The most talked about issue in elite sport right now is head trauma. There’s no question. Sports the world over are struggling to deal with research that shows the dramatic long term effects of even minor brain injuries.
In the US, American football and ice hockey have implemented rule changes to try and minimise concussions. In the rest of the world, rugby league, rugby union, Australian rules and even soccer are grappling with the same problem. All fear a flight of children from sports with negative long term health effects.
Then there’s boxing – a sport in which the target is your opponent’s brain. The short- and long-term ill effects are well known.
I find myself wondering, would I let a child of mine box? Would I encourage them? If not, does that make me a hypocrite if boxing is my favourite sport?
Former NFL lineman turned boxer Ray Edwards argued recently that boxing is safer than football: “You play for a long time, chances are you are going to tear your MCL or ACL. You can break your leg, snap your femur, break your arm, break your neck.”
In some senses, then, boxing is safer than other contact sports. But it’s rather academic – the rare broken neck aside, I’d much rather my hypothetical child came away from a junior career with a dicky knee than a brain injury. It’s easy to ignore it as fans, but injuries are the point of boxing – they’re only incidental in other sports.
The American Academy of Pediatrics opposes children and teenagers being involved in boxing. They know what’s up when it comes to what’s good for kids.
Now, many medical associations oppose boxing outright. Luckily, as fans, we can counter them with the argument that participants engage in the sweet science of their own free will. For that reason, boxing isn’t as barbaric as cock- or dogfighting – pastimes which force two beings that can’t make decisions for themselves to hurt each other.
But I’d challenge anyone who has seen one child beat another bloody in an amateur boxing ring to argue that it’s any more civilised. You can’t use the free will argument when it comes to children boxing. If we as a society agree that children are unable to make their own decisions in other areas of life, why should we allow them to participate in a form of organised violence?
I understand that this is an unpopular view among boxing fans. If you stop children boxing, then you decrease the quality of boxers overall. With the odd exception like Sergio Martinez, most top professionals have been in the gym since they were knee high to a grasshopper. A boy who starts boxing at 16 has eight years more experience than one who started at eight.
There are also socioeconomic issues at play. Boxing is undeniably a working class sport. In the United States, at least, it’s much more popular among blacks and Hispanics than whites. If your educational opportunities are limited, then it makes much more sense to pursue an athletic career – even one that can destroy your mind over time. And the rewards in boxing can be stratospheric – Floyd Mayweather, Jr. earns nearly twice as much LeBron James.
If you’re like me and you’d think twice about getting your child (hypothetical or otherwise) involved in the busted beak business, is it ethical to look the other way when it’s brown children who are the ones getting hurt? It probably makes it easier. Then again, maybe it’s wrong to assume that you know best for other people’s children.
But when the harms associated with boxing are so obvious, we owe it to ourselves to ask unpalatable questions. Perhaps the answer is an age limit of 14 for competitive boxing like the one in place in my state, New South Wales. At 14 you’re no longer a kid, but a young adult – at least partially capable of making up your own mind as to whether or not you want to fight.
This isn’t a popular view in the boxing fraternity, even here in NSW. Campaigns have been run to lower the minimum age to 12, if it can’t be scrapped entirely. Under the NSW model, children are still free to train in gyms and enjoy all the benefits that boxing offers in terms of self-esteem, discipline and fitness.
I don’t subscribe to the view that amateur boxing isn’t serious or painful, either. You don’t see many people who’ve been hit in the face with a 10 oz. glove making that argument. When I had a few fights aged 21, it was painful and incredibly exhausting, both physically and emotionally. I can’t imagine how young children deal with that.
Our sport is violent and painful — it’s hardly a sport at all. It appeals to our best instincts – we love to see determination, triumph, redemption and endurance. But it also appeals to our base desire for violence. The two are intertwined and, unfortunately, boxing can’t yet offer one to kids without the other (though efforts like Box’tag may succeed).
I boxed, but I made up my own mind about it (against the wishes of my parents). If I have children, I won’t be rushing them into the squared circle.