Part Three

Risk And Freedom

The previous two articles of this short series we discussed the political correctness and safety aspects of boxing and the campaign to suppress it. In this final article we examine the risk and freedom aspects. This is even more controversial, because a dispassionate examination of the facts indicates that even if the “Safety Nazis” (1) succeed in banning boxing they will not save one “unnecessary” death or prevent one injury, they will simply cause “accident migration”.

In 1985, John Adams (2) published a controversial book on road safety. (Perhaps heretical would be a better word). The book’s front cover is graced by a cartoon of a man and woman on a motorcycle, naked except for crash helmets! Adams begins his study with the words: “People born before the Second World War sometimes look back nostalgically to the time of their youth when it was safe for children to play in the streets. The memory is flawed.” (3)

He goes on to point out that in 1927, the first year for which figures are available, there were 2,774 pedestrians killed in road accidents in Britain. In 1983, there were (only!) 1,914, yet in the meantime vehicles had increased tenfold and the population by 25%! (4)

In 1982, 413 children under 15 in England and Wales were killed on the roads. In 1927, there were 1,067 such deaths. There are similar figures for the United States. (5) These figures are incredible, they are bizarre, and they are true. How can this be so?

The reason for this, Adams argues, is that we live and learn. People in the early part of the century, children especially, didn’t realise that cars were dangerous, or if they did, they didn’t realise how dangerous. Many of them paid with their lives. Now, every child is taught from an early age that it is not a good idea to go play with the traffic. Far fewer children are killed on the roads, and the death toll has shifted dramatically from “innocent” road users to drivers. Driving is one of the most heavily regulated activities on Earth, yet people still break the rules and are killed in their droves. Making bigger and more crash-resistant cars hasn’t done a lot of good either; the prin- cipal effect of doing this is to allow people to crash in greater comfort. Indeed, the best way to make driving safer is, paradoxically, to make it more dangerous!

In his 1995 sequel, Risk, Adams asserts that if cars were made of cardboard, had insufficient brakes, and the roads were paved with Teflon, there would be a decrease in fatalities! (6) The reason for this is that in driving as in any and every other human activity most of us ignore safety instructions and regulations and carry on in our own sweet way, making our own judgments. A good example of this is using a ladder. How many of us take the same care on the bottom rung as we do on the top? Proof of Adams’ bizarre theory can be found from what happened in Sweden in 1967.

In September of that year, the law was changed and overnight people switched from driving on the left to driving on the right. Motorists and pedestrians had to swerve or jump in the opposite direction in emergencies. Contrary to expectations, the accident rate plummeted, but “By October, people had begun to recover their nerve, and by November they were back to their normal ... rate of killing each other.” (7) In other words, where people perceive a danger, they will act more cautiously. So much for road safety, but how does all this affect boxing?

The fact is that boxing is a “dangerous” sport. Other sports and occupations are even more dangerous. Hang gliding is dangerous; some jobs are dangerous, but people do them anyway for the risk, the high reward (8) or both. Adams’ conclusion applies across the board: people want to take risks, but they don’t want to get injured or killed!

The implication here for boxing (and indeed for all sports), is that by making it safer, or even completely safe, the Safety Nazis will indeed reduce the number of fatalities and injuries in that particular sport, but there will come a point of diminishing returns when making the sport too safe will drive people away from it and lead both players and spectators to engage in other, far more dangerous activity.

It has often been said that banning boxing will simply drive it underground, as indeed it would. Anyone who has ever had the misfortune to be involved in a real world punch-up will realise that unregulated fights are not a good alternative. But even if the current crusade against boxing doesn’t go that far, if for example the medical profession manages to outlaw blows to the head, or make the rules so stringent in some other way that boxing loses its appeal, all that will happen is that both boxers and spectators will drift away from the sport. On the one hand, unlicensed (and illegal) shows may become more popular, with all the social implications of criminalising properly lawful activity has had in the past, or former boxing fans may decide to turn to less obvious alternatives, like motor cycle racing.

In the former case it may be that illegal shows would lead to more injuries and fatalities, even if the police clamped down on them. In all fields of human activity, resources are limited. While police officers are chasing the organisers of illegal prize fights they will have less time to carry out highway patrols, which may result in more drunken drivers getting away (and killing innocent pedestrians). Such unfortunate trade-offs don’t show up in the safety statistics and casualty figures which are spewed out by organisations such as the Health Education Authority, because in the first instance, they are all but impossible to quantify, and in the second, because the people who run the anti-boxing and similar crusades have no idea that such trade-offs exist and wouldn’t be interested even if they did.

So what should be done? Neither fight fans nor fighters themselves should become paranoid. They should accept the fact that doctors - often with the best of intentions - and political activists - often without the best of intentions - will continue to lobby against the sport and to attempt to impose further restrictions on it. Pro-boxers should arm themselves with knowledge, they should be ready to tackle the spurious arguments of the antis, and to put forward their own propaganda.

This doesn’t mean they should be reckless; obviously no one wants another Eubank v Watson, Benn v McClellan or Docherty v Murray to happen, but by the same token, no one wants thousands of people killed and many, many more injured on our roads ever year. All the boxing fraternity can do, is, like road users, take reasonable precautions, and use their own professional judgment. A comparison with road safety statistics is both comforting and frightening. Comforting for boxers to realise that, in spite of all the hype, their chances of being killed or seriously injured in the ring are tiny indeed. But not so comforting for fans to realise that they are far more likely to be killed on the way to a boxing match than the men they are going to watch in the ring.

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