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11/09/2015 5:55 am  #1

Could Football Go the Way of Boxing?

Boxing Is a Brutal, Fading Sport. Could Football Be Next?

In 1982, boxing fans tuned in for a fight the sport wouldn’t soon forget. Today, with concerns about the toll of football on the rise, is America’s favorite game nearing its own inflection point? 

Retro Report

The sweet science. That was the lofty sobriquet assigned to boxing long ago by devoted followers with a romantic flair. But there came a time when the fight game’s hold on the American spirit began to loosen, when it stood widely condemned as plain brutal.

Maybe the transformative moment was in 1982 when a South Korean boxer, Duk-koo Kim, died after taking a pounding from Ray Mancini in a lightweight title match. Or maybe it was back in 1962 when Emile Griffith beat Benny Paret into a fatal coma during a welterweight title fight. Perhaps the moment arrived earlier yet with works like “The Harder They Fall,” a 1947 Budd Schulberg novel and 1956 film that depicted the boxing world as a swamp of crooked managers, mobbed-up promoters and blood-lusting fans. Even Hemingway, who dearly embraced the so-called manly art of self-defense, acknowledged its ruinous potential in “The Battler,” a 1925 short story revolving around a broken-down punch-drunk pug.

Retro Report, a series of video documentaries harking back to significant news stories of the past, takes a look at boxing’s downward spiral. But true to its mission, the report also looks ahead, by raising a question of whether American football might someday find itself, too, falling hard. The two sports are similar in a key respect: They are violent. And like many a prizefighter, more than a few football players have succumbed, in some cases fatally, to a degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E.

As implausible as a steep decline in football’s fortunes may seem now — the Super Bowl in February was the most-watched program ever on American television — time was when boxing seemed just as unassailable. In television’s early years, fights were broadcast almost every night. Back in 1926, when boxing was king, Gene Tunney’s wresting of the heavyweight title from Jack Dempsey was covered by this newspaper with a banner headline and half a dozen articles on Page One. That sort of display would be unimaginable now. How many people today can even name the reigning heavyweight champ? Boxing’s contraction is evidence that anything can happen.

Retro Report focuses on the Mancini-Kim fight in November 1982. It was a turning point. There had been plenty of ring-related deaths before then (and since: 10 worldwide in a typical year). There had also been earlier calls for the sport’s abolition. But the outcry grew in intensity after the death of Mr. Kim at age 27, especially when it was followed within days by a bloody one-sided fight for the heavyweight title between the victorious Larry Holmes and Randall Cobb, known as Tex.

Two months later, in January 1983, the Journal of the American Medical Association denounced boxing as “an obscenity” and said it should be outlawed. “Boxing, as a throwback to uncivilized man, should not be sanctioned by any civilized society,” wrote the journal’s editor, Dr. George Lundberg. Also in the early ’80s, the American Academy of Pediatrics urged that boxing be eliminated from sports programs for children and young adults, and the World Medical Association, based in France, recommended banning the sport everywhere.

At the United States Military Academy, boxing has been an academic requirement and a rite of passage for more than a century. Yet there, too, some have begun to ask if character-building might be promoted through methods other than cadets’ punching one another repeatedly in the head — with some suffering concussions.

Not that the abolitionists have prevailed in this country or almost any other. In fact, some of the few nations that had at one point imposed bans — like Sweden, Cuba and Norway — reversed themselves in the last few years. Defenders of the sport insist that, yes, it is a sweet science, a test of skill, stamina and strategy and not merely a slugfest. A sport akin to boxing, mixed martial arts, has grown in popularity, banned in this country only in New York State.

Even so, the vaunted prizefighting of old is on the ropes. News media attention tends to be scant. Major bouts, such as they are, are consigned to pay-per-view showings. Once in a while, a fighter comes along to stir excitement, a Floyd Mayweather Jr. or a Manny Pacquiao, but that’s the exception. The professional ranks today are mired in a bewildering array of weight divisions — 17, where once there were eight — and in an alphabet soup of multiple sanctioning organizations.

And now concerns about brain injuries extend to other sports. C.T.E. occurs with fair regularity in soccer, whose players routinely redirect airborne balls with their heads. The same goes for professional hockey, whose violent body checks and punches to the head are accepted as part of the game.

