Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2006, Volume 26, No. 2
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Murderball, 2005. THINKFlim and MTV Films, in association with A & E Indie Films. Directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, based on the article by David Adam Shapiro. Starring Mark Zupan, Joe Soares, and Keith Cavill. DVD released November 29, 2005.

Reviewed by Kurt Lindemann, Arizona State University

Quadriplegic rugby players have a saying about their sport: it "smashes stereotypes." This attitude is certainly prevalent throughout the Oscar-nominated documentary Murderball, which follows the lives of several quad rugby players on their quest for Paralympic gold. Created in the 1970s, quad rugby was initially called Murderball and was intended to give people with quadriplegia an alternative recreational outlet to wheelchair basketball (United States Quad Rugby Association, 2005). While the film focuses predominantly on the action on the rugby court, in which quads strapped into chariot-like wheelchairs continually get knocked over, it also offers a surprisingly thoughtful depiction of the inner lives of the athletes and the ways they navigate disability in a predominantly able-bodied world.

The film delves into the lives of several U.S. and Canadian athletes and coaches. Joe Soares, a former U.S. player who was cut from the team but who coached the Canadian team at the time the film was made, and Mark Zupan, tattooed and with a shaved head, share a fierce rivalry and obvious dislike of each other. Far from being just another sports movie, however, the filmmakers explore players' lives off the court. In fact, two of the most compelling storylines are Zupan's struggle to reconcile with his high school friend whose drunk driving caused his injury and Soares' struggle, prompted by a heart attack halfway through the film, to make room in his life for his non-athletic son.

The other major storyline in the film centers on Keith Cavill, injured while racing motorcycles. Cavill's journey to quad rugby is chronicled unflinchingly. We are a "fly on the wall" as, under the anticipatory gaze of his mother and girlfriend, Cavill breaks down, screaming "This sucks." We also share a difficult yet quiet moment with Keith as his father takes out of the garage the motorcycle on which he was injured.

In fact, the most interesting scenes from the film are the quietest. Andy Cohn, a young player, talks candidly about the joy and relief he felt after having sexual intercourse for the first time as a disabled man. Bob Lujano, who lost his arms and legs after contracting a rare form of meningitis as a child, talks about his dreams of flying through the air with full use of his arms and legs. The music and animation accompanying Lujano's story offer a poignant tableau of loss and hope. These scenes illustrate the message of the film: With courage, hope, and strength, one can overcome the obstacles in one's life.

Unfortunately, this message collapses under the weight of critical scrutiny. Most of the scenes and interviews reveal players enacting a discourse of hegemonic masculinity, one that emulates traditionally able-bodied conceptions of sexuality and ability. The filmmakers spend a good deal of time delving into sexuality and disability, mocking the tapes shown to the newly injured in rehab (this is especially true in the commentary offered in the DVD) and capitalizing on able-bodied women's curiosity about whether "it" works. Scott Hogsett, perhaps the most charismatic player in the film, claims that he'd "rather be able to grab [his] meat than grab a toothbrush." The scenes addressing sexuality and disability amount to little more than a celebration of the fact that male quads can indeed get erections and have "normal" intercourse with women.

The filmmakers valorize the hard-charging play in quad rugby, making sure we understand the sport is played without a helmet or pads; Zupan explains that this may just be due to the "macho man thing." The filmmakers also go to great lengths to show us that these players are not only not frail but "tougher" than the average able-bodied male. An interview with Zupan exemplifies this attitude: "I've gone up to people and started talking shit, and they'll go 'Oh, oh, oh.' And I'll say, 'What, you're not going to hit a kid in a chair? Fucking hit me, I'll hit you back.'" The extra features on the DVD, including an episode of MTV's Jackass, featuring several players from the film in cattle prod jousting matches and jumping their wheelchairs into a swimming pool, further illustrate that quad rugby is as much (hyper-masculine) attitude as it is athletic skill.

Murderball positions quad rugby athletes' skill and attitude similar to those of able-bodied rugby or football players. Such positioning, however, does not negate the argument that these behaviors privilege the body as an utilitarian tool considered invulnerable until it fails and breaks down (Messner, 1992). This perspective can have dire consequences for males who suffer spinal cord injury, as disabled males may find themselves enacting a "heroic masculinity" in the rehabilitation process that requires even more risk and denial of the vulnerability of the body (Hutchinson & Kleiber, 2000). Ultimately, though, Murderball succeeds, not because it presents triumph over obstacles but because it raises critical questions for disability scholars.


Hutchinson, S. L., & Kleiber, D. A. (2000). Heroic masculinity following spinal cord injury: Implications for therapeutic recreation practice and research. Therapeutic Recreation Journal, 34, 42-54.

Messner, M. A. (1992). Power at Play: Sports and the Problem of Masculinity. Boston: Beacon Press.

United States Quad Rugby Association. (2005). Quad rugby: What is it all about? Retrieved May 17, 2005, from http://www.quadrugby.com/qr-brief.htm

Copyright (c) 2006 Kurt Lindemann

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