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Is Boxing Too Dangerous? Examining the International Push to Ban Boxing



Some see a boxing match and are disgusted by its violence, while others see the same boxing match and are marveled by the determination, style and grit of the boxers.  So begins the boxing debate.

Boxing can have fruitful and dramatic influences on one’s life.  Through boxing, countless individuals have obtained a living, physical fitness, and often fame and fortune.  Countless boxers throughout the sport’s history came from poverty. Without boxing, these individuals would not have earned the wealth and fame they acquired through boxing, nor would they go down in the history books as having been truly great at it. 

However, the movement to ban boxing has existed for quite some time. Countries such as Sweden, Norway and Czechoslovakia have already made professional boxing illegal[i].  Boxing joins MMA/cage fighting as an activity that many concerned folks would like to see banned worldwide.  Is boxing really dangerous enough to justify an all-out ban?  Let’s explore the arguments and counterarguments underlying this issue. 

 

BOXING’S CRITICS

With all the benefits and opportunities boxing provides to its athletes, why would one push for its abolition?  Doctor George D. Lundberg, boxing abolitionist, asserts that boxing is both medically and morally wrong [ii]

Boxing is wrong medically,” writes Dr. Lundberg [iii].  “Since it not only kills some participants, it inflicts objectively proven chronic brain damage in as many as 80% of fighters who have had a substantial number of fights.[iv]” 

It is wrong morally,” writes Dr. Lundberg.  “Because the intent of the sport is to harm the opponent in order to win.[v]

Problematically, these statements appear to lack any factual basis.  While Dr. Lundberg’s article contains three endnotes, none support these “statistics” and “facts.”

If the chronic brain damage about which Lundberg writes is objectively proven, then it cannot be “as many as 80%.”  “As many as 80%” is not an objective figure.

Further, this “statistic” only applies to fighters who have had “a substantial number of fights.”  Boxer and five-time Gene Tunney opponent Harry Greb fought 299 professional bouts [vi].  Mike Tyson fought 58 times as a professional [vii].  Meanwhile, other professional fighters box only once in their careers.  Lundberg gives absolutely no indication as to what nmber of contests he personally considers “substantial.”  

 

Moreover, Dr. Lundberg’s assertion that boxing is “morally wrong” because a boxer’s intent is to “harm the opponent” is fundamentally incorrect.  First of all, George Lundberg has no authority to unilaterally dictate to the rest of the world what is and is not moral.  Secondly, a boxer’s goal is not to harm another fighter any more than the goal of any competitor in any competition is to harm one’s opponent.  Nowhere in any sanctioning body does any boxing organization list “bringing harm one’s opponent” as part of its mission statement.  Boxing is a full-contact sport, but serious injuries in boxing are no different than injuries in any contact sport: unfortunate consequences. 

Dr. Lundberg claims to be a concerned physician.  However, his work shows more of a disdain for boxing than a genuine concern for any boxer’s health.  This theory was proven when Lundberg, in a 1984 editorial for the Journal of the American Medical Association, called for doctors to refuse to participate as ringside physicians [viii].  Nothing would be more detrimental to boxers’ health than for the medical community to listen to Lundberg’s advice. 

 

Dr. Mukesh Haikerwal, former president of the Australian Medical Association, wants boxing to be purged from the Olympic Games, alleging that boxing is not a sport because “the winner is determined either by delivering a greater number of blows to his opponent or by literally knocking his opponent senseless [ix].”

Dictionary.com defines the word “sport” as “an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature, as racing, baseball, tennis, golf, bowling, wrestling, boxing [emphasis added], hunting, fishing, etc. [x].” The dictionary specifically lists it as an example in its definition of “sport.”  

 

Haikerwal is correct in his assessment of how a winner is determined.  However, nothing about this description means that boxing is not a sport.  The winner is determined by how many blows are scored in fencing, karate, tae kwon do, and kickboxing. 

 

Haikerwal also categorizes boxing as a non-sport because one can win by knocking his opponent senseless [xi].  Surely the referee should not force the opponent who gets knocked senseless to continue. Moreover, if any athlete is unable to continue competition, in any sport, then he or she simply does not win. This is as true in boxing as it is in golf or long-distance running.  

 

Dr. Haikerwal also criticizes a boxing rule under which a boxer receives a foul if he or she intentionally turns his or her back, characterizing the rule as one that penalizes a boxer for avoiding serious injury.  However, this rule exists to protect boxers from serious injury, not to penalize them for avoiding it.

