The incongruous way media have chosen to cover the physical punishment in boxing and mixed martial arts on the one hand, and football on the other, is enough to give anyone who cares about sports a serious headache.
Each is brutal and dangerous, particularly concerning blows to the head. Each has legions of fans who are either oblivious to the risks or, more likely, don’t care.
Yet, while football has, for good reason, come under intense media scrutiny regarding players’ health, boxing and related “blood sports” are all of a sudden being celebrated in a glorious rebirth - by NBC, CBS, Fox and numerous other television and print outlets.
Earlier this month NBC sent 32 cameras and two of its most renowned commentators, Al Michaels and Marv Albert, to the MGM Grand Hotel here for the first prime-time network boxing matches in over three decades. NBC and its sister outlets have committed to 19 more boxing events this year, while CBS plans to cover at least eight. Fox now runs mixed martial arts fighting in prime-time.
The motivation for networks is hardly mysterious: money. It buys airtime plus a callous disregard for violence that masquerades as sport.
On May 2 boxing’s return to prominence will be on display at the MGM in what could be the most lucrative boxing match of all time, featuring welterweights Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao. This bout is far too rich for free TV and will be restricted to pay-per-view, with the two fighters expected to divide as much as $200 million.
Meanwhile, in football news, a relatively unknown San Francisco 49er player named Chris Borland announced his retirement at age 24, citing concern about repeated blows to the head during his brief career. This triggered an avalanche of media discussion over the risks in football, which are well documented and could eventually threaten the sport’s enormous financial success.
The New York Times has devoted considerable space - much of it on page one - to football injuries. The morning after NBC’s boxing debut The Times ran a lengthy piece about a former player at the University of North Carolina, now panhandling on the streets of Lakeland, Fla., apparently the result of diminished mental capacity due to football.
But you’d have to look hard to find similar reporting about boxing or mixed martial arts - sports in which the object is to hit someone’s head so hard that he is rendered unconscious.
Following NBC’s telecast several major papers carried pieces that oozed with nostalgia and fond memories of boxing’s glorious past on broadcast TV, without a whisker of concern about the permanent damage done to its participants. The Boston Globe columnist Carlo Rotella, a professor at Boston College, wrote about how his daughters asked repeatedly during the coverage, “who was winning and to root for the guy with the braids.” Apparently neither he nor they were much concerned about the blood, bruises and likely brain damage.
USA Today columnist Martin Rogers predicted “a bright future” for network bouts in which fighters try “to belt the living daylights out of each other.”
NBC decided boxing was a good idea after promoter Al Haymon, who manages some 150 fighters, offered a reported $20 million up front. That left NBC executive John Miller to rationalize: “If you play too much on the violence, it can be a little off-putting and doesn’t capture the skill that goes with this.”
If NBC hopes to draw an audience for prime-time boxing without playing too much on the violence it might as well also look for sitcoms that don’t dwell on comedy or newscasts that stay clear of current events.
As much as many of us love football, its long-range future is in question due to the violence. Fair enough. But where’s the hue and cry about the fight game?
Media have a responsibility to question physical risks in all sports and, with boxing, to stop pulling punches.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker