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In a previous post I argued that boxing isn’t really a sport: essentially because a boxing match is a fight, and sport is what we do instead of fighting.  I think this is important, because it informs some of the most important questions about boxing, namely:

  1. Should it be banned?
  2. Can it be made safer?
  3. If so, should it be?

Being repeatedly punched in the head over a period of years is not safe. Sugar Ray Robinson ended up with Alzheimer’s.  Joe Louis wound up suffering strokes and paranoid schizophrenia.  Muhammad Ali has Parkinson’s.  And they might be the three greatest fighters who ever lived.  In each individual case reasons are sometimes given to think that boxing was not to blame: Louis was a cocaine addict, and the afflictions of the others may have had genetic roots.  Perhaps.  But you don’t have to look far to find lots of other fighters who ended up with one or other variant of dementia pugilistica.  And of course many fighters have died in the ring, or suffered brain injuries that changed their lives for ever.

Point this out to a boxing enthusiast, especially one who makes his living from it, and he will usually come back with one or more of the following arguments.

ARGUMENT 1: The boxers are over 21; they know what they are letting themselves in for;  they aren’t hurting anyone but themselves; why can’t they do what the hell they like?

It is this argument – essentially John Stuart Mill’s hoary old “Harm Principle”, with which philosophy undergraduates are still menaced – which sometimes moves people to describe boxing as “the libertarian sport”.  And if you really are a libertarian, maybe you’ll accept it – though if you do, you should also recognize that this sort of argument can be used to “justify” any form of self-harm or risk-taking, including some we might not want our fellow citizens to get up to, such as recreational drug use, driving without a seatbelt, riding a motorcycle without a helmet, duelling and cycling down motorways.  But the reality is that boxing’s libertarianism only goes so far, and certainly does not extend to the extreme thesis that people never need protecting from themselves.  Some of boxing’s keenest advocates are also among the quickest (and loudest) to complain that someone should do something when they think fighters are past it and shouldn’t be licensed: and commissions often do take away a fighter’s licence if he isn’t capable of performing, for reasons of age or infirmity.  In some jurisdictions boxers have to have annual tests, often including brain scans, before their authorisation to fight is renewed.  This being so, we are essentially asking the medics to decide who can box and who can’t: and in that case, what happens if the medics say it isn’t safe for anyone?  Well, that’s exactly what some medics do say, including the British Medical Association, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and such eminent figures as John Hardy, chair of Molecular Biology of Neurological Disease at University College London’s Institute of Neurology.

ARGUMENT 2: If it was banned boxing would just go underground.  Keeping it legal is safer.

This is a practical sort of an argument rather than an ethical one, but I think it fails on both counts.  Increased safety is not a reason to sanction something under the law.  Lots of things that are illegal would probably be safer if they were legal, but they are still banned in lots of places, if not everywhere.  Slavery, for example, would doubtless be less dangerous if it were legalized, as would incest, cockfighting, dogfighting & bear-baiting, and (perhaps boxing’s closest relative) duelling.  And speaking practically, banning something doesn’t simply result in the activity continuing as before but “underground”.  While they may not have died out completely, all of these phenomena are now significantly less widespread following their banning (when was the last time you heard of someone fighting a duel?).

ARGUMENT 3: Kids learn lots of valuable things from boxing, like self-confidence, respect for themselves and others, the importance of physical fitness, and discipline.

There are lots of other ways of gaining self-confidence and self-respect that don’t involve stoving anyone’s face in (or their returning the favour).  What is more, you only have to look at a few retired fighters to see how fit, disciplined, respectful and confident they are.  Indeed, there is some evidence that their mid-life misbehaviour and the mental illness that often causes it might be linked to brain damage from a career in boxing.

ARGUMENT 4: Boxing is the only sport accessible to members of lower socioeconomic classes.  Banning it would hurt the poor.

There are three problems with this argument.  Firstly, it isn’t true.  East Africa has no facilities or money at all, and still produces Olympic distance runners; Jamaica barely has enough to buy steroids, and still produces essentially all the world’s great sprinters; absolutely every child in every slum in India and Pakistan plays cricket; and absolutely every child in every slum in South America plays soccer.  Secondly, it is obviously flawed, in that one could argue on the same basis for the legalization of mugging and drug dealing as the only “business opportunities” open to the poor.  Finally, even if the argument were valid, I suggest it should be regarded less as a defence of boxing than as an indictment of everything else.

ARGUMENT 5: Other sports are also dangerous, and many have higher injury rates, including such popular sports as NFL, motorsport, and wrestling.  But no one is calling for them to be banned.

One obvious response is that boxing is different, because it differs from NFL, etc., in that the aim is to injure one’s opponent so badly as to render him insensible.  Far from seeing this as an objection, many enthusiasts turn it into a virtue.  OK, they say, so boxers sometimes seriously injure each other.  It’s part of the sport, so get over it, you big girl’s blouse.  Stop trying to ruin it for us real men.  Take away the brain damage, and you take away the point.

