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The Boxer's Choice

The sport's existence is founded on freedom of choice but what exactly is that choice?

Imagine you are told that if you choose a certain career there is a risk of developing severe neurological damage. Imagine that there is a chance of securing fame and fortune while doing something you love. Those of us who try to defend the morality of boxing often claim that this is a choice made by athletes who fully understand the risks. This might just be impossible.

The existence of risk in boxing is accepted but its precise nature remains unknown. Some boxers develop serious problems, some don't and the factors that increase susceptibility are unclear. This may change. A study at the Lou Revo Centre in Las Vegas is working with around five hundred active and retired fighters to understand why, with similar levels of trauma, some individuals are more at risk than others. At present, however, an aspiring boxer can’t be fully informed of the risks they face because no-one truly understands them. To take part in boxing is to take a chance.

Even ensuring that boxers understand what is known isn’t easy. Some will educate themselves but many will not. Trainers and promoters do not have a strong incentive to teach their charges; they are in the business of producing hungry prospects, not cautious thinkers. Boxing authorities should have more of an obligation to educate but even that would not necessarily lead to well-considered decisions. People are generally not good at weighing the benefits of today against the damage of the future and this imbalance is likely to be exacerbated by the self-confidence of a typical young boxer. Arrogance makes it easy to believe that the dangers that you are being told about will happen to someone else.

The nature of the choice is not the same for all. Those from a background of poverty may have fewer alternatives and therefore a greater tolerance for risk. Boxing’s defenders see rags to riches stories are part of its glory, while its critics see a sport in which the poor risk danger to make money for the rich. Moral judgments aside, it’s clear that the choice looks different depending on where in society you’re looking from.

Most do accept that there should be some limitation on the right to choose to box. Few boxing fans are comfortable with the sight of James Toney, a 47-year-old who now slurs thickly through interviews, continuing to fight. Yet removing his right to choose at this point is not much of a safeguard. He was free to make the decisions that brought him to harm; indignation after the damage has been done offers little protection.

The decision to box is made with limited understanding of the risks, slanted perspective and for reasons as emotional as they are rational. It’s a flawed choice rather than a perfect calculation but it is not more flawed than many other life-changing decisions that are made every day. Boxers are not gladiators forced into danger for the entertainment of others but neither are they investors, carefully weighing risk against potential gains. They’re daredevils, taking on unknown danger partly for the promise of great prizes and often just for the sheer love of it. That the sports relies on young athletes’ right to gamble with their health is an uncomfortable truth that all boxing fans must make their peace with.

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