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Original Issue

Is Professional Boxing Immoral?

Boxing is under fire these days from portions of the press, government and clergy—because some fighters have been badly hurt and a few killed, and because criminals allegedly control large areas of the sport. Much of the criticism is naive or self-seeking, but some has come from such esteemed sources as the semiofficial Vatican newspaper 'L'Osservatore Romano.' Recently SPORTS ILLUSTRATED invited Father McCormick, a distinguished Catholic moral theologian and teacher, to discuss the moral aspects of professional boxing. Here is his considered judgment

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 severescheduling 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 receivesintensified 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.

Medical scientists also call attention to another injury not infrequently suffered by boxers: the punctate (small) hemorrhages in the pons and medulla, probably caused by the jamming of cerebrospinal fluid. Again, where such hemorrhages destroy nerve tissue the damage is permanent, though this need not imply that malfunction of the brain ensues. Such a symptom would be a matter of extent and degree. The possibilities for brain damage appear to be as multiple as the organ is delicate.

What are the noticeable results of brain injury? The most sensational, if not the most tragic, is death, generally associated with hemorrhage. Depending on how one reads statistics, will one conclude with Dr. Arthur H. Steinhaus, former chief of the Division of Physical Education and Health Activities of the U.S. Office of Education, that "professional boxing is 83 times more deadly than high school football and 50 times more deadly than college football"? Or with T. A. Gonzales that "32 years of boxing competitions...have produced fewer deaths in proportion to the number of participants than occur in baseball or football"? The point is not clear.

But if death is a relative rarity, the same does not seem to be true of brain damage. In 1928 H. S. Maitland concluded his discussion of the punch-drunk syndrome with the statement that 50% of fighters will develop the condition in mild or severe form if they stay in the game long enough, and that this "seems to be good evidence that some special brain injury due to their occupation exists." Dr. Edward J. Carroll Jr., who came to know fighters intimately through professional and nonprofessional contacts, estimated that after five years of boxing 60% of the boxers will develop mental and emotional changes which are obvious to people who know them. He stated (American Journal of The Medical Sciences, 1936) that "no head blow is taken with impunity and...each knockout causes definite and irreparable damage. If such trauma is repeated for a long enough period, it is inevitable that nerve cell insufficiency will develop ultimately...." The recent work of LaCava in Italy and Pampus in Bonn tends to substantiate these claims. Findings such as these received fresh emphasis by sparring partner Ben Skelton's report (SI, Sept. 24) that Liston's left jab is so hard "that for a week after being hit with it I was taking pills to kill the pain."

Dr. Steinhaus has been so impressed with the medical evidence concerning brain damage in boxing that he feels a second foul line must be created at the shoulder. He cites a noted brain surgeon with wide experience with boxers as contending that every head-pommeling is likely to leave some small portion of the brain tissue permanently damaged, even though this may not be noticed for some time. The treacherous aspect of such injury is that it apparently does not manifest itself clinically until rather late in the degenerative process. Furthermore, there are obvious reasons why professional fighters would be reluctant to report symptoms of brain damage.

When one reads these statements—and there are many more of the same—one has an indefinable sense of uneasiness, of inconclusiveness. There is almost the sense of being in the presence of a crusader. Is it really this bad? Could it be that the admirable tendency of the doctor to regard any disease or injury as too much has expanded these statements? H. A. Kaplan (The Journal of the American Medical Association, 1959) contends that "a blow from a human being with a padded gloved fist probably is not forceful enough to produce any direct damage to the brain." In an area such as this, the theologian admits to hopeless incompetence. To complete his understanding of professional boxing he must rely completely on medical specialists. With this in mind I submitted the following statement, attributed to a prominent brain specialist, to 10 of the top neurosurgeons in the U.S. and Canada: "The brain is so constructed that it cannot suffer a series of head blows over theyears in boxing without certainly or at least very probably incurring thereby some permanent injury." These experts agreed that the statement could be endorsed as a general statement. One was at pains to indicate that the statement, while it is probably correct, is poorly written. He could not accept the inference in it that malfunction of the brain follows brain damage. Such a symptom would be a matter of degree.

If these specialists are incorrect in their estimate about brain damage, then the moral theologian would desire to reexamine certain aspects or emphases of his argumentation, as we shall see. But it is this type of evidence that makes one take a long second look at the words of Abe Simon, former heavyweight contender: "...jarring of the brain. That's what causes the trouble—my headaches and those of every fighter who has taken punishment. It's not a single punch; it's the constant jarring.... [The fighter] is always soothed by the falsehood that he will be just as good as new after a short rest. He never is, and no fighter living today who has had 50 or more reasonably hard fights can honestly make the claim."

Such a medical review was necessary preparation for a moral estimate. Since everyone familiar with the sport concedes its advantages, the moral discussion boils down to this: Are the arguments against professional boxing conclusive? Of the many moral objections one hears, the most serious are reducible to three.

1) The knockout. It is simply unrealistic to deny that most professional fighters aim for a knockout. This is regarded as the most decisive and impressive way to win a fight. It is what the fighter wants and very often what the fans want. The long climb to contender status or the comeback often hinges on it. As Nat Fleischer wrote in The Heavyweight Championship of Louis' comeback tour after his 1936 loss to Max Schmeling: "There was only one way to do that—to roll up victory after victory over the knockout route."

Not a few moral theologians find it difficult to admit that the knockout is justifiable. They frequently formulate this as follows: directly and violently to deprive oneself or another of the use of reason is morally reprehensible except for a sufficient cause. It is the rational faculties, intellect and free will that distinguish man from the brute. Directly to deprive man of these faculties without a sufficient reason is to dehumanize. These theologians are reluctant to admit that sport, money, fame qualify as sufficient reason. If such violent deprivation of higher controls is reprehensible, then the intent to do so is equally reprehensible. Hence a sport in which this intent plays such an integral role must be condemned.

Is the argument convincing? I do not believe it is. First of all, the knockout is understood in the rather limited sense of "rendering unconscious." This is not a necessary sense of the word. A knockout is, more realistically, beating a fighter to the point where he is physically incapable of continuing. This is what the ordinary professional desires. Deprivation of the use of reason is not essential to this. Hence, practically, it is hard to show how the knockout in this limited sense is an essential aim of most fighters. Second, even if it were the fighter's aim, it would be difficult to show how the knockout of itself (independent of injury) is sufficient to condemn the sport. It can be argued that, generally, deprivation of the use of reason lasts only a few seconds at most (8 to 10 usually) and that this is so little as to be negligible. If this were the only thing at stake, it is highly doubtful that there would be as much objection to boxing as there seemsto be.

2) The intent of injury. If the argument concerning the knockout is not satisfying, the objection from injury is much more arresting. Professional boxing is the only sport where the immediate objective is to damage the opponent. A puffed or cut eye, a lacerated cheek, a bleeding nose—these are signals for an intensified attack on the vulnerable area. When Jimmy Doyle died after being knocked out by Sugar Ray Robinson, Robinson was asked if he noticed that Doyle was in trouble. He is widely quoted as answering: "Getting him into trouble is my business." In all other sports the immediate objective is to cross a goal line, tip in a basket, throw a strike. Injury and incapacity to continue are incidental. A knee to the groin, a fist to the face in football, bean balls and deliberate spiking in baseball are penalized and would unhesitatingly be branded as immoral by the theologian. Patterson was simply describing the unique character of professional boxing when hewrote (Victory over Myself), after the first Johansson knockout, of his desire never to be vicious again: "At the same time I know that I must be, because I am in a business of violence." If direct damage to the opponent is immoral in all other sports, why not in this business of violence?

It is here that the medical evidence assumes some importance. Were the injury passing and negligible, theologians might perhaps mitigate their judgment. But if the specialists are right in their claims about injury, particularly brain injury, this must give us pause. The sport as now practiced tends directly to inflict this damage. When injury to the cranium and its contents occurs, it is, as Blonstein and Clarke note (British Medical Journal, 1954), "a direct product of boxing and not an accident as in all other sports." Since this is true, then these effects are also the direct object of the fighter's intention. This is not to say that the fighter explicitly desires to maim or cause lasting damage. Few would be that inhuman. As a rule, the fighter's only explicit desire is to win as decisively as possible. But the means he chooses are means that are damaging. Hence he implicitly intends this damage as a means. How could he disown it? The point might seem a bitfine, but can one choose to pound and sink a nail and yet disown the hole in the wood?