Amateur boxers wear a “no-foul” protector around the waist and headgear that protects the head and face.  Additionally, boxers train very hard to strengthen their stomach muscles to allow them to withstand body blows.  However, blows to the back can seriously injure a boxer.  Therefore, the rules of boxing do not award points for striking someone on the back and the rules provide penalties for any boxer who deliberately exposes his or her back. This rule exists for the safety of the fighters.

This assertion by Dr. Haikerwal exemplifies the problem with many boxing abolitionists: they simply know nothing about the sport of boxing, yet they claim to be experts. 

THE STUDIES

Dr. Michael Schwartz, clinical instructor in the Yale University Department of Medicine and President of the American Association of Professional Ringside Physicians, says that boxing is safer than football, auto racing, and horse racing [xii].  Multiple studies have supported this conclusion. 

 

R.J. McCunney and P.K. Russo published “Brain Injuries in Boxers” in The Physician and Sports Medicine and found that the sport of boxing suffers less deaths [10] per year than college football [11], Motorcycle Racing [77], SCUBA Diving [1,100], Mountaineering [308], Hang Gliding [169], Sport Parachuting [370], and Horse Racing [23] [xiii].   The British Medical Association claims that such statistics are misleading because less people engage in boxing than these listed sports [xiv].  However, this writer is unaware of any data indicating that there are more hang gliders and jockeys than boxers. 

 

The same study also calculated deaths per one thousand participants.  The results show that the sport of boxing suffers 0.13 deaths per thousand, compared with 0.3 in college football, 0.7 in Motorcycle Racing, 1.1 in SCUBA Diving, 5.1 in Mountaineering, 5.6 in Hang Gliding, 12.3 in Sport Parachuting, and 12.8 in Horse Racing.  This means that horse racing is nearly one hundred [100] times more deadly than boxing.

 

Pietro Tonino, director of sports medicine at Loyola University Health System, compiled data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission on injuries treated in emergency rooms [xv].  Here are the top fifteen athletic activities, followed by the number of emergency room visits resulting from the activity: 1) Basketball, 512,213. 2) Bicycling, 485,669.  3) Football, 418,260.  4) Soccer, 174,686.  5) Baseball, 155,898. 6) Skateboarding, 112,544.  7) Trampolines, 108,029.  8) Softball, 106,884.  9) Swimming/Diving, 82,354.  10) Horseback Riding, 73,576.  11) Weightlifting, 65,716.  12) Volleyball, 52,091.  13) Golf, 47,360.  14) Roller-skating, 35,003.  15) Wrestling, 33,734 [xvi]. Notably, boxing is not on this list.

 

David Ball of Middlesex University conducted a study in Great Britain, a country rich in boxing [xvii].  The study calculated the sports that had the highest yearly rate of fatalities [xviii].  Once again, boxing is nowhere to be found on the list of the most dangerous sports, which includes swimming, motor sports, horseback riding, mountain climbing, air sports, and “other water sports [xix].”

 

Forbes magazine similarly published the results of a study aimed at determining the most dangerous sports [xx].  According to the study, basketball, football, and cycling reported the highest numbers of sports-related injuries [xxi]

 

Empirical evidence shows that boxing is not the most dangerous sport.  In fact, empirical evidence shows that it is nowhere near the top in any list of dangerous sports.  Boxing causes fewer injuries per year and fewer fatalities per year than many other sports.  Moreover, boxing’s fatality rate is less per competitor than motor sports, water sports, horseback riding and others. 

 

Cheerleading, like boxing, can leave participants with serious, sometimes fatal, injuries.  However, there appears to be no international campaign to ban cheerleading outright. Converesly, many proposed restrictions are aimed at chastity more than safety.

In Texas, lawmakers have approved legislation banning cheerleading that is sexually suggestive [xxii].  Meanwhile, the Pacific Ten [PAC 10] Conference Committee and the National Administration of Cheer Coaches and Administrators placed limitations on the types of stunts that their college cheerleaders may display [xxiii].  In Ohio, cheerleaders faced a potential ban on short skirts [xxiv].  However, no committee or legislation has proposed an all-out ban on cheerleading comparable to such proposals that have been directed toward boxing. 

