Monday, 11 May 2009

The strange sport of boxing

The sport of boxing has made me feel uneasy for a long time. It's not that I don't recognise the skill required - boxers must be extremely fit, and have huge stamina and quick reflexes. And it's not that I want to vilify a sport which is dominated by men. It's just that I think hitting people in the head is bloody stupid.

This fantastic opinion piece in the Sunday Star Times rebuts the arguments of boxing 'apologists' one by one. Ultimately, the piece argues, boxing never can be safe, for the obvious reasons that it involves hitting people. These blows aren't accidental, as they might be in another sport like rugby - they're integral to the sport, and required to win. The best way to conquer your opponent is with a head injury that renders him unconscious. All this is pretty hard to argue with.

The opinion piece mentions in passing one argument put forward by boxing's supporters: that if young men aren't given a 'safe' environment to take out their physical aggression, they'll do it on the streets. This really disturbs me. It suggests that male violence is an inevitable fact of life which we have to live with. The best we can do is try to direct it towards willing participants. Crap, I say. Everyone has the choice not to be violent.

Something related, but not discussed in the opinion piece, is what boxing says about the place of violence in our society. Frankly, I just don't enjoy seeing people getting hit. I enjoy seeing people knocked unconscious even less. Tales of young men permanently maimed by boxing injuries make me sad. It makes me uncomfortable that there is any area of life in which violence is condoned or celebrated, and I don't see that getting enjoyment watching someone being beaten up in a boxing ring is morally better than spectating a streetfight for fun. It makes no difference to me that boxing violence is consensual and doctors are on hand - it's still violence and it damages people.

I think boxing has had it's day. Eleven national medical associations, including the New Zealand Medical Association, have called for the sport to be banned. In time, I hope the community at large will come to agree with them.


A Nonny Moose said...

Unfortunately there's one very simple reason why it never will be banned - or at least it will be a decades, maybe centuries, long fight to see it gone. Money.

I think we've discussed it in passing before Anna - I have the same feeling about pro-wrestling. Unfortunately, the more it gets branded as "entertainment" than sport, the less legal inroads can be made to regulate it. Too many people have died in horrible circumstances for it to be justifiable any longer. And I'm tired of the "It's their personal choice!" excuse.

Giovanni said...

I think anybody's who's seen The Wire will know what the value of boxing has always been and still is.

Anna said...

Haven't seen The Wire, although I've heard it's very good - can you elaborate Giovanni?

Moose, I think we have discussed this before. I guess wrestling is different in that it's choreographed (skilfully, I must admit), which hopefully cuts down injuries. I don't know if the people who watch it are interested in the choreography or the violence. Something disturbing about the wrestling, though, is the violence of the wrestlers themselves in their lives outside the ring. There was that dude who killed his wife and child, then himself. And Hulk Hogan the other day made a statement about how he could understand why OJ Simpson killed his wife for having an affair. Cringe.

Giovanni said...

Haven't seen The Wire, although I've heard it's very good - can you elaborate Giovanni?In poor urban communities worldwide, boxing has been and to an extent still is one of the few outlets for males who drop out of school and often have no male role models in their families. Even for those for whom it doesn't become a profession, it's a form of education and discipline, a tool for personal growth and keeping out of trouble. One should also not forget the role it played through Ali in the anti Vietnam war and civil rights movement. That said, it is a sport on the wane, it certainly doesn't have the broad appeal it once had. And perhaps it's a good thing. I wouldn't be so quick to denounce it without being aware of the significant positives that it has brought to our most impoverished communities.

Anna said...

Fair point, but I see the opportunity to box as a limited substitute for the socioeconomic stuff that influences young men to drop out in the first place. If you need to box to prevent yourself getting into trouble, it could be because you don't have meaningful educational or employment opportunities. It's a class thing - young men from more wealthy backgrounds don't need to risk permanent injury to get opportunities for personal development or education.

I actually have a great deal of respect for Ali and his stand during the Vietnam War, but he's paid for his sporting career with his health. I see him as something between a heroic and a tragic figure.

