The tragic tale of Mike Towell rocked the sporting news for the past couple of weeks. Towell suffered swelling to his brain and bleeding in his British title eliminator in Glasgow, and died, having “fought right to the end”, according to a statement from his partner.
Unfortunately, Towell’s story is not alone, rare as it may be, and should make the sporting world turn in on itself and question exactly what it is inspiring when it proudly announces increasing numbers of participants, motivating stories from underdogs, gracious champions, the most sportsmanlike conduct imaginable and the like.
The benefits of sport are often obvious. There is, of course, a health aspect in a world were the most developed countries are facing increasing health risks surrounding poor eating and exercise habits. Then, naturally, there are the often feted values that sport can teach young people in a way that little else can. One of my personal favourites I recall from an interview with Irish rugby legend Paul O’Connell, that in rugby sometimes you know someone else is going to be the hero, but you have to work hard and make your sacrifices to allow them to be that hero. There are more generalised values too; the plight of the underdog and never giving up has been a theme of the last couple of years of football, for example.
However, the drawbacks are not inconspicuous. A lot has been made of—and national associations have sought to clamp down on—poor behaviour by sporting stars and the need to stamp it out, lest it influence young impressionable fans; several notable biting incidents seem to spring to mind. Cheating, and drug use particularly as of late, is another poor influence that sport has had in recent times.
What Mike Towell represents to some is another of those negative influences that sport has, as severe injuries, sometimes carrying long term damage, are merely seen as part of the game, part of the sacrifice. In boxing, the threat of severe brain damage is real, as is that of death, though it is of course uncommon. In American Football, for example, former players who have spent at least five seasons in the league are about four times as likely to succumb to Alzheimer’s or ALS, whilst the majority suffer physical injuries that affect their quality of life (to small or large degrees) in their retirement. In rugby, the concussion protocol has been put in place to combat the recognition of the severe damage that the contact sport can do. In Formula 1, incredibly dangerous crashes are not infrequent, and the debate over the halo protection system have included whether or not it will hamper driving ability, regardless of the fact that it would probably save lives.
Why, then, should sports continue to be held up as such bastions of social value?
One answer lies in sports’ simplicity. Football is the most popular sport in the UK, and whatever the causes, one must be that all you need is a ball. Sometimes there is not even a need for another person, you could do shooting practice against a wall. For goals, one can use shirts or jumpers, and for a pitch any patch of grass, or concrete, would do. There is no wealth barrier, no talent barrier to play at the most basic level. Neither is there a complex system of rules to understand. FIFA currently claims there are 17, and famously there were originally four fewer, but in reality all you need to know is that the ball needs to go through the posts, only one person per team can handle it, and excessive physical aggression is probably not allowed.
Boxing enjoys that same simplicity. Gloves are seemingly a must (though they have not always been); besides that, it only takes two. There is no need for a large club, a regularised meeting to ensure the minimum number of people required to play turn up.
Through that simplicity, and the consequential lack of barriers of entry, such sports can become vents for energy for those lacking direction. The old cliché of boxing rises up again, that it is a sport filled with people who would otherwise be in prison, or possibly dead. However, the cliché has not been conjured up out of thin air. Perhaps the most conspicuous example is Anthony Joshua, one of the stars of the sport today, who has on several occasions opened up about his past difficulties with discipline, his close shaves with the law, his time spent on curfew with the police, and that boxing had saved him from all of that and a path that would have surely taken him to far worse.
His friend, Watford captain Troy Deeney, is from the other side of that line; having been jailed in 2012, Deeney came out and reformed his life in part through football, claiming that going to prison was the best thing that happened to him and that football was his redemption.
Of course, none of this hides the fact that boxing is among a number of dangerous sports in which we encourage members of our society to partake.
Yes, the question we should be asking is not why we allow people to engage in these sports that could risk their health or even their lives. The question that should be asked is for every person we tragically lose, though we may try as hard as we can to prevent it, how many has that sport saved?