At this point professional boxing encounters the disapproving frown of many a moralist. Man, they argue, does not possess the right directly to inflict damage on himself or another in this way. He is not the absolute master of his person with the power to destroy or mutilate as he wishes. Absolute dominion over man's integrity is possessed by God alone. As a creature, man is an administrator charged with the duty and privilege of reasonable administration. His ability directly to mutilate himself is severely limited.

This is a cardinal principle of sound moral thought. If there is indecisiveness here, there will inevitably be ambiguity or error in the evaluation of many aspects of modern living. Once the limit on man's ability to mutilate himself is obscured, the condemnation of suicide, euthanasia, reckless medical experiment, useless surgery and so on tends to lose rational defense. The novelist knows that the first chapters profoundly affect the outcome of the final chapters of his book. Similarly moral theology is jealous of her basic principles because they contain the germ of practical conclusions.

Applying these principles, theologians believe that when a man pounds another into helplessness, scars his face, smashes his nose, jars his brain and exposes it to lasting damage, or when he enters a contest where this could happen to him, he has surpassed the bounds of reasonable stewardship of the human person. Surely there are equally—or more—effective ways for men to learn the art of self-defense.

Does the fact that this is done for money affect the moral analysis? Certain medical experiments on the human body, even if done for money, would remain objectionable. In fact, is there not a legitimate sense in which it is true to say that the greater the spoils, the more objectionable the whole business? For as the cash at stake increases, so does the danger of viewing the integrity of the human person as salable at a price. Money can be overvalued. When it is, something else is undervalued. If this something else happens to be the integrity of the human person, have we not made a wrong turn somewhere?

3) Fostering of brutish instincts. Man is a delicate combination, midway between animal and angel, with a bit of both in him. His characteristic balance is achieved when he harmonizes these elements. When he fosters one to the neglect of the other, he tends to become either a disengaged dreamer or a savage. Thomas Aquinas knew nothing of professional boxing; but with an unerring knowledge of human nature he pointed out that to take pleasure in the unnecessary sufferings of another man is brutish.

Anyone who has watched professional fights will know what Aquinas was talking about. The crowd too often has come for blood and the knockout. The knockout is the touchdown pass, the home run of boxing. The nearer it is, the more frenzied the howling of the crowd. As Nat Fleischer said simply of the first Patterson-Johansson fight: "The crowd, sensing the kill, went wild." We occasionally hear the referee urge the boys to mix it up, give the fans their money's worth. When a boy is being mauled around the ring, the arena comes alive and emotions run high. The fighter is goaded by the crowd; his own fury further stimulates them. The brutish instinct is in command. At this pitch the finest moves in boxing are missed or—worse—greeted by a chorus of hissing and booing. Tunney was so disgusted with this type of thing in one of his fights that he created the phrase, "the bloodthirsty yap of the mob." The modern prizefight is increasingly the canonization ofbrute force—and that at a time when we are struggling with all our might to understand the meaning of force in the world.

Is not man too weak a creature to unleash and give free play to these forces with impunity? Does he not tend to grow in the image of that which he cheers? If this is true, how long can he cheer these exhibitions without acting at variance with the demands dictated by his own rational nature? To many, this is the strongest indictment of professional boxing, an objection sufficient in itself as a stricture of the game.

These arguments are not frivolous. Any discussion of professional boxing which ignores them is playing the ostrich. They are drawn from natural law; whatever validity they have would surely be intensified by the Christian revelation through which man becomes conscious of an even more startling personal dignity. It was probably arguments such as these that led the Vatican Radio to announce its conviction that professional boxing is objectively immoral. L'Osservatore della Domenica insinuated the same thing. Informed Catholics, however, are rightly distressed at the implications in the assertion that these views are "semiofficial" ecclesiastical positions.

The Catholic Church has not condemned professional boxing. Many have wondered why not. The eager expectation of ecclesiastical intervention could easily contain a distorted notion of the function of the Church. While she jealously guards the purity of morals, it does not follow that condemnations do or should issue from her at the slightest provocation—if for no other reason than that this discourages intellectual effort in the ranks by seeming to render it unnecessary. We stand to learn a great deal from this controversy.

Many reasons suggest themselves in explanation of the Church's official silence on the matter. First of all, and most important perhaps, the matter simply is not clear to her. While the Church speaks frequently on changeless moral principles, she is generally quite content to leave the application of these to her theologians. But theological opinion has been, possibly still is, somewhat divided, or at least hesitant. Most of the serious writing has been unfavorable to boxing, but there are many voices yet to be heard.

Second, professional boxing is largely, but not exclusively, a local American problem. The U.S. champion is the world champion, the big gate is here and the big fights are generally here. If public statements are called for, it is reasonable to think that this would be left to local bishops.

Finally, even should the Church desire to take a strong stand, there is the difficulty of formulating a statement which will avoid the impression that all boxing is being censured. It is foolish to lump the pillow fights of the sixth-grader with the hard smashes of the professional. And even at the professional level the differences between individual fighters are tremendous. There are those in superb condition who fight once or twice a year to defend a title—and these are the champions who are hit the least. Then there are those who all but drag themselves into the ring to have their brains rattled on a month-to-month basis. To group these together in a single sweeping rejection would be unrealistic and hazardous.

Not only is the central moral issue challenging: there are also many fringe problems no less tantalizing. One that is increasingly aired: Is the victorious fighter guilty when his opponent dies as a result of blows received in the ring? Though boxing is different from other sports in its direct aim (the infliction of damage), death is such a departure from the average that its occurrence should be regarded as an undesired byproduct of the sport. Morally it is an accident.

Problematic too are the possibilities involved in allowing a man with a past to contend for the crown (SI, Feb. 12). The issue is scarcely one of Christian forgiveness or rehabilitation. Surely we can hope that we are both humble enough and large enough for this. The problem is rather the defenselessness of our children against their own hero-worshiping simplicity. On the other hand, a clean break with an unfortunate past might actually provide a very helpful example to youngsters. Whatever the answer may be, there is a moral dimension even here.

The question of professional boxing is a vexing one. The issues seem clear. Defenders of the sport insist that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Those who censure it, while admitting the advantages, believe that the moral discussion must begin with the sport itself, not only its circumstances. They see the sport as directly injurious and as one which tends unduly to foster the instinct of brutality in all concerned. Perhaps this is not necessarily true; there are many laudable attempts being made to supervise the sport more thoroughly (SI, April 23). Nor is it factually true of all professional fights; but it is too generally true of the sport today. Thus the majority vote among those who have written on the moral question is unfavorable.

Unless the arguments leveled at professional boxing as it is today can be answered, I believe the sport would have to be labeled immoral. I realize that other theologians may take a different point of view. It could be that not all the facts are in. Perhaps, too, we have a great deal to learn about our own principles. Premature conviction slams the door to enlightenment as effectively as refusal to face the moral issue.

If there remain some uncertainties to haunt us, the general implications of our sincere and honest interest are clear. For, regardless of what answer we come up with, it is both a sign and guarantee of our abiding spiritual health to face issues at their moral root. It is never easy to question the moral character of our own pleasure and entertainment. Since, however, moral issues are not defined by the convenient and inconvenient, the pleasant and the annoying, but reach to the division between good and evil, they are too important to receive less than an earnest, but calm and dispassionate, treatment. Failure to do this would be a collective shrug-of-the-shoulder at moral values and, as such, a threat to the spiritual goods upon which we have built our dignity and freedom.



SURROUNDED BY FRIENDS in the Catholic clergy, Sonny Liston happily waves his fist immediately after knocking out Floyd Patterson and becoming heavyweight champion. From left are Father Edward Murphy, S.J., of Denver, who helped in Liston's rehabilitation after Sonny was denied a boxing license in Pennsylvania; Father John McGinn of Yuma, Colo.; and Father A. J. Stevens, Missouri Penitentiary chaplain, who started Liston on his boxing career while Sonny was in jail. Patterson is a Catholic convert; Liston has talked of becoming one and attends Mass frequently.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Father McCormick, 40 (left, teaching a class in moral theology at West Baden College in Indiana), received A.B. and M.A. degrees at Loyola of Chicago and his doctorate at Gregorian University in Rome. He is the son of a former head of the American Medical Association.