In the 35 years that I have followed boxing, I’ve witnessed perhaps a dozen fighters killed or catastrophically injured. Indeed, most fights are in part spectacles of risk and are marketed as such. I once left an arena with the blood of the great American cruiserweight Steve Cunningham spattered over my lapels, a measure of the cost he paid in a fight that he nearly won. It was a thrilling evening, not because Cunningham shed blood but because he held his dignity against great odds fighting a much younger and stronger man. He was down four times, but he ended the bout on his feet. I hope that Cunningham, who has since retired, has no regrets.
Once among America’s most popular sports, boxing was brought low by its inveterate corruption—and the National Football League was a primary beneficiary of its downfall. Professional football’s violence is somewhat more sanitized, and it replaces the ethnic tribalism of boxing with slightly less corrosive regional loyalties. It’s therefore more appealing to the affluent audiences that advertisers want to reach. We’re discovering, though, that football is nearly as dangerous as boxing, and in the same way. Head trauma, it turns out, doesn’t discriminate.
A number of writers have recently suggested that moral disgust should cause spectators to turn their backs on football, or more saliently, to turn off their televisions. Though I disagree with this argument, we should take it seriously. A sports spectator is implicated in the violence of the games he watches, if only because the games wouldn’t be played without him. The NFL’s enormous television audience—now 45 percent female—creates the incentive structure that induces players to take risks with their health. The categorical imperative works like this: if no one watched football, the games wouldn’t be played, at least not on the same scale; less football would mean less head trauma; head trauma can generate debilitating chronic conditions in later life; therefore, we should not watch football.
Harvard professor Steven Pinker claims in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature that, notwithstanding what we see on the evening news, the broad arc of human history is moving away from violence and toward cooperation and community. Evolutionary biology increasingly rewards those who channel their aggression into productive work. This argument has enormous intuitive appeal, but in the end, it’s as much narrative as science, and the story may seem to take one shape in Cambridge and quite another in Camden or Kabul. For now, it remains true that violence is endemic to human life. The terms on which we engage it may be more or less in our control, depending upon our environment, but it finds us all eventually.
The ethical implications of spectatorship have inspired many books, though it’s doubtful as to how practically useful that literature is for people deciding whether they can permit themselves to watch a college football game or a Mixed Martial Arts fight. A leading work in the field is Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, a book-length essay that explores war photography and its effect on the viewer, securely away from the front lines. Sontag doesn’t speak directly where circumlocution is possible, and what she believes about the ethics of spectatorship is not always evident, but she gave the subject a vocabulary. She notes that war photography often recapitulates an insidious process of war itself—the depersonalization of the individual. Wars kill indiscriminately and in large numbers, and the images captured by war photographers are often of soldiers destined to remain anonymous.
Surely the opposite is true in sports, however. A fighter who dies in the ring retains his personhood. Indeed, he gains a kind of unsought immortality. Any serious fight fan can toll the names: Benny Paret, Davey Moore, Duk-Koo Kim—or 27-year-old Patrick Day, who died on Wednesday from injuries suffered in a bout last weekend.
As for the suffering in a boxing ring, it may be that the sport’s instructive value is limited to those who bring a certain openness to the experience. Call it perhaps a willingness to be disgusted—with the blood spilled, but more important, with themselves. Can it possibly be that the rightness of my presence in pricey ringside seats at the Cunningham fight depended on how I felt about what unfolded in front of me? Cunningham has a daughter with heart disease, and he fought, in part, to cover her medical expenses; he couldn’t have made half as much money doing anything else. I felt that what I watched was a man extend himself beyond his own limits in the service of a cause greater than himself. Perhaps I was duped by my own tendency to sentimentality, but I think that those who would call Cunningham a victim say more about themselves than they do about him.
Each of us has his own ethical economy. Often that economy stems from how we were raised: with religion or without; with or without respect for the law; with our eyes trained to local or universal concerns. That some retired athletes suffer from terrible injuries incurred from competition is a fact that we should not turn away from. But what is the precise ethical principle being invoked by the claim that we may not watch contests in which adults voluntarily compete, and with the usual social goods as their quarry—money, fame, sexual opportunity—along with psychic benefits impossible to quantify? We know that athletes derive enormous satisfaction from pursuing excellence in sports, in addition to significant material benefits. Most of those walking around on artificial knees say that they would do it all again, even knowing the costs. We should not lightly assume that athletes don’t know what is good for them—or that we are responsible for protecting them from themselves.
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