Opinion: Sporting world is punch-drunk on violent spectacle

Opinion: Sporting world is punch-drunk on violent spectacle
Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay
Monday 13 June 2022

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

Some contradictions hide in plain sight, so woven into our cultural norms as to go unnoticed.

America's objectively insane love of guns, for example, can only be understood in this subjective context. Its paralysis is supra-rational - sitting beyond the power of mere reason to resolve.

I was struck by one of our own cultural blind spots recently. It was Friday night a week back when Fox Footy carried the Geelong v Western Bulldogs clash from the MCG. Early in the second quarter, Geelong's Tom Stewart struggled to stand on his first attempt after applying a tackle. The star defender insisted he was fine as he jogged off for medical assessment.

The mandatory concussion protocol begins with basic cognition questions like "Where are you?", "Who are you playing?", but also includes things like a hopping exercise to test balance.

Several minutes later, Stewart was back on the sidelines and poised to re-enter the fray. Geelong's medical staff hesitated, however, both watching him and rewatching the incident from various camera angles.

Despite Stewart's enthusiasm, the club thought better and activated its "medical substitution". Its best player would take no further part, nor be available for a minimum 12-day lay-off under the AFL's concussion guidelines. Commentators praised Geelong for putting player welfare ahead of premiership points.

Why this detail? First, because it hasn't always been this way. And second, because just minutes later on the same channel, Fox Sports promoted its Sunday blockbuster - a title fight between Australian lightweight champion of the world, George Kambosos jnr, and the American challenger, Devin Haney.

The richest bout in Australian boxing history would occur just up the road at Melbourne's other vast football stadium, Docklands. High-rotation Fox ads showed sweat and saliva rooster-tailing from the retina-detaching impact of gloves on jaws. Yet the blinding contrast between these two messages eluded commentators.

In AFL, rule changes over recent years have sought to eliminate head-high contact, imposing stiff penalties where it occurs. The competition's greatest "box-office" player, Lance "Buddy" Franklin, had been suspended midweek after an open-handed shove during a scrag had glanced his opponent's neck. There was no suggestion of injury. Just "contact" above the shoulder.

Contact above the shoulder is pretty much the whole point of boxing. One punches one's opponent repeatedly in the head, hoping his legs might buckle, and he is "stopped", as they say in the fight game.

Where one code struggles to retain its essence while excluding players' heads from contact (albeit without 100 per cent success), the other's singular objective is to jolt the head fast and frequently. One minimises concussion, the other rewards points for it. Sometimes fights are decided by knockout (the savagery of which speaks for itself) or by technical knockout when the head-high barrage leaves a boxer bloodied or dazed.

Sports journalists cover football and boxing without remarking on this howling double-standard. Some even laud the "hard men" who box after football, relieved perhaps at no longer having to pretend it was ever about the ball.

Indeed, Nine's Wide World of Sports is currently plugging a Main Event "All-Stars Boxing - Footy Fight Night" in August at Margaret Court Arena, where big-name ex-players Brendan Fevola and Cameron Mooney (a Fox Footy commentator) will attempt to punch each other in the face.

It's a long way from Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Robinson, who at their best represented the peak of physical fitness - blinding speed, stunning precision, and supreme athletic prowess. But in its essence, boxing is inimical to these qualities, being injurious to the life expectancy of its (mostly black and mostly working-class) athletes.

If team sports are a codified form of nonlethal battle, boxing is too, sans the non-lethal part.

Ali, the subject of a new Ken Burns film currently being released, was the gold-standard example. His combination of wit, social activism, and artistry between the ropes had no peer. Yet to see the brain-damaged wreck he became at a relatively young age was to witness a terrible decline.

America's NFL was forced to establish a $US1 billion fund in 2013 to deal with the wave of chronic traumatic encephalopathy cases - the fatal brain disease caused by repeated shocks to the cranium which can only be conclusively diagnosed post-mortem.

Symptoms of CTE - which boxers used to call "punch-drunk" - include memory loss, concentration problems, moodiness, and shakes. It is progressive and untreatable.

Other football codes know this liability is coming, although ex-players who then box should note that establishing when their brain sustained harm - and thus, who owed them a duty of care - would become problematic. Even "the beautiful game" will not avoid what medical science is revealing - that heading soccer balls can shock the brain.

The questions raised by boxing, though, are surely most stark. Basic ones like, is it socially responsible to promote a sport whose sole object is head-jarring, when the long-term effects are known?

Note that police would fine a boxer for not wearing a seat belt en route to a bout - self-protection against a statistically unlikely impact - but take no action at the delivery of equivalent head trauma in the ring. That we ignore such absurdities can only be explained by our culture.

In a country where violence against women is endemic and results in an average of one homicide a week, is the normalisation - tending to adulation - of deliberate physical harm helpful, or part of the problem?

Before we knew better, boxing might have been defensible. But medical science has removed the veil.

Of course, all this is just reason. And reason, we know from America, is easily outgunned by culture.

Mark Kenny is a political analyst for The Canberra Times. He is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast. 

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Updated:  14 June 2022/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications