I used to love boxing. Back in the late '70s and early '80s, I could name every champion in every weight class recognized by the World Boxing Association and its rival, the World Boxing Council. I was savvy enough to know that whereas the WBA called 122-pounders "junior featherweights," the WBC called them "super bantamweights."
My only, to my knowledge, appearance on national television took place when I was seated at ringside at a heavyweight title elimination bout and was seen talking to another heavyweight contender. I was watching on November 13, 1982, when Duk Koo Kim fought Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini and, as a result of the beating he took, died four days later.
I used to love boxing. I wish that I could say that it was the brutality of the sport that made me turn away from boxing, but that wasn't the reason. What killed my love for the sport was the greed, venality, and corruption that came to dominate and define the sport. Groups like the IBF and the WBO emerged to join the WBA and the WBC, complete with their own "champions." As far as anyone could tell, their sole raison d’être was to collect sanctioning fees and facilitate the manipulations of unscrupulous promoters.
Virtually every fight of any consequence ceased being shown on the likes of HBO or Showtime -- never mind network television -- and was available only on pay-per-view. Not only did you have to pay $50 to see a fight you might have seen for free or as part of your cable subscription a few years before, but the fights were usually fought in Vegas, which meant that the main event didn't start until around midnight in the East.
For a while HBO and Showtime continued to show fights, usually featuring fighters, such as the late Arturo Gatti, who were invariably described as "warriors" -- "warriors" being a euphemism for fighters whose sole "skills" were stamina and the ability to withstand an ungodly amount of punishment. The lack of skill and my knowledge of what those "wars" were doing to the fighters made it difficult, if not impossible, to watch or care. There would be no "second naiveté" for me when it came to boxing.
It's happening again. This time it's football.
Until recently, if you cut me my blood would run Big Blue. My friends will testify to the hold that the New York Giants have over my sense of well-being.
Make that "used to have." As with boxing, the greed, venality, and corruption associated with football, especially but not exclusively the NFL, make it hard to care. Between owners who hold entire cities hostage (with one honorable exception) and squeeze fans for every last penny, including the obscenity that is the personal seat license; players who increasingly require a personal bail bondsman; sycophants and shills passing themselves off as journalists; and the blatant disregard for the truth that is needed to sustain the whole enterprise, I want the NFL to lock the players out, not because I favor the owners (I don't) but because I want the NFL to go away and, hopefully, stay there.
Then there's what the game does to the players: recent pieces in the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell and Ben McGrath document the toll that football takes on those players, especially linemen and linebackers. While McGrath's piece is the most recent, you should read it first and then read Gladwell's. If you have any moral imagination, you'll find that Gladwell's analogy between watching the kind of dogfights that sent Michael Vick to prison and watching today's NFL distressingly apt.
What is the NFL doing about it? While professing to be concerned about head injuries and concussions, it also wants to increase the number of games from 16 to 18 and is willing to shut down the game to get its way.
It isn't only head injuries and hip replacements: a recent edition of HBO's Real Sports and a New York Times article told the story of what happens or is likely to happen to all those over-sized linemen. Hint: It's not good and it isn't anything that should surprise us. It's the kind of thing we cannot not know or at least suspect. What is the NFL doing about it? It’s offering to pay for cardiac stress tests. Just the tests, mind you. If you need, you know, actual treatment, that’s on you. And if you can’t afford it, as many of them can't, well, it stinks to be you.
Throw in the hypocrisy and double-speak that is the lifeblood of big-time college football and it's hard for me to watch football, especially since -- unlike boxing, whose shady side has always been on display -- football literally wraps itself in the flag, complete with jet fighter flyovers. Loving football is depicted as essential part of what it means to be an American, or at least a "real" one.
Geez, I hope not. I'm already internally displaced. But I'm afraid that I hope in vain. Oh well, there's always the UFC.
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