Boxing: a legal form of attempted murder?

“I don’t think there’s anyone to blame here other than the circumstances. He’s a victim of his own courage.”
Boxing promoter Lou DiBella, commenting on the death of boxer Leavander Johnson. Johnson died due to injuries sustained in a professional boxing match.
A Jesuit publication, Civilta Cattolica, has created a stir this week by condemning the sport of boxing as “merciless and inhuman”, a “legalized form of attempted murder.” Yesterday’s Ottawa Citizen reports:

Editorials in the 156-year-old Civilta Cattolica are cleared in advance by the Vatican secretariat of state and are believed to reflect the Pope’s official views. The article, titled “The Immorality of Professional Boxing,” appears today [Saturday].

The editorial cites the deaths of hundreds of boxers in the past century, including Leavander Johnson, who died last month after a Las Vegas fight. …

Boxing “violates the natural and divine moral perception against killing,” but commercial forces are too strong to call for a legal ban on the sport, the editorial says.

Johnson, who was 35 years old, was the champion in the lightweight division of the International Boxing Federation. He was also the father of four children. He died after a fight with Jesus Chavez.

The Johnson-Chavez fight was stopped by referee Tony Weeks in the 11th round but Johnson then collapsed outside his dressing room. ABC news reports:

Margaret Goodman, chairwoman of the Nevada medical advisory board to the state boxing commission, said the tragedy would be examined urgently.

“The commission is going to sit down and look at everything again and again and again,” she said. “We really need to look at what can be done in the future.”

Goodman was the ringside physician on Saturday and entered the ring at the end of the 10th round to check Johnson’s condition. She said she saw no sign that he should not be allowed to continue.

“Something is wrong,” she said. “I don’t know what it is and I don’t know what needs to be changed but we need to re-evaluate the entire way we approach the testing and treatment of boxers. These kids trust their lives to us and we are failing them.”

According to About.com, “Johnson was the fourth fighter this year to suffer a serious brain injury in a boxing match in Las Vegas and the second to die from his injuries. Martin Sanchez died on July 2, a day after being knocked out by Rustam Nugaev.”

The raw data are certainly startling:

An editorial in The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Washington, after the [Johnson-Chavez] fight said nearly 900 boxers had died as a result of injuries in the ring since 1920.

“It is time to halt that tabulation,” the newspaper said. “It is time to ban boxing, a sport in which death is the predictable outcome of athletic proficiency … it is surprising that more boxers don’t die.

“Even among prizefighters who walk away, the American Association of Neurological Surgeons estimates 15-40 percent of ex-boxers have some form of chronic brain injury and most professional fighters — whether they have apparent symptoms or not — have some degree of brain damage.”

In light of the above stats, it’s hard to make a case in favour of professional boxing. But if you doubt that boxing is a legitimate sport, just watch a highlight reel from the career of Muhammad Ali. The man was the very picture of athletic grace, even as his career was in decline.

What do you think? Is the Vatican right — should boxing be banned?

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22 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. aaron
    Oct 16, 2005 @ 17:44:00

    I don’t know that much about the sport, but I do know that in the Olympics, boxers wear headgear. Is the headgear adequate to prevent the fatalities and brain damage that people are worried about? How many fatalities have occurred to boxers who wear headgear? Seems to me that before people advocate banning the sport altogether, they should at least take a look at ways to make it safer, i.e., look at less drastic alternatives.

    Reply

  2. CyberKitten
    Oct 16, 2005 @ 17:59:00

    I always found the very idea of boxing strange – and that people defend it even stranger.

    Here we have a ‘contest’ where two grown men (and now increasingly women) beat the crap out of each other in public for money.

    Quite simply the so-called ‘sport’ is barbaric & should be stopped immediately. Would any civilised world allow such exhibitions to take place?

    I think not.

