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Professional boxing is a part of us. Yet every now and then a tragedy (such as the recent death of Benny Paret) shocks us into enquiry. It revives and reveals the morality of professional boxing as a legitimate question. This is in some ways unfortunate. The outbursts surrounding tragedy tend to obscure the real issue by focusing exclusively on fatalities. They also provoke us to continue to think with our hearts rather than our heads. Rarely has morality been clarified in such an atmosphere.
Boxing can be and has been defined as a giving and parrying of light blows with no intention of striking the opponent severely. If no one has ever questioned the morality of this type of thing, neither has anyone ever thought it a realistic definition of modern professional boxing. Recent moral theologians who have reflected on the matter wisely restrict their considerations to "professional boxing as it is today." When the theologian says as it is today, he is trying to highlight an existing situation, perhaps not an inevitable one. Some, possibly many, elements of professional boxing could be radically altered, in which case it is quite conceivable that a different moral evaluation of the sport would have to be made.
By using the phrase professional boxing as if is today the theologian does not mean to concentrate on the fight-for-pay element which distinguishes amateur from professional; his intention is to emphasize the characteristics of professional boxing once the distinction has been made. He is trying to paint a picture in a single phrase. Among these characteristics there is the element of a career involving a whole series of fights with cumulative effects. There is the admitted effort of most professionals to win by a KO—or at least a TKO—rather than by decision. There is the medical report of injury, particularly to the brain. There is the synthetic notion of courage wherein confession of injury followed by retirement from a fight invites derision by a crowd that enjoys a beating, clamors for the kill and lustily boos evasive tactics. There are the undeniable benefits that boxing has brought to the lives of many individuals. There are television contracts which create severe scheduling demands; there are boxing commissions and control groups. Finally, there is a specific set of rules. Professional boxing involves more and longer rounds, lighter gloves and sometimes different scoring criteria. These are the things the moralist attempts to evoke with the phrase professional boxing as it is today. It is not an individual fight that is his immediate concern. Individual fights may not contain the elements widely present in the sport as a whole. Nor is his concern boxing at the level of the Golden Gloves, the CYO and the private club. Still less is it a judgment of the individual fighter and his motives. It is a whole institution as it touches human conduct.
The defenders of professional boxing regard boxing as a science demanding skill, strength and discipline. In boxing there is splendid opportunity for physical development, alertness, poise, confidence, sportsmanship, initiative and character-building in general. Statistically professional boxing is, they point out, far less dangerous than auto racing, college football and several other sports. Furthermore, the game has given underprivileged youngsters a chance to better themselves. In summary, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.
With an eye to these claims, some earlier moral evaluations of professional boxing were at times relatively tolerant. In fairness to these earlier views, it must be pointed out that they were formulated before widespread publication of pertinent medical findings. In fairness to professional boxing, however, it should be said that even those who now regard the sport as immoral concede the above advantages. Their objections are elsewhere.
The application of immutable moral principle will vary with the variation of concrete fact or its understanding. Thus in the past 20 years or so there has been a growing consensus among theologians that the sport will not survive moral scrutiny. The three most recent American studies (Hillman, Bernard, Laforet) conclude that the current version of professional boxing is immoral. Most moral theologians would endorse and defend this position, not as the official position of the Catholic Church (the Church has never spoken officially on the matter) but as their own conviction after thoughtful application of their principles to the facts as they see them. If they have been less than enthusiastic about publicizing their conviction it is not because of reluctance to take publicly an unpopular stand. That would be cowardice. Rather it is because the conviction has matured slowly and painfully and because even now some uncertainties still cling to it. But as the subject receives intensified study, it is increasingly difficult to find defenders of the sport among theologians.
Professional boxing is unique among the sports. It is admittedly the only sport whose primary objective toward victory is to batter and damage an opponent into helplessness and the incapacity to continue. In a sport where the infliction of damage is rewarded, one would expect a wide variety of injuries.
Ophthalmic injury is far from unknown, even to the extent of actual blindness. Maxillofacial and aural trauma, including damage to the jaw, teeth, nose and hearing apparatus, are more common. Boxer's nose and cauliflower ear are commonplaces. There is also the possibility of renal damage. Studies (Journal of Urology, 1954) have concluded that acute kidney trauma occurs in 65% to 89% of boxers during a fight and is manifested by postbout hematuria. A more recent study (The Journal of the American Medical Association, 1958), however, shows these symptoms to be innocent, transitory and painless. The long-term effects in terms of kidney scar and permanent impairment do not seem to exist.
While these and other types of injury do occur, it is craniocerebral injury that recently has engrossed the attention of the medical world. Because of the premium placed on the KO and the TKO, the head has always been the prime target in professional boxing. Blows directed to the head or face comprise about 85% of all blows delivered in the ordinary bout. Body blows are principally diversionary tactics to lay open this prime target. The injuries caused by head blows have provided excellent opportunity for medical investigation because, as noted in The Lancet (1937), "unlike accidents these injuries are caused by traumas almost always of the same kind and acting with almost laboratory exactness."
Scientists indicate that the human brain weighs about three pounds. It is fluid-packed but not secured within the skull. A blow to the head causes it to wobble, slide and bounce back and forth, inside its cranial container. If a moderate blow can bang the brain against its sidewall, a more severe blow can bring it into contact with the bony sphenoidal ridge to produce selective damage to the frontal lobes, either bleeding or bruising. Where there is destruction of nerve cells the damage is permanent and, when repeated, cumulative.