Last month, the sporting world was struck by the news of the passing of professional boxer Patrick Day. Following a knockout loss to Charles Conwell in a super welterweight title bout, Day fell into a coma and four days later, died from brain trauma injuries. The phenomenon of boxing-related deaths is nothing new, however debate surrounding the ethics, safety, and legal ramifications of the sport is on the rise in light of this tragic case and others.
The immediate reaction has been quite polarized with some saying that death is simply part of the risk that is run in participating in such a violent sport, while others have called for the abolition of boxing entirely. However, the most pragmatic solution came from Day’s promoter, Lou DiBella, who called for better safety measures to ensure more protections for those in the ring. This week, he outlined a number of suggestions that would increase safety such as elevated scrutiny of Performance Enhancing Drug (PED) use and more attention toward weight loss and dehydration. Others have called for the sport to go a step further by adding increased padding to gloves and headgear and shortening fights.
The difficulty in changing the fundamental safety structure of any organization is the necessity to prove that a safety issue exists in the first place. Similar to what happened to large tobacco companies and what the pharmaceutical industry is currently dealing with, the NFL spent billions trying to disprove that there was in fact a safety problem with its product because of the negative consequences acknowledging such a problem would, and did, carry. Even though the NFL concussion settlement has already paid out almost 700 million dollars to retired veterans, the case is still ongoing and already has caused many players to retire earlier than they might have without the revelation of CTE and has made countless families to reconsider whether they want their child playing football.
So, the question for boxing is: does the sport need to acknowledge that it has a safety problem? Well, the answer is a lot harder than you might think. Two of the biggest forces in pushing the NFL to admit that it had its own safety issue were well-recognized trends of player brain injuries and public opinion pressures — both of which the sport of boxing lacks. The revelation of CTE in ex-NFL players such as Terry Long and Junior Seau became widespread predominantly because of headlines that detailed these former stars acting extremely out of character following their careers. That they both died from suicide grabbed the eye of the sports world and these “anomalies” evolved into evidence in what would become the trend that would force the NFL to overhaul its rules.
However, boxing doesn’t have the widespread publicity, star power, resources, nor a meaningful trend to begin considering modifying its safety regulations. Although the death of Patrick Day was the fourth boxing-related death in 2019, he was only the first American to die of injuries sustained in a bout since 2006. And, although four deaths in a single year is a new high for boxing, many other years have seen two and three deaths. Moreover, though there have been eight boxing-related passings since 2017, from 2014 to 2016 there was only one so there is really no consistent trend for proponents of increased safety to rely on.
These stats all come together to say that boxing likely won’t face much outside pressure to reshape its rules in the near future and so the onus for change is largely on boxing organizations. While there are few precedents on cases related to injuries sustained in boxing, two examples highlight the potential for future issues to arise. In 2017, the State of New York agreed to pay out $22 million to Magomed Abdusalamov, who suffered severe brain damage in the ring four years prior and was subject to less-than-adequate post-fight care that resulted in a loss of walking and speaking ability. Earlier this year, former boxer, Daniel Franco, sued his agency Roc Nation Sports for severe brain damage he sustained after being pressured into three fights despite concerns of his health and readiness. While the case is still ongoing, the lawsuit itself represents the culpability involved in boxing and another ruling in favor of the boxers would foreshadow additional player-safety suits in the future.
It is wholly possible that given the differences between the way professional football and professional boxing are structured, boxing will never face the sort of pressure that the NFL was forced to confront. Yet, as boxing-related brain trauma and deaths pile up, one has to wonder just where the organizations or their fans draw the line. The NFL clearly handled the CTE research poorly and continues to pay a steep price for doing so. If the sport of boxing and its administration is paying attention, any legal settlements and unfavorable media associated with future injuries far outweigh the cost of preemptive safety measures and additional research. It is easy to express regret and give the routine “thoughts & prayers,” but unless those involved at all levels of boxing demand change, Patrick Day’s life, and undoubtedly many others, will have been in vain. Either way, the decision is in boxing’s corner.