    Reply

  3. Q
    Oct 16, 2005 @ 18:06:00

    Cyberkitten:
    Since you mention women’s boxing, note the last sentence of the Citizen article:

    Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee is considering a petition to include women’s boxing in the 2008 Games.

    Man, you two were quick to comment! I had a little glitch with blogger and Aaron had already commented before I was able to clean it up.
    Q

    Reply

  4. aaron
    Oct 16, 2005 @ 20:33:00

    Cyberkitten — I don’t really think highly of boxing, but as I posted before, I’m disinclined to ban it if there’s another option. Even if there is no other option, I’m still not sure I want to ban it. At what point do we prohibit individuals from assuming the risk for activities they voluntarily undertake? In general, I want that point to be an extremely high threshhold — I suppose my liberalism has a streak of libertarianism.

    That being said, my take on assumption of risk requires the risk-taker to bear the full risk. In other words, I don’t really have a problem with letting a motorcyclist go helmetless, but I don’t want to use tax dollars on medical expenses (or caring for a veritable vegetable) when a head trauma could have been avoided had s/he worn a helmet. If s/he can get insured for going helmetless, more power to her/him.

    As for your point that the sport is barbaric, I agree with it completely. But enough people disagree with us (or don’t let agreeing with us stop them) to support the sport. When the idea of it being barbaric is universally accepted, the sport will cease to be without anyone banning it.

    Q — My first visit to your blog today was three minutes after you made your post — extremely coincidental. You have to believe me that I don’t click refresh on your site every three minutes in the hope that you’ve posted a new thread. If you don’t, I have grave concerns over the future of your ego. 😉

    Reply

  5. Mrs.Aginoth
    Oct 17, 2005 @ 04:37:00

    Boxing is barbaric in every way in my opinion. Not only are we paying people to beat each other senseless, but by calling it a sport, we are encouraging children to believe this is a good way to behave!

    On top of that, it’s well known that boxers come from some of the most deprived areas in the most affluent countries. It’s sold as “a way out” of poverty, as long as you’re willing to damage yourself for the gratification of the rich – I believe we condemn the idea of galditorial games nowadays, but Boxing is exactly the same.

    Aaron – Amateur boxers wear head gear, and are scored by judges for technique etc. It is less likely to cause severe injury/death, especially as the idea is not to knock out your opponant, but to score points. Also the matches are of a fixed duration. Howver, any sharp movement of the head will “kill” brain cells. If you repeatedly bang you head for more than 20mins or so the body will not replace all of those dead cells. If you do it regularly over a period of time, its fairly certain you will suffer brain damage to some extent (this applies to head-banging at rock concerts too).

    Reply

  6. Aginoth
    Oct 17, 2005 @ 05:30:00

    I have never liked boxing, and I hope that one day it is banned.

    Taking British law as a starting point it is no defence in court to state a assaultee volunteered to be assaulted in The UK. Several S and M clubs have fallen foul of this in the past, so how come an exception is made for this so called sport where the persons involved volunteer to be assaulted?

    The sport is totally barbaric; I can think of no other sport (including most of the martuial arts) where the participants sole aim is to render their opponent unconscious and cause them Brain Damage.

    It should be banned

    Reply

  7. CyberKitten
    Oct 17, 2005 @ 07:20:00

    Aaron said: I suppose my liberalism has a streak of libertarianism.

    Mine too – and yet we are talking here about protecting people (even from themselves). There were those in this country who were against banning of cruel sports from bear baiting to fox hunting. Is that any reason to continue allowing them?

    As Mrs A said, boxers often come from deprived areas where their ‘sport’ is seen as a way out. Is this any justification for its continuence?

    It may be their ‘choice’ to fight for money – but is it the right thing to do? Is paying people for public displays of violence (however controlled it is) giving the right signals to our society? Do we really want public violence to be applauded – especially when we tell our children that violence doesn’t solve problems..

