Less than a dozen years ago, college boxing, which is a beautiful sport to watch, seemed on its way to becoming one of the most popular of minor intercollegiate sports. The effects of boxing's decline may be witnessed next week (April 2, 3 and 4) at the University of Nevada, where the NCAA championships will be fought. Only 20 teams are entered. Some of this small number are from colleges that no longer field teams in intercollegiate competition. Only one or two of the 20 colleges will present full teams at the championships. Only one intercollegiate team from a college east of the Mississippi will be represented.
Intercollegiate boxing began in 1919, with a match between Penn State and the University of Pennsylvania, then caught on in the East, spread to the South and West and in time became popular enough to warrant national tournaments. By 1938, when the National Intercollegiate Boxing Coaches Association was formed, it was booming. Ten years later there were 55 colleges engaged in intercollegiate competition, with others supporting the sport intramurally.
But by 1952 there were only 29 intercollegiate teams, and the number has been diminishing ever since.
The decline is by no means due to apathy among the students, who support boxing vigorously when they are given the chance. Boxing draws better than basketball at the University of Nevada, where the gymnasium, holding about 4,500, probably will be packed on each of the three nights of the NCAA meet. At San Jose State, with a student body of 10,000, half of them men, as many as 1,300 students have gone out for boxing instruction and in an average year 500 to 600 will take it up. Boxing at Washington State is part of a physical education requirement that a student be able to swim 50 yards and take part in a "recreational" sport, a team sport and a "combative" sport before he is graduated. Boxing, wrestling and fencing are the "combative" sports, and most Washington students pick boxing or wrestling in about equal numbers.
In its heyday, college boxing drew extraordinary crowds. On the night in 1940 that Joe Louis attracted 11,000 spectators to see him knock out Johnny Paychek in Chicago, there were 15,000 to watch the University of Wisconsin oppose Washington State at Madison.
The college coaches, now a rather dispirited group, hold that an illsupported attack based on mistaken ethical and physiological grounds is responsible for the decline.
"You could blame the moms," one coach says. "They've seen boxing on TV, and nothing can persuade them that the college sport is different, that their boy stands little risk of being hurt." What the moms feel, college administrators have acted on.
Ray Chisholm, secretary-treasurer of the coaches' association, has been boxing since he was 4 years old. He boxed for the University of Wisconsin in 1938, transferred to the University of Minnesota in 1939 and coached Minnesota's intramural program for a few years. "The underlying reason for the decline of interscholastic and intercollegiate boxing," Chisholm says, "is the unfounded and unsubstantiated criticisms of boxing in education by the physical educators who mistakenly identify college boxing with the most sordid aspects of professional boxing."
Most college coaches trace the troubles of the sport to a paper, The Evaluation of Boxing as a College Activity, published in 1940 in the Research Quarterly by three members of the University of Illinois physical education department. Widely distributed, it raised doubts in the minds of many educators as to the value of boxing in a college athletic program.