Various sports writers expressed their delight over the weekend at the likelihood that the International Olympic Committee will decide this week to allow women's boxing in London in 2012. I cannot, however, share their enthusiasm for the "girl power" of the oxymoronic "ladies who punch". Like the members of the American Medical Association and the British Medical Association, I think that boxing should be banned for women – and men.
As the trail of human wreckage shows, many boxers, though they may not be seriously injured by a single knockout, deteriorate under the rain of chronic punishment. Brain damage, detached retinas and internal bleeding await the participants in this "sport," as legitimate as a crap game played with crooked dice.
The odds are against anyone coming out of a career in the ring in good health, as witness Muhammad Ali, known for his defensive tactics but imprisoned by Parkinson's Disease to which, like Alzheimer's, the boxer is easy prey. There may be regulations, but their purpose is to avoid the boxer's collapse too early in the match so as not to cheat the spectators of a full evening of fun. Padded helmets appear to offer protection, but the effect of repeated blows to the head is the same.
For the amusement of those watching, the boxer takes a beating that, if it happened on a street corner, would brand them as cold and cowardly for not trying to stop it. But in the ring, say defenders of the sport, he – or she – is not set upon but fights out of choice. Yet how free is that choice?
One of the women to whom the Independent on Sunday spoke said she boxed because "there's nowt else to do where I come from," the same reason that black men from poor families, barred from the education and jobs reserved for whites, put on the gloves. Is our society so poor in both money and spirit that young people today have no better way out of poverty than the one taken by Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, the son and grandson of slaves?
But even if the boxer is middle class, the more important question is not one of choice but example.
The Puritans, said Macaulay, opposed bear-baiting not because it gave pain to the bear but pleasure to the spectators. What seemed a good joke against the Roundheads in his time, however, makes good sense in our own.
We have long banned cruelty to animals, out of self-interest – we recognise that a tormentor of animals is likely to move on to humans, and that it is not good for a society if its citizens can look on suffering unmoved. While we campaign to help the tortured bears of Asia and women who are beaten by their husbands in Africa, we ignore the men and women right here who perpetuate the debased idea that inflicting pain is fine entertainment.