Boxing also has a racialised history - it wasn't long ago that Aboriginal fighters toured Australia fighting bare-fisted for the amusement of drunken onlookers. That seems like gross exploitation to me. And because the modern sport is so frickin corrupt (while involving a lot of money as Moose points out), the punters don't feel satisfied until they've seen someone beaten to a bloody pulp - fights don't get called off when they should.

Giovanni said...

It's a class thing - young men from more wealthy backgrounds don't need to risk permanent injury to get opportunities for personal development or education.

It absolutely is, but it still serves a social function and if you ban it you'd better replace it with social programs. People who advocate the former are generally not empowered to do anything about the latter.

A Nonny Moose said...

Also, if you plan to ban it in one country, be prepared to see people go overseas for their career or blood fix. I can't imagine places like - for example - Thailand banning it, because the sport is so ingrained in the culture and rite of passage for young men.

Also a ban will inevitably create an underground network for the sport.

This is a discussion that could hark back to government/community support for sporting programs versus education/social programs. There's always a lot more sunk into sports than your average community centre for kids. Plus, not every kid wants to socialize at a church youth group.

Anonymous said...

The violence of boxers outside the ring is pretty scary, too.

Anna said...

V good point, Moose - an underground scene would be the worst case scenario in terms of injury prevention.

I am quite a bit fan of the social benefits of sport, and particularly team sports, for people of every class - it's good for creating a sense of community, fitness and health, etc. There's a wide world of sports out there than can promote personal growth, etc, without inflicting deliberate blows to the head.

The irony of all this is that my brothers/father taught me the basics of street brawling, and I can throw quite a formidable punch for someone with swizzle stick arms. It's not what you'd call a transferable skill, though, so I don't tend to use it often.

Jack said...

Hmm - had thought I'd posted, but can't see it, so will rewrite. Mods, please delete if my other post is stuck in some approval queue or something.

I think Giovanni has an interesting point about the historical role of boxing. I'd agree with it, but I'd argue that this is basically a historical accident. I think the more general point, that organised sport is seen as a "way out" for poor youths with no education, is true. Yes, it's traditionally been boxing, but these days it's more likely to be a team sport. Disadvantaged youth in New York dream of playing in the NBA - in South Auckland, it's more likely to be rugby or league. But that whole being lifted up through your athletic ability thing still happens very much today.

katy said...

I don't think it is so much about personal growth, more about teaching young punks about hierarchies and boundaries. "Beyond the Darklands" last week, which was about a contract killer in Australia from a poor Greek community, made the same point about the role of boxing in his life.

Anna said...

Funny you should mention that, Katy - I thought of that guy as I was writing the post. He's Andrew 'Benji' Venjamin, and he's a prominent character in the first series of Underbelly, which I'm watching at the moment. He seems to be an example of someone who was attracted to boxing because he enjoyed violence rather than self-discipline or personal growth (not that I'm suggesting all boxers have a tendency to become serial killers, mind you).

Jack, I agree with you about the sport as a way out for poor kids thing. I'm mistrustful of this, partly because sport takes most people nowhere in a career sense (even though it has other benefits) - and partly because it gets suggested from time to time, in a patronising way, as a prescription for giving poor young people 'dignity' or 'self-respect'. (Kind of like a shit thing I saw on telly a few weeks ago, where young teenagers from some poor town had to go on an army course to teach them self-respect.) It's all a bit odd. If you asked most people what are the benefits of sport for middle class kids, they'd probably come up with various things like team work and skill development, but probably not anything like self-respect - I guess kids from 'better' families are already assumed to have this.

Giovanni said...

I guess kids from 'better' families are already assumed to have this.

Actually, I'm about as middle class as they come and I'm all for my kids doing sports precisely in order to gain confidence in themselves. The Greeks had figured this particular benefit out three millennia ago or thereabouts. All the same, there social strata were self-confidence an affirmation or in shorter supply - there's nothing patronising in recognising that.

Anonymous said...

It makes no difference to me that boxing violence is consensual and doctors are on hand - it's still violence and it damages people.I'd be careful with this line of reasoning... the 'consensual violence is still violence' is used by people who want to make BDSM illegal.

Alison said...

