, I didn’t think quadriplegics would talk like that. And all of those stereotypes just started falling away.”
“The premise sounded horrible,” admits [who is he] Rubin. ”If there was a documentary about disabled people on TV, I’d want to switch the channel to CSI. But you meet these guys and they just completely subvert every cliché you’ve ever had about someone in a wheelchair. They listen to speed metal, they drink Jägermeister, they pop Viagra, they have hot girlfriends, they play poker, they call each other gimps and cripples. And Zupan, he’s a filmmaker’s wet dream. That guy is so brutally honest, there’s not a fake bone in his body.”
The action sequences are all Murderball but the heart of the doc is its characters and their struggles. “Quad rugby was this great MacGuffin that got you into the room and created this structure and was very visual,” explains Shapiro, noting that there is only about nine minutes of actual sports footage in the 86-minute finished product. “But, at the end of the day, you know, the story is hard to tell about what it’s like to break your neck.”
One of the most compelling threads in the film is that of Keith, a newly paralyzed 20-something in the process of examining his new world and its limitations. For him, as for many others, quad rugby promised normalcy, competition, masculinity. It was one shining hope, a lifeline among the new limitations that would define the rest of his life. And it’s obviously not just the sport, it’s the people. It’s the community and the understanding, both of the limitations of quad life and the desire to still take risks and experience thrills.
… While Buying Into Toxic Masculinity Hook, Line and Sinker
When I first saw this, at the age of 20, just the idea of disabled people being ‘normal guys’ was really inspiring. Watching it now as a woman in my mid-30s, it’s disappointing because of the type of ‘normal guy’ they choose to be. (Operative word: choose.) If nothing else, the film shows that achieving great things in one area of life doesn’t mean much in other areas. These men are admirable for what they’ve achieved on the court and in other areas of life: but dang, a lot of them are pretty shitty to women.
The film shows them openly and proudly talking about using their disability as a tool for manipulating women, how they intentionally lean on the natural sympathy people give them. Scott Hogsett, one of Zupan’s teammates, is talking about picking up girls: “The more pathetic I seem, the easier it is to get them!”
The film, and the people it profiles, spend so much time responding to ideas of “normal” and “manly” without ever confronting what they mean. You’d think that, of any of us, these guys would be the ones to actually examine and question the concept of masculinity! Instead they accept it as given, as an ideal, and do what they can to live up to it. Granted, these are bros and not philosophers. But it’s still pretty fuckin’ shitty to be proud to share your tips on manipulating women into sleeping with you.
And Acting Like Jackasses
The DVD of the film included an episode of MTV’s Jackass where the murderball guys hung out with Johnny Knoxville and did, well, the dumb shit that is done on Jackass. Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, put it best in his review of the film: “The special episode of MTV’s Jackass with Johnny Knoxville basically shows that young men with disabilities can be just as stupid as young men without disabilities. With Murderball, the message that disabled males can be real men too is an important one, but the film does no questioning of this masculinity that the players aim to demonstrate, and the inclusion of the Jackass show on the DVD, as well as the players’ commentary, highlights the lack of critical stance towards what gets counted as normal.”
Dr. Sarah Caston, PT, DPT, NCS, GCS, an assistant professor in Emory University’s Division of Physical Therapy, wrote a really fantastic reaction to the film as someone who works with patients who have been through similar life-altering injuries. Honestly, you should go read the whole piece right now. But these grafs stuck out:
In conclusion: Murderball is great, it has problems, go watch it
I’ve got too many thoughts on this to shove onto the end of this already-long article. A robust assortment of academic articles exist out there critiquing aspects of this film, and they’re both fascinating and pretty damn on point.
- Lindemann, K., & Cherney, J. L. (2008). Communicating in and through “Murderball”: Masculinity and disability in wheelchair rugby. Western Journal of Communication, 72(2), 107–125. https://doi.org/10.1080/10570310802038382
- Michael Gard & Hayley Fitzgerald (2008) Tackling Murderball: Masculinity, Disability and the Big Screen, Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, 2:2, 126-141, DOI: 10.1080/17511320802222008
And there’s at least two full thesis that I have not read all of but look to have some really interesting ideas:
- Tollestrup, Benjamin Neal. “Challenging Normalcy? Masculinity and Disability in Murderball.” (2009). https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/thesescanada/vol2/OKQ/TC-OKQ-5150.pdf
- Kerley, Jessica, “Cripping the Memoir: Unraveling the Discourse Around Disabled Athletes’ Identities” (2014). Theses – ALL. 54. https://surface.syr.edu/thesis/54
Disabled people are just people, good and bad, personal and professional, competing or struggling, men, women, and everything in between. Just because some things are harder doesn’t give any of us a pass. I completely understand the impulse to want to be “normal guys.” But as you enjoy this fantastic film, ask yourself the question that these men never do: what “normal guy” actually means. And why.
All the visuals from the movie I use in this post are thumbnails that were released as part of the official press pack, though there’s no way to actually contact them anymore for actual permission / full quality images.