    Reply

  8. craziequeen
    Oct 17, 2005 @ 07:23:00

    One of the people I would like to pose this question to is Michael Watson :

    Little did Michael Watson know that when he stepped into the ring on 21 September 1991 to fight Chris Eubank for the World Boxing Organisation Super Middleweight title, it was a fight that would nearly cost him his life.

    Ten years on, Fighting Back – The Michael Watson Story, tells of his remarkable recovery from the brink of death and features his first public meeting with Eubank.

    He should not have made any recovery according to all of the medical experts

    Boxing writer Steve Bunce
    The programme includes interviews with Michael, Chris Eubank, Michael’s friends and family, the surgeon Peter Hamlyn and referee Roy Francis, who talks about the fight for the first time.

    Boxing journalist Steve Bunce, who was ringside at White Hart Lane on the night, says: “This is a guy who should be dead.

    “He is the boxer who came back from the dead that remains an absolute established medical fact.

    “He should not have made any recovery according to all of the medical experts that have peered inside his head.”

    Michael fought Eubank twice. In the first fight, the judges controversially awarded the fight to Eubank, even though commentators considered Michael the clear winner.

    Uppercut

    In the rematch that followed, Michael was less than four minutes away from taking the world title after knocking his opponent down in the 11th round.

    But when Eubank rose, with just 20 seconds of the round remaining, he caught Michael with an uppercut.

    Watson fell, caught his head on the ropes and was eventually left with severe brain damage.

    Michael was allowed to come out for the final round before referee Francis stopped the bout with the stricken fighter against the ropes taking further punishment.

    That meant it was more than 30 minutes after the fight ended that he received oxygen and some two hours before he was wheeled into an operating theatre.

    He subsequently claimed that the British Boxing Board of Control was liable for the brain damage he suffered and in December 2000 won the ensuing court case.

    cq

    Reply

  9. Q
    Oct 17, 2005 @ 09:04:00

    • Aaron:
    You’re not checking my blog every three minutes for a new post?! I’m crushed!

    • All:
    Coincidentally, today’s Globe and Mail has a story entitled, “Man dies at Toronto Marathon’s finish line”:

    “He made it right to the end, crossed the finish line and collapsed,” police Staff Sergeant John Boyce said. …

    Race director Jay Glassman said medical staff were on the scene and treated the man immediately.

    “They basically caught him as he collapsed,” Mr. Glassman said. “We responded within seconds, and the team did what they could.” Mr. Glassman said the man arrived at Mount Sinai [hospital] within 20 minutes.

    It is the second time in as many years that a man has died during the race. Last year, Scott Labron, 42, of Guelph, Ont., died while running the half-marathon.

    “When stuff like this happens, it’s hard.” Mr. Glassman said. “It’s still statistically very rare that someone will die at an event like this, but it’s happened at every major marathon. … There’s really nothing you can do about it.”

    There is an inherent element of risk to most sports. A surprising number of “ordinary Joe” Canadians die playing pick-up hockey, to give another example. But we don’t think of banning such activities.

    But I agree that boxing is in a different category. Aginoth says it well, I can think of no other sport (including most of the martuial arts) where the participants sole aim is to render their opponent unconscious.

    That’s why I like Aaron’s suggestion of making headgear mandatory. What we need to do is to encourage the athletic component of boxing. Headgear would do that, because it would be much harder to knock your opponent senseless. You’d have to change tactics, and aim to win by scoring points — like in fencing.

    It would also discourage the worst sort of fans. Those who just want to see someone’s face beaten to a pulp would quickly lose interest if the sport became more about technique and less deadly.

    The is a certain grace and beauty to boxing at its best, when practiced by fighters like Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard. But the current format allows thugs like Mike Tyson to rise to the top.
    Q

    Reply

  10. aaron
    Oct 17, 2005 @ 09:50:00

    mrs. aginoth said:

    it’s well known that boxers come from some of the most deprived areas in the most affluent countries. It’s sold as “a way out” of poverty, as long as you’re willing to damage yourself for the gratification of the rich – I believe we condemn the idea of galditorial games nowadays, but Boxing is exactly the same.