 

If boxers have comparatively low fatality and injury rates, then one must wonder why some folks are so adamant that it is barbaric and dangerous and that it should be criminalized.  The only other argument submitted by boxing’s critics is that a lifetime of boxing can have a negative cumulative effect on the boxer’s physical and mental health. 

The British Medical Association asserts that boxing’s comparatively low rate of injuries does nothing to discredit their assertion that the sport should be banned [xxv].  The Association submits that a boxer’s risk of long-term chronic brain injury is of primary interest as opposed to those injuries that hospitalize or kill athletes immediately in other sports [xxvi]

 

Most, if not all, contact sports can have a negative cumulative effect on an athlete.  Running marathons, for example, can put undue strain on an individual’s body.  The same can be said about football, basketball, and baseball.  Adults all over the world have trouble sitting or standing for long periods of time because of knees and hips that have been abused by years of sports competition. 

Eating empty carbohydrates and fried foods, coupled with a sedentary lifestyle, leads to obesity, heart complications, and death.  According to the U.S. Surgeon General, obesity is responsible for 300,000 deaths every year [xxvii].  In the United States, 3.8 million people weigh over 300 pounds, and over 400,000 people weigh over 400 pounds [xxviii].  Having boxed, judged boxing competitions, and attended countless numbers of boxing events, this author can assure the public that nobody following a boxer’s workout and a boxer’s diet will have to worry about suffering from obesity.  Nonetheless, the movement to criminalize boxing is stronger than the movement to criminalize fatty foods and slothfulness.

 

Dr. Richard Butler published a study of boxing’s effect on cognitive functioning [xxix].  Dr. Butler, in reviewing past studies, noticed that very few studies of neurological and neuropsychological functioning in boxers have been conducted correctly [xxx].  Butler found that most reports are anecdotal, and others survey groups of boxers with suspected neurological dysfunctions [xxxi].  These studies do not provide a control group for comparison, do not make any distinction between amateur and professional boxing, and tend to study past participants, thus neglecting to consider present safety precautions in the sport that did not exist when the subjects boxed (such as the elimination of the 15-round fight) [xxxii]

 

Before conducting the study, Dr. Butler reviewed past studies on boxers [xxxiii].  Prior tests that had been conducted tended to show some memory dysfunction amongst professional boxers [xxxiv].  These dysfunctions correlate with the number of knockouts, length of a fighter’s career, and heavier weight categories (all being factors that increase the chances of memory dysfunction) [xxxv]

 

Dr. Butler assessed eighty-six amateur boxers on three different occasions: prebout, shortly after a bout, and then a follow-up within two years after the bout [xxxvi].  Dr. Butler created two control groups consisting of forty-seven rugby players and thirty-one water polo players [xxxvii].  The doctor then performed tests on the subjects designed to be sensitive to subtle cognitive dysfunction [xxxviii]

 

No evidence of neuropsychological dysfunction due to boxing was found, either immediately following a bout or in a follow-up to a series of bouts [xxxix].  Additionally, no correlation was found between changes in cognitive functioning and the number of fights, number of head blows, and number of bouts between initial assessment and follow-up [xl].    

 

Max Hietala, M.D. of Goteborg, Sweden conducted a study measuring biochemical markers for brain injury in the cerebrospinal fluid of fourteen amateur boxers and comparing these measurements to those of ten non-athletes [xli].  One of the chemicals the doctors tested for is neurofilament light [NFL].  NFL can be indicative of brain injury [xlii].  The study found NFL levels in amateur boxers four times higher in boxers after a fight than in non-athletes [xliii].  However, these levels returned to normal after taking a three-month rest from boxing [xliv]

 

Mark Porter M.D. published a nine-year study on amateur fighters in Ireland without a control group.  This study set out to test the hypothesis that there is an association between amateur boxing and chronic traumatic encephalopathy [CTE], better known as “Punch-Drunk Syndrome.”

In the study, published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, Dr. Porter tested twenty randomly-selected amateur boxers during a nine-year span by using multiple neuropsychological tests.  The study concluded that there was no evidence of neuropsychological deterioration over a nine-year span amongst amateur boxers [xlv]

 

CONCLUSION

Some people like to fight and others like to watch people fight.  P.T. Barnum famously said “If you want a crowd, start a fight!”  Fighting will always exist and a ban on boxing will never stop people from fighting.  Boxing is a sport with sanctioning bodies, specific regulations and structure.  A ban on boxing is not a ban on fighting. Rather, it is a means to eliminate the regulations and safety precautions underlying a sanctioned boxing match.  Such a ban would do great harm with no benefit. 