There is another sport where people used to think along similar lines, namely, motorsport.  According to Formula 1’s official website, between 1965 and 1973, an F1 driver who raced for five years had a two-thirds chance of being killed in a crash.  It was, above all, three-time champion Jackie Stewart, whose career coincided exactly with this period, who demanded mandatory seat-belt usage, full face helmets, dedicated fire crews and medical facilities and modernization of tracks to include safety barriers and run-off areas.  For this, he was roundly abused by drivers and journalists, most notably by Denis Jenkinson, who described him as a “milk and water driver”.

Jenkinson was a dinosaur and an idiot.  Stewart won the argument so completely that F1 is now unthinkable without the safety measures he fought for, and plenty others besides.  F1 cars travel at up to 200mph: they flip over, catch fire, crash into one another and fly into barriers at all angles.  Yet via the use of modern technology drivers are well-protected from this infinite variety of possible and dramatic disasters.  It is almost twenty years since an F1 driver died in his car.  And it is hard to imagine anyone suggesting we should go back to the olden days.

(One particular example from boxing provides an interesting contrast.  In September 1991, eighteen years after Stewart retired, Chris Eubank knocked out Michael Watson at White Hart Lane, one of London’s biggest soccer stadiums.  Watson collapsed: but there was no ambulance or paramedic at the event, and no oxygen was available.  As a result, he spent a year in intensive care, during most of which he could neither speak nor hear, and six more years in a wheelchair.  Watson later sued the British Boxing Board of Control and won, meaning the BBBoC had to sell its HQ to pay compensation.  The point is not just that the BBBoC had failed to protect their fighter: more surprisingly, they had also failed to protect themselves, by taking out insurance.  This degree of negligence would be breathtaking in any sport: in one with the obvious dangers of boxing it can only be explained by complete and utter idiocy.)

Could boxing be made significantly safer, as F1 has?  Well, how about the following ideas for a start:

1.    Introduce pneumatic gloves.  Each glove would have a little reservoir with a valve that allows air to be blasted out and sucked in again immediately afterwards, so the glove deflates on impact and then reflates straight away for the next punch.
2.    Insist on protection for the head, the entire torso and forearms, as well as the usual crotch protector and mouthguard.
3.    Put accelerometers in the gloves and impact sensors in the body & head protectors.

I would be surprised if the impact of a punch could not be dramatically reduced using pneumatics, just as the impact of a car crash can be reduced by airbags.  And the ability to fit sensors into the protective gear might just solve another of boxing’s great problems, namely, that of scoring.  Points would be awarded for punches landed, according to accuracy (measured by the sensors in the body & head protectors) and, crucially, power (measured by the accelerometers in the gloves).

All of this is perfectly do-able.  Pneumatic gloves of the kind described are not a fantasy: indeed, a patent for something along these lines already exists[1].  Taekwondo fighters wear torso and forearm protectors with exactly the sort of sensor technology I suggest, and anyone who thinks this impairs their punching power or agility, or the quality of the fights, is encouraged to take it up with a taekwondo fighter.

One other point needs addressing.  Protection and pneumatic gloves may reduce the impact of a blow, but won’t protect against all damage.  In particular, they won’t prevent the whiplash effect of a firm punch, knocking a  boxer’s head back in that familiar and sickening way.  Well, let’s look again at F1.  No one suffers greater whiplash than a F1 driver in a crash.  That’s why the HANS (Head and Neck Support) device was developed: a sort of plastic collar that spreads the impact of a crash from the head and neck to the much stronger upper body muscles.  The F1 HANS device is designed to deal with the case where a car stops suddenly and the driver’s head keeps moving forward while his body halts or moves backwards, whereas of course a punch forces a boxer’s head backwards.  No problem: just turn the collar around.

Boxing has been changed many times on safety grounds.  Once upon a time fights lasted until one fighter was knocked down and couldn’t get up.  Fighters fought with bare knuckles.  Then came pre-fight medicals, referees, rounds, weight categories, gloves (with handwraps), mouthguards, the standing 8 count, and limiting fights to a maximum of 15 rounds, later reduced to 12.  Weigh-ins were moved to the day before the fight to avoid fighters competing in a drained or dehydrated state (though it is debatable whether or not this helps).  Sanctioning bodies now require the presence of doctors at ringside.  Fighters in certain jurisdictions, including the UK, New York & Nevada, must have an annual MRI scan to check for brain damage.

Don’t believe in my ideas for making boxing safe?  OK, here’s an alternative  approach that’s really hard to argue with: give it to Google.  Google have done some amazing things.  They have made the web manageable, made internet search pay, photographed every street in the world, and invented a car that can drive itself.  You think they couldn’t solve a little problem like making boxing safe?

The problem, I think, is this: effectively this would do to boxing what was done to duelling to turn it into fencing.  That is: you take a fight, and turn it into a sport.  Fencing isn’t duelling, and for the same reasons anything constructed along the lines of what is described above (with the protection and the sensors) isn’t boxing.  Argument 5 is right, at least in that the danger and the damage are intrinsic to boxing (and duelling) in a way they are not intrinsic to sports, even motorsport (this is why F1’s safety measures have not diminished it in any way).  However, uncomfortable as it may be for us fans, I think this means we have to concede that, firstly, because it isn’t a sport, boxing simply can’t be made safe.  And I think it also means that the arguments generally given in favour of continuing to permit it are pretty weak.