    You’ve almost perfectly described the military — on average soldiers come from some of the most deprived families, and enlisting is sold as a “way out” of poverty, as long as you’re willing to risk damage to yourself (as to whether it’s for the gratification of the rich, I guess that’s back to the earlier thread on whether the invasion of Iraq was for oil/to help Halliburton and other Bush cronies). Of course, I’m all in favor of banning war, so I guess maybe you’ve found a contradiction in my thinking.

    Cyberkitten said:

    [W]e are talking here about protecting people (even from themselves). There were those in this country who were against banning of cruel sports from bear baiting to fox hunting. Is that any reason to continue allowing them?

    These examples have to do with cruelty to animals, and have nothing to do with assumption of risk — the animals were not able to consent to participating.

    Reply

  11. CyberKitten
    Oct 17, 2005 @ 10:38:00

    Aaron said: These examples have to do with cruelty to animals, and have nothing to do with assumption of risk — the animals were not able to consent to participating.

    Indeed – maybe they were bad examples to bring to this dialogue.

    However, just how much consent does a young and poor boxer bring to the argument. His/her only ‘skill’ may be expressed in the ring and the alternative might be a life in poverty and dead-end jobs. Do fighters truely consent? That’s a good question.

    Also as Aginoth said: it is no defence in court to state a assaultee volunteered to be assaulted.

    That’s a very good point. Even if free consent was possible (which I kinda doubt) is it ethical to accept this as a reason for continuing boxing or any other dangerous activity?

    Reply

  12. Q
    Oct 17, 2005 @ 10:59:00

    On Aginoth’s legal point — it’s always difficult to extrapolate from a precedent which pertains in one fact situation (e.g. S&M activities) to a very different fact situation (here, boxing).

    Boxers are professional athletes. They have been trained to punch, but also to avoid or block punches. The two competitors are assumed to have a more-or-less equal level of ability. And there are officials on site, both the referee and medical doctors, who are supposed to ensure that the fight is stopped when a fighter has absorbed a certain level of punishment.

    That’s the fact situation that a court would take into account. How the court would apply the S&M precedent to a boxing case, I wouldn’t presume to predict.

    Craziequeen’s example, however, is directly pertinent. Michael Watson
    subsequently claimed that the British Boxing Board of Control was liable for the brain damage he suffered and in December 2000 won the ensuing court case.

    You’d have to look at the reason the court decided in Watson’s favour. Maybe the medical support was incompetent, for example, a legal principle which would not likely carry over to other boxing matches.

    Maybe the judge spoke to Aginoth’s point, that one cannot volunteer to be assaulted. But if so, I think the ruling would have made it impossible to hold any more boxing matches in Britain. If boxing is still legal there, the reason for the decision must have been relatively narrow.

    I must say, this has turned out to be a more interesting discussion than I anticipated when I published the post.
    Q

    Reply

  13. Mrs.Aginoth
    Oct 17, 2005 @ 13:42:00

    Aaron – can you name a single boxer who started life in a affluent, iddle/upper class home? I can’t, but I know of many thousends of very wealthy, well educated & intelligent people who enter the military. In fact much of the military is impossible to get into without good qualifications & preferably a title

    Reply

  14. aaron
    Oct 17, 2005 @ 14:44:00

    mrs. aginoth: I don’t know much about the British military, so I will defer to your knowledge of such. In the U.S., what you describe are the officers, and yes, they generally come from a better background. What I was attempting to refer to is the infantry, i.e., the soldiers on the front lines and the ones most likely to suffer casualties — they are the ones recruited in the poor public schools by recruiters offering a “way out.” While some of the infantry does come from middle and upper classes, they are unquestionably the exception.

