The pearl snaps and the 10-gallon hats were once the uniform of the professional bull rider. A grand look, giving off the air of civility in a wild and dangerous sport.
These days the pearl is covered up by a protective vest and the hats have given way to the helmet. Not near as grand. But not near as dangerous or reckless, either.
Bull riding hasn’t gone away. It has evolved. Similar to football with its newer, protective rules guarding against injury, but with a specific eye on brain injury. Baseball has evolved. Players wear helmets, believe it or not, they didn’t used to. Base coaches wear them, too. Likely, by this time next year, fans will be protected more than they have ever been, safer from foul balls, bats and dangerous consequences of watching a sport.
And with the recent death of 28 year-old Russian fighter Maxim Dadashev, it’s not wrong to wonder why boxing is so slow to evolve. The point of the sport is to hit someone in the head, knock them down and cause them to keep from getting back up. The result is brain damage. Famed trainer Teddy Atlas told ESPN Tuesday night, “Every time a boxer leaves the ring, they leave with a little less of themselves.”
In the case of Dadashev he left a child, a wife and his life.
Put helmets on these fighters. Put more padding in the gloves. Do both. Do something. Only six boxers have died because of injuries sustained in the ring since 2016. Doesn’t seem like a lot, it seems like six too many, though. Certainly not all injuries can be avoided. Certainly death can’t be avoided either, but the sport, like baseball, football, hockey and even bull riding, can make it more unlikely these things happen. More precautions don’t make the sport worse, they make the sport something that can continue to thrive. That’s why football has changed its rules. That’s why baseball is protecting its fans.
Inherent risk is always part of the game. Few, and not myself in this space, are advocating for the eradication of boxing, but if the only reason to oppose safety measures is a canned response of, “these guys aren’t as tough as we were back in my day,” then it becomes a case of dim-wittedness and a stubbornness and inability to move forward.
Football players are dying. Perhaps there’s not enough evidence to know if it’s because of football-related trauma, but the NFL isn’t exactly waiting around for definitive proof – it changed its rules. There’s more procedures and protocol for concussions. You can’t hit players in the head any more. Practice time has been significantly reduced. Why? Because the risk is too great.
There’s enough information to know boxing is beyond dangerous. We’re more educated than we ever have been. And maybe that’s why fewer and fewer people and less and less attention is given to the sport. Do we want the only people competing to be the disenfranchised or the uneducated? Or do we want to act on what we already know is true and let people make informed decisions?
Don’t confuse “softness” for educated. We know more about what inhaled smoke does to the lungs, so the government warns people. We know more about what happens when people don’t wear seatbelts in cars, so the government makes a law. No one says people who don’t smoke are “soft.” No one suggests taking off your seatbelt makes you tougher and eventually no one will say wearing a helmet in the ring ruins the sport. It’s already done at the amateur level, so the idea of doing it at the professional level shouldn’t be considered that progressive.
We know getting kicked in the head by a bull is a good way to get a concussion and we know getting repeatedly jabs to the head leads to brain damage.
Don’t do away with the sport, do away with the unwillingness to evolve.