There is no evidence supporting a ban on boxing.  Studies are conflicting, and more research must be conducted before the boxing community will know the best ways to protect its athletes.  However, studies clearly show that boxing is nowhere near being the most dangerous sport in terms of fatalities or injuries.  

 

Boxing abolitionists and critics often refer to boxing as cruel and barbaric and a look into the sport’s history can reveal instances of cruelty and barbarism.  However, such instances of cruelty and barbarism have traditionally been a result of the cruelty and barbarism of people, not of the sport. Boxing itself is a series of regulations that can be credited for eliminating cruelty, not blamed for creating it. 

Jack Johnson, the subject of Ken Burns’ documentary Unforgiveable Blackness, had a difficult time getting credible fights lined up because of his race [xlvi].  When he eventually did get an opportunity, he shocked the world by becoming the World Heavyweight Champion and defeating all challengers [xlvii].  In becoming champion, Johnson stood up to a racist world and asserted his greatness.  Out of strength and opportunity, Johnson made sports history. He also made a great deal of wealth and created opportunities for black athletes for generations to come.  Additionally, Jack Johnson is an inspiration to people who feel like their world has the cards stacked against them. 

 

However, during his path to greatness, Johnson had to fight in underground matches [xlviii].  Some of these matches were known as Battle Royals [xlix].  During such bootleg bouts, six to eight fighters were put in a ring together and the last man standing was declared the winner [l].  The fighters were all blindfolded [li].  The fighters were all black [lii].

 

Battle Royals are an example of what boxing can turn into in a world without rules, such as the world of underground boxing that would house all fights should boxing be criminalized.  Battle Royals are barbaric and cruel.  Abolishing boxing could result in a resurrection of old underground boxing circuits, often dirty and usually lacking in appropriate medical personnel.  

Boxing’s critics often look at an old boxer like Muhammad Ali or the fictional Rocky Balboa and assume that boxing must necessarily cause brain damage.  However, this conclusion is anecdotal, and it is dismantled by a close observation of the sport and its “survivors.”  Browsing the following list of people who have engaged in the sweet science of boxing will cast doubt in the minds of anybody who believes that a history of boxing equates necessary brain damage:

-          Nelson Mandela [liii], Former President of South Africa

-          Ernest Hemingway [liv], Author

-          Albert Camus [lv], French author, journalist and philosopher

-          President Theodore Roosevelt [lvi]

-          Quentin Tarantino [lvii], Director

-          Bob Dylan [lviii], Singer/Songwriter

-          Frank Sinatra [lix], Singer

-          Tony Danza [lx], Actor

-          John McCain [lxi], Senator and 2008 Presidential Candidate

-          F. Scott Fitzgerald [lxii], Author

-          Woody Allen [lxiii], Director, Actor, Comic

-          Billy Joel [lxiv], Musician

-          Mickey Rourke [lxv], Actor

 

Some people listen to jazz music and hear jumbled, senseless noise.  Others look at modern art and see nonsense.  Some folks sample a fine Bordeaux and taste spoiled grape juice.  Likewise, boxing abolitionists watch a boxing match and see needless cruelty and brutality.  However, fans of jazz music and modern art hear and see great displays of talent, while wine connoisseurs taste the craftsmanship that goes into producing a fine Bordeaux.  Similarly, boxing fans worldwide see something that abolitionists do not: a sweet science. 

FOLLOW BILL BARNER ON TWITTER @BarnerBill

Bill Barner is a former certified “USA Boxing” Judge, Referee, and Trainer. He is a former sparring partner for several amateur and professional fighters and currently practices criminal and immigration law in South Florida for BarnerRossen PA. He has appeared in Bleacher Report, VOICE Magazine, Youngstown Vindicator, and is a regular contributor to East Side Boxing. He can be reached at barner@barnerrossen.com or on twitter @BarnerBill.

 

[i] Butler, Richard et al. “A Prospective Controlled Investigation of the Cognitive Effects of Amateur Boxing.”  Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry.  29 January 1993. 

[ii] Lundberg, George M.D. “Boxing Should Be Banned in Civilized Countries.” Medscape General Medicine.  22 July, 2005.  Available: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/507180

[iii] Id.

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[v] Id.

[vi] Sugar, Bert Randolph.  Boxing’s Greatest Fighters.  U.S.: Lyons Press: 2006. 

