Sunday, January 25, 2009

Let's End Gratuitous Violence in Sports

A recent NYT blog The Disturbing Rise of Ultimate Fighting along with the comments it received raises some interesting questions on how violence is viewed by at least some of the sports watching public.

Unlike boxing which is attracting a smaller audience, ultimate fighting (now known as Mixed Martial Arts or MMA) is attracting an ever increasing audience especially on TV including lucrative pay-per-view cable. So what is the attraction, especially compared to boxing? While boxing matches can consist of fighters who spar with each other for several rounds before one side gets a decisive advantage, MMA matches provide almost instant intense action with usually a quick decisive result especially since kicking is allowed and the men do not use protective headgear or fully padded gloves.

While there are some like in the above article who would like to see this made illegal, the supporters of MMA in the article's comments have some interesting arguments in their favor.

For one thing, they argue that MMA has fewer serious injuries than in other sports, especially boxing. Boxing through its history has had a number of deaths as a result of knockouts in a single fight. But in addition, while boxing has padded gloves which may provide protection from immediate injury, boxers can then take hundreds of punches, many of them to the head over a career which is more likely to cause long term disability. For example, it is widely believed that the Parkinson’s disease that former boxing great Muhammad Ali suffers from is a result of repeated head trauma during his career. While having boxers wear headgear would likely result in fewer head injuries, there is little or no movement to adopt this for professional fights since it would apparently detract from the entertainment of seeing somebody get bloodied.

Then there is NHL hockey which has its share of hitting along with fights. While some would like to see fighting in hockey outlawed by the NHL, there are many who feel that fighting is an integral part of the sport. Often the TV highlights of a game will include some of the fights. And there are even websites like where as they say you can “Get your hockey fight fix here!”

And there is football (American football, not soccer) where hitting is not only necessary to block and tackle but an extra hard crushing hit on a ball carrier to jar the ball loose is an especially good thing. The loud sound of pads popping is part of the entertainment of football — until somebody doesn’t get up after the hit. Then we wonder if the violence all makes sense.

The question is whether it is appropriate to legislate against sporting activities that we feel are too dangerous for its participants even though they are there by their own choices. And if so, where do we draw the line? If for example, we choose to ban MMA, should we also ban boxing? And if so, what about other violent sports like football where players are sometimes paralyzed as the result of collisions that are totally within the rules of the sport?

Because of this, in most instances it is neither practical nor desirable for government to get involved in monitoring the conduct of sports. But the people running the individual sports should seriously ask whether they are catering to the fan that really appreciates the skill of the athletes — or is it really about satisfying some fans’ hunger for violence?

While cockfighting and dog fighting are illegal because it is cruel to animals, is it OK for us to watch two human beings try to hurt each other for our entertainment? I have a problem with that but I accept that sports like boxing and mixed martial arts are here to stay along with all of the other sports that have some violence as part of the game.

I think that boxing should be about the skill and endurance of one boxer landing more punches than the other. If professional boxing adopted the use of headgear like they do in amateur and Olympic boxing, there would likely be less brain injuries (although this article from Scientific American even disputes that) but at the price of not seeing boxers bloodied and beaten into submission. Isn’t that a reasonable trade off?

Does hockey really need the fighting? For the most part, it is not part of youth league, international and Olympic hockey. And even in the NHL, it is not often seen in the Stanley Cup playoffs since teams in these closely fought and all-important games don’t want to give any extra advantage to an opponent by taking fighting penalties.

Football has taken some steps to protect some of its players. For example, a quarterback in the pocket trying to throw the ball cannot be hit with the tackler’s helmet. But a runner with the ball can. This not only allows a tackler to inflict injury on a runner with a rock hard helmet but also endangers the tackler with a possibility of a spinal injury. We don’t need that! And it is OK to hit a defenseless quarterback after the ball is released as long as it is less than about a second after the ball is gone. Why it is necessary to hit the quarterback if the tackler can clearly see that the ball has left the quarterback’s hand?

While baseball is a far less violent sport than most, the act of intentionally throwing a baseball at somebody’s head is a needless act of violence and should not be condoned.

And while bullfighting can be a beautiful spectacle that pits the bullfighter’s skill and daring against a dangerous animal, why is it necessary to kill the bull?

I think that for too many of us, when it comes to violence in sports, we want it both ways. We enjoy the violence but are repulsed by it when somebody gets seriously hurt as a result of it. How many times have we seen a football player after a hard hit lay motionless on the turf and then see some of the players gathering around and praying or even shedding a tear for the fallen player?

I enjoy contact sports like football and hockey as much as the next guy and accept that some violence and hitting are an integral part of sports like these. It’s just the gratuitous violence we need to get rid of.
unnecessary and unjustifiable
But some others feel that any efforts to protect players no matter how sensible, is a questioning of our manhood. For example, NFL Pittsburgh Steelers star Troy Polamalu worries that the NFL may become
"like a pansy game". And Steeler Hall of Famer Jack Lambert in response to rules protecting the quarterback is famous for the quote "Quarterbacks should wear dresses".

Common sense safety should not be treated as a macho issue. While it is regrettable that some participants in contact sports get seriously hurt even as a result of clean, legal hitting, for someone to get seriously hurt or even killed as a result of gratuitous violence is a needless tragedy that can and should be avoided.

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