But no team sport in the United States has been scrutinized as closely as football, though the overlords of the National Football League tried for a long time to shrug off any suggestion that they had a problem. All that body and head slamming by 250- and 300-pound men has plainly taken its toll. Reports abound of former players suffering from memory failure, depression, loss of impulse control and other signs of diminished mental capacity. As sad a symbol as any is Junior Seau, an All-Pro linebacker in his day. In 2012, at age 43 and three years into retirement, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest.

Among the questions is whether football players — well padded and practically faceless under their helmets and visors — are inclined to whack one another hard precisely because they are encased in so much protective gear. Some even have helmets and shoulder pads made with Kevlar, the superstrong fiber used in bullet-resistant vests. In a related rough-and-tumble sport, rugby, players wear no comparable armor. They also do not butt heads as American footballers do. Not surprisingly, degenerative brain disease is not an overriding worry in rugby (though spinal injuries from scrums are). In women’s lacrosse, too, players wear no helmets, except for goaltenders; a consensus has formed that head protection would only encourage rougher play.

The dangers inherent to football are so severe that some professional players say they do not want their own sons to follow in their steps. President Obama has similarly said that if he had a son, he would not let him play pro ball.

At the high school level, player deaths have led some parents and schools to rethink their children’s involvement in the sport. Several schools shut down their programs, if only because they could not round up enough players to take the field. Amid growing awareness of the risks, the number of high school boys playing football has declined by 2.4 percent over the last five years, to 1.08 million, according to a survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

In theory anyway, a major interruption of the flow of players from high school to college and then on to the pros could disrupt the game. Comparable breaks in the talent pipeline certainly took their toll on boxing. Granted, football’s collapse is on no one’s radar. Still, boxing learned the hard way that it was not invulnerable, just as Ad Francis had to absorb that lesson.

He is the battler in the Hemingway work, a man with a misshapen face and brains scrambled from too many blows. He had been tough in the ring, a champ. “They all bust their hands on me,” he tells the story’s protagonist, Nick Adams. “They couldn’t hurt me.”

Until they did. Hurt him bad.

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 

11/09/2015 8:15 am  #2

Re: Could Football Go the Way of Boxing?

As someone who grew up in western Pennsylvania and playing football in midgets, Jr. High, High School, and college, and currently have a grandson playing football, I am certainly concerned with the injuries sustained by those who have played the sport. My feeling is that teaching young players to tackle, block, and run the ball properly has gone by the wayside. Coaches, players, and fans are more interested in seeing the big hit rather than a good tackle. Organizations have to stress these proper techniques, like Heads Up does. Any direct hits with helmet to helmet contact need to be penalized. I agree with the new college rule on targeting - if a player is guilty of the foul, he is ejected from the game. Enforce the rules on late hits. All that said, there will be injuries in a sport where 250 pound guys are smashing into each other at speed. I can't think of a sport that I participated in that you didn't risk some injury - football, snow skiing, track & field, baseball, swimming, biking, even golf . . . The only one that resulted in any serious injury was track & field where I sustained a broken leg. I still bike, ski, golf, and participate in water sports often today, and realize the older I get, the higher the chance of injury, but I do it because I like it. Unlike boxing, the object of football is not to injure/knock out your opponent. If that becomes the object of the sport through bad coaching, lax rules enforcement, and fan demand, then I believe football will begin to fade as parents take their kids out of the sport and schools end the programs due to expense (equipment, field maintenance, insurance) and lack of participants. The pipeline of skill players will dry up in college and thus the pro ranks.
I hope that doesn't happen. I would hate to see our nation become one that the only participation in sports is virtual on an iPad.


11/17/2015 8:56 am  #3

Re: Could Football Go the Way of Boxing?

I saw something on the news just last night where they were talking to a former athlete who is dealing with problems.  He said they can protect your skull with all kinds of helmets, but it doesn't protect the brain from injury.  That really made me think of this in a different light.


11/17/2015 7:46 pm  #4

Re: Could Football Go the Way of Boxing?

If they add too many more commercials to each game people may get sick & tired of them and stop watching.  Four fifteen-minute quarters now take an average of three hours or more to play.


11/18/2015 5:41 am  #5

Re: Could Football Go the Way of Boxing?

florentine wrote:

I saw something on the news just last night where they were talking to a former athlete who is dealing with problems.  He said they can protect your skull with all kinds of helmets, but it doesn't protect the brain from injury.  That really made me think of this in a different light.

As much as I love the game, if I had sons I would not encourage them to play football.

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 
     Thread Starter

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