[vii] BoxRec: Mike Tyson.  Available: http://www.boxrec.com/list_bouts.php?human_id=474&cat=boxer

[viii] Adams, Jim. “Push for Ban on Boxing is Still Hotly Debated.” Courier-Journal.  4 May, 2007.  Available:http://www.courier-journal.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2007105040008

[ix] “Boxing Should be Banned from Next Games, Australian Medical Association.”  Medical News Today. 10 April, 2006.  Available: www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/41288.php

[x] “Sport.” Dictionary.com.  Available: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/sport

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[xiii] Id.

[xiv] “The Boxing Debate.” British Medical Association.  June, 1993.

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[xvi] Id.

[xvii] Hobbes, Nicholas.  A Look at Our ost Dangerous Sports.  Times Online.  10 May, 2009.  Available:http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/more_sport/article6250441.ece

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[xxii] “Texas Lawmakers OK Bill to Ban Suggestive Cheerleading.”  USA Today. 4 May 2005. Available:http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2005-05-04-cheerleading-bill_x.htm  

[xxiii] Hackman, Tarah. “UA Cheerleaders Unhappy with PAC-10 Ban on Stunts.” Daily Wildcat. 18 September, 2006. Available:http://media.wildcat.arizona.edu/media/storage/paper997/news/2006/09/18/News/Ua.Cheerleaders.Unhappy.With.Pac10.Ban.On.Stunts-2282351.shtml

[xxiv] Cheplic, Michele.  “Parents in Ohio Irate About Ban on Cheerleaders’ Short Skirts.”  Families.com.  10 September 2008.  Available: http://parenting.families.com/blog/parents-in-ohio-irate-about-ban-on-cheerleaders-short-skirts

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[xxvi] Id.

[xxvii] “The Latest Statistics on America’s Obesity Epidemic.” American Sports Data Inc. 2006.  Available:http://www.americansportsdata.com/obesitystats.asp

[xxviii] Id.

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[xxx] Id.

[xxxi] Id.

[xxxii] Id.

[xxxiii] Id.

[xxxiv] Id.

[xxxv] Id.

[xxxvi] Id.

[xxxvii] Id.

[xxxviii] Id.

[xxxix] Id.

[xl] Id.

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[xliv] Id.

[xlv] Porter, Mark MD, “A 9-Year Controlled Prospective Neuropsychological Assessment of Amateur Boxing.” Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine: November 2003 – Volume 13 – Issue 6 – pp 339-352. 

[xlvi] [xlvi] Sugar, Bert Randolph.  Boxing’s Greatest Fighters.  U.S.: Lyons Press: 2006. 

 

[xlvii] Id.

[xlviii] Id.

[xlix] Id.

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[li] Id.

[lii] Id.

[liii] Mandela, Nelson.  Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela.  Back Bay Books.  1995.

 

[liv] Liebling, A.J. The Sweet Science.  North Point Press.  New York.  1956. 

[lv] Id.

[lvi] “Theodore Roosevelt.” Encyclopedia Encarta.  2009.  Available:http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761558578/Theodore_Roosevelt.html

[lvii] “Quentin Tarantino Recalls Boxing with Bob Dylan.  Starpulse.  26 March 2007.  Available:http://www.starpulse.com/news/index.php/2007/03/26/quentin_tarantino_recalls_boxing_with_bo

[lviii] Id.

[lix] Welsh, Jack.  “Boxing’s Loss Too.”  Boxing Monthly.  July 1998. 

[lx] “Tony Danza.” BoxRec.  Available: http://www.boxrec.com/list_bouts.php?human_id=028927&cat=boxer

[lxi] Amol, Sharma.  “McCain Champions Boxing Regulations in Lonely Fight.” Wall Street Journal.  16 October 2008.  Available: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122418182528041339.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

[lxii] Boon, Kevin.  F. Scott Fitzgerald. Marshall Cavendish.  2005.  Pp 35.

[lxiii] “Woody Allen: Rabbit Running.” Time.  3 July 1972.  Available:http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,877848-2,00.html

[lxiv] “The Boxer.” BillyJoel.com 2009. Available: http://www.billyjoel.com/photos/the-boxer

[lxv] “Mickey Rourke.” BoxRec.  2009.  Available: http://www.boxrec.com/list_bouts.php?human_id=029155&cat=boxer