    As for boxers not trying to escape poverty, I don’t know enough about the sport to name many boxers, let alone know their background. I do know that there have been a few children of successful boxers who have gone on to compete in the sport their fathers participated in. See http://www.ringsidereport.com/Tremble272005.htm. For example, Cory Spinks, son of former heavyweight champion Leon and nephew of former heavyweight and light heavyweight champion Michael — I would guess the success of the earlier generation meant that he didn’t grow up in an impoverished home.

    Reply

  15. Aginoth
    Oct 17, 2005 @ 15:32:00

    The fact precedent that it is no defence in court to state a assaultee volunteered to be assaulted in The UK existed long before the S and M club prosecutions of the 1960’s in Soho.

    But not being a paralegal I couldn’t tell you the exact case it springs from however I expect it originates in Saxon Commonlaw laid down in about the 7th or 8th Century AD.

    Reply

  16. aaron
    Oct 17, 2005 @ 16:55:00

    Just to bring this back to pop culture, there was an announcement today that there will be a sixth Rocky movie, and the plot has the nearly 60-year-old Stallone playing Rocky Balboa, who comes out of retirement and ultimately fights the defending heavyweight champion:
    http://www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/Movies/10/17/film.stallone.reut/index.html

    Reply

  17. Jack's Shack
    Oct 18, 2005 @ 12:48:00

    I am a fan of boxing, as both a fan and a participant. I understand why many people dislike it, but there is something so intriguing about getting into the ring and testing yourself against another.

    I think that this is part of why I enjoy wrestling and watching wrestling (not the kind on TV, but Greco Roman and Freestyle such as shown at the Olympics).

    It is a dangerous sport and I think that we walk down a prickly path trying to legislate safety.

    You can be hurt very badly in any number of professional sports. Try and name one that avoids risk and I suspect that you will be stumped.

    Reply

  18. CyberKitten
    Oct 18, 2005 @ 16:24:00

    Jack’s Shack said: You can be hurt very badly in any number of professional sports. Try and name one that avoids risk and I suspect that you will be stumped.

    Golf?

    Reply

  19. Jack's Shack
    Oct 18, 2005 @ 18:06:00

    Golf?

    You can hurt your back or be hit by a club/ball.

    Reply

  20. Q
    Oct 18, 2005 @ 20:27:00

    Yeah, and what about that guy who got so angry he struck a tree with one of his irons? The club spun around the tree trunk, struck him in the head, and killed him on the spot.
    Q

    Reply

  21. Bill
    Oct 20, 2005 @ 15:56:00

    I have to agree with those that see Boxing as barbaric, though boxing has had its romance and to a degree respectability I think it has changed.

    I think Muhammad Ali is a great man and was an amazing boxer, but is boxing today what it was in his day?

    I take the stance that Howard Cosell did when he quit as a boxing announcer for ABC, we must look at boxing in today’s light not yesterdays.
    The last fight he worked for ABC was a bloody fight in December 1982 between heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, who savagely beat challenger Randall Cobb. “I am tired of the hypocrisy and sleaziness of the boxing scene,” he said at the time. He never did another fight.

    I’m not sure it isn’t time that the rest of us forget the romance and the history of boxing, and look critically at the sport, as it is now, brutal and dangerous.

    For me its not changing the way the sport is played that will make it safer it is changing the way boxers agents promoters and fans think about the sport that will fix the sport. Personally I don’t think it is possible to do this.

    I realize there may be respectable boxers and agents out there but these aren’t the problem, unless something can be done to turn boxing from a neo-gladiatorial sport to something remotely respectable then a ban might be the best we can do.

    Reply

  22. Q
    Oct 20, 2005 @ 20:31:00

    You make a good point, Bill, that we have to look at the sport as it exists today. I like your Howard Cosell illustration too.

    I think the introduction of helmets would make the sport less gladiatorial and change the mindset of its fans, too. But I don’t believe that change will happen until … what? The deaths of boxers doesn’t seem to change anything.
    Q

    Reply

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