Ironically, since I'm a pacifist, I can't get behind banning boxing, because I've been a kickboxer myself - I didn't compete, but loved the training and sparring. There's one very simple change that could be made in boxing (which I personally loathe, despite my own hobby!). Currently, it's illegal at pro level to wear headgear. Other martial arts are more supportive of safety gear, although they all tend to be less supportive the higher up the ranks you progress. Surely we should at least look into that possibility before banning the sport outright? That seems pretty extreme given it is consensual.

I struggle with this - I hate violence, and yet am drawn to the discipline of martial arts training, as well as the superb fitness it builds. I would much rather see the specific complaints of boxing (and the other martial arts) addressed - the corruption, the violence outside the ring, the safety issues - rather than taking a broad brush approach.

I also wonder whether it's tempting to take this tack with sports like boxing (and presumably kickboxing, which I believe has a higher participation rate in NZ) that are obviously violent and "lower class", while conveniently ignoring the same problems in a range of other sports. In truth many pro-level sports have associated dangers and decreased life expectancy, yet no-one is seeking to ban rugby, motorcycle racing, mountaineering or even ballet, with it's vastly increased rates of smoking and eating disorders.

For sure it's a complicated problem to work through, but I'm just not convinced that the obvious, but contained, violence of boxing justifies legislative intervention any more than any number of other sports.

rangi said...

Why ban boxing when the participants are willing, aware of the dangers and can make a decent living - I just don't get it!

katy said...

"they'd probably come up with various things like team work and skill development, but probably not anything like self-respect"

I would say that self-respect comes from mastering something, self discipline and skill development, and that this would be a common outcome?

Anna said...

Rangi, I don't personally agree that a person should be able to do anything they like with their body. In the opinion piece I linked to, there are stories of people who are completely debilitated by boxing injuries, and will need to be cared for by their families for the rest of their lives. That's no slur on people who have health problems - but I think it's unfair to the people who love you to deliberately risk your wellbeing in that way.

I don't see self-respect and self-confidence as the same thing necessarily. For example, that woman who organised the Miss Wellington (I think?) pageant did it because she saw drunk young women on the street to have more self-respect. By this, she meant she wanted them to behave differently. That's not the same thing as self-confidence - there's no reason to believe drunk chicks lack self-confidence, after all. To me, self-respect often comes with negative connotations - you say 'have some self-respect' to someone who's doing something you don't approve of. I'm reminded of Alan Duff and his horrible exhortations of Maori to get off the dole and have some self-respect. I guess that's what I meant when I said that phrase makes me uneasy - there's nothing inherently wrong with self-respect.

V good point about the safety stuff, Alison. I don't really mind martial arts, so long as they do stuff that mitigates risk, and I certainly don't deny the skill or satisfaction involved. I question though how safe boxing can actually be made, since it involves blows to the head. I just don't think there's a foolproof way of pummeling someone on the noggin.

Anonymous said...

So what exactly makes martial arts OK, but boxing not OK?

AWicken said...

The trouble with the debate is that the only sources are "anti" or "pro" lobbyists. A bit like the tobacco debate.

FWIW, a couple of links re: boxing mortality, but from the industry itself:

Although, of course, the deaths per 100,000 probably refers to *ring* deaths (haven't read the source), whereas the other side of the debate would probably look at any neurological condition that might possibly have been caused by... etc etc etc

Personally boxing isn't my cup of tea, but I think a lot of the opposition comes from a sort of cultural wince at being prepared to attempt to hit and have an opponent reciprocate in kind.

"It makes me feel queasy" just ain't a good enough reason to ban something (and let's just overlook Boock's "It might be stretching things to suggest boxers aren't stupid, [...]". Biased opinion pieces are the columnists' prerogative, but that's beginning to show a bit of bigotry that's above and beyond).

Random Lurker said...

The best way to conquer your opponent is with a head injury that renders him unconscious.In chess boxing (alternate rounds of chess and standard boxing) you could do that, or you could checkmate your opponent.

Suzy QT said...


""Rangi, I don't personally agree that a person should be able to do anything they like with their body""

That's right. You just recently made that clear when you got all uppity about a woman displying her body by her own free will.

pseudonym, initial or name said...

Aside.. is it just me, or are Blogger's Captchas getting harder?