Time to KO the Idea of Boxing Bans

Upon watching the first session of women’s Olympic boxing in London in 2012, leading neuroscientist John Hardy stated that,

We shouldn’t get our fun out of watching people inflict brain damage on each other. To me as a neurologist it’s almost surreal.

Indeed, boxing has a reputation for producing some real medical nightmares. Having an ear bitten off by Mike Tyson might be the least of a boxer’s problems. The force of a professional boxer’s fist is equivalent to that of a 13 pound bowling ball traveling some 20 miles per hour. While blows to the body aren’t likely to feel particularly good, it’s shots to the head that doctors find most concerning. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that repeated blows to the head aren’t a good thing.

Indeed, taking punches of this caliber to the face and head can have some truly nasty impacts. Studies have found between 15 and 40 percent of ex-boxers have some symptom(s) of traumatic brain injury (TBI). Speech difficulty, neck and muscle stiffness, memory loss, and other psychological problems have been reported and characterize what’s known as “punch drunk syndrome” or dementia pugilistica. Boxing has also been linked to other brain-related illnesses. Muhammed Ali, arguably the word’s most famous boxer has long suffered from Parkinson’s disease. His doctors have attributed this to his boxing career.

Boxing is not the only sport in which TBI is likely. Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), football, cheerleading, and soccer have all come under scrutiny due to rate of head injuries among professional and amateur players.

Source: American Journal of Sports Medicine

This past July, California governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill prohibiting middle and high school football teams from holding full-contact practices more than twice a week, limiting the duration of said practices, and prohibiting full-contact practices outright during the off season.

While such stories have received significant attention. Nothing quite compares to what’s been said about boxing. People have likened the sport to human cock fighting. It is argued that the sport is comparatively more dangerous than others and that boxing exploits individuals who often hail from poor or otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds. A variety of changes have been proposed, from requiring protective gear, to banning blows to the head, to outlawing the sport outright.

Simply put, banning boxing is paternalism writ large. These policies, like the ones placing bans on football practices is a breeding ground for “big brother” to stick his finger in someone else’s business. Moreover, such bans would likely make the sport more dangerous, not less.

The fact is, no one is forcing a boxer to get into the ring. Saying that a boxer “doesn’t know the risk” or “can’t understand” is insulting their intelligence. In reality, boxers know full well what they are doing and have determined that the risk is worth the possible rewards. In some cases, the payoffs are huge. For example, professional boxer Floyd Mayweather has cashed checks of at least $25 million for each of his fights going back to 2007. Since 1996, he’s earned some $400 million. According to Forbes, Mayweather brought in some $105 million for 72 minutes of ring time in 2014. If you break that down, Mayweather earns him some $1,458,333 for every minute he spends in the ring!

Many would say that not all boxers earn such large returns. While certainly true, consider that the sport offers opportunities for many to get out of precarious situations. Manny Pacquiao, widely considered one of the world’s best boxers, for example, was born in utter poverty in the Philippines. Boxing provided him, and others, a way out of poor financial circumstances. Given the opportunity of participating in a dangerous sport and possibly improving their quality of life, they’ve decided it’s worth it. Banning boxing would shut the doors on such options.

What those who call for bans on boxing also seem to forget is that those in charge of boxing work to make the sport as safe as possible. Amateur boxers frequently don headgear and other padding in addition to their gloves. Watch any match on TV and you’ll notice medical staff must be present at every match. The ringside doctor or the referee can (and do) end a bought if they feel a boxer’s health is in danger. Boxers are also put in different weight classes (lightweight, middleweight, heavyweight, etc.). This not only makes fights more interesting with more equally matched fighters, but also significantly decreases the rate of injury.

Banning boxing would have further consequences. Just as banning drugs or prostitution doesn’t eliminate those activities, a ban on boxing or severe regulations wouldn’t end the sport. Instead, such actions are likely to drive the sport into an underground black market. Instead of occurring in a ring in Las Vegas, we’d see boxing in underground clubs. Unlike current fights with medical personnel, referees, and boxing gloves, we’d see bouts with (comparatively more dangerous) bare fists, fighters knocked unconscious, and higher rates of injury. While we can likely all appreciate the desire to increase the safety of athletes, whether boxing, football, or another sport, heavy regulations or banning the events are likely to fail in achieving the stated goals and result in perverse outcomes.

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Associate Professor of Economics at Sykes College of Business at the University of Tampa.
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