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Boxing some doctors

This version 13 July 2003, originally published in The Canberra Times, 26 April 2001, p.9, as 'Prohibition not the answer to boxing deaths'.

The recent death of a boxer appears to have reminded people of a rather obvious fact. Boxing is dangerous. That most boxers appear to survive their careers without noticable incapacitation is merely a testament to the remarkable robustness and capacity of self-repair with which the human body has been endowed. It does not constitute proof that boxing is harmless. So let's not have any silliness about boxing being a 'safe' sport.

But does that mean the Australian Medical Association is right in wanting boxing banned? Of course not.

Many have mounted the eminently practical argument that prohibition would increase injuries and deaths. Making boxing illegal would not make spectators uninterested in this most elemental combat. So a new, literally no-holds-barred, form of fighting would doubtless develop, without the current legal protections that boxers enjoy. A boxer's consent to being struck only extends to being hit within the rules.

Then there is the thin-end-of-the-wedge argument. If boxing is dangerous and should therefore be banned, should not rugby, sky-diving, car racing? How about hang gliding, ice hockey and any number of other sports? Some would distinguish boxing from these by virtue of its intent: to overwhelm an opponent by force. If so, then the prohibition of all martial arts should surely follow.

These are practical arguments and, worthy as they may be, they miss the point. The point is that the AMA is seeking to use the power of the government to deny the legitimate aspirations of boxers. Worse, it is seeking to deny to the members of this group within the Australian community a presumption of human dignity. The AMA is explicitly saying that boxing is dangerous. But its call for prohibition is an implicit claim that boxers, or would-be boxers, are too stupid, or immature, or uneducated to know what is best for them. Therefore, as children, they must be protected them from themselves.

Some people need to be protected from themselves. Those of us who are parents know that. Parents possessing even a small amount of wisdom also know that as their children approach adulthood, the enforced protections must be progressively relaxed. This does not involve a reduction in love or caring, just a recognition that as the child grows into adulthood, he or she must in justice, and for his or her own good, be permitted the full rights of adulthood, as he or she needs also accept its full responsibilities. Our firm orders to the child transform, as the child ages, into suggestions and around the time of the child's maturity, may even be bitten back rather than chancing affront to the young adult's sense of self.

The AMA, though, is not backward in offering advice -- some may even call it haranguing -- on matters of safety. That can be tolerated. Going beyond that to calling for coercion cannot.

Part of the problem is a lack of understanding of what could motivate a boxer. A person who seeks to commit physical harm to another, and is prepared to take a sound beating in pursuit of that goal, is as an alien to many, including me. I cannot get inside such a person's head.

But are there not many people who also seem like aliens to each of us? Some justly resent the tax money spent on artists and musicians whose work seems to him or her utterly nonsensical, yet that work is appreciated by many others. A person who has difficulty writing and prefers physical activities may find me to be an alien, writing, as I do, for a living. A person of the political left may consider the same of one of the right, and vice versa, which probably accounts for their penchant for attributing evil motives, rather than different understandings, to each other. It is this diversity of humanity that makes society possible ... and interesting.

Many of us may not understand what motivates a boxer, but in fairness we should recognise that high quality boxing is achieved by a special combination of talent, training and work, as is composing operas, programming computers, painting portraits, or even administering medical care.

I cannot understand how a person could willingly choose to place himself in harm's way. But a person's choice to do so should, surely, be honoured. Just as we honour those Australians who -- equally incomprehensibly to the likes of me -- have placed themselves in harm's way in defence of their nation in many foreign lands over many decades.

Will the AMA call for the disbanding of the Australian Army? Soldiers sometimes die, as we remember on this ANZAC day. But we grant them the dignity of humanity, of being people who have freely chosen to use their talents and training in our defence. Let us not regard them -- or boxers -- as children who must be protected from their own impetuosity.

© 2001 - Stephen Dawson