Lee Groves

Boxing and Football: The Message and the Massage


Most of us have heard versions of the following two sayings: “Perception is Reality,” and “If you say something long enough, loud enough and often enough, the people will believe it.”

Sayings only become sayings when enough people believe they ring true. In this era of worldwide satellite TV and almost universal Internet access, the public at large is bombarded with information. Because many issues have more than one side, it’s usually up to the individual to determine whether what they hear is worthy of their belief. However, the news sources they choose to trust often lend a helping hand, if not an outright push.

The American media in general – and the U.S. sports media in particular – remains a powerful force in terms of shaping opinion. This is especially true in this era of the 24-hour news cycle; after all, there’s air time to be filled. Therefore, once the media latches on to an idea – a message to massage if you will – they have the means by which to turn that idea into conventional wisdom and transform conventional wisdom into “truth.”

For the past several months – and particularly the last few weeks – the mainstream sports media has locked its lasers on the negative aspects of the National Football League, far and away the most powerful, pervasive and profitable entity in American sport. The New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal and the unprecedented suspensions that followed morphed into a lengthy debate on whether bounties are part of the larger football culture – even down to the Pop Warner level.

Junior Seau’s shocking suicide on May 2 resuscitated another simmering issue: Football’s long-term effects on its athletes’ brains. In widening the discussion of Seau’s death, the tragic ends of Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, Pittsburgh Steelers players Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long and Mike Webster and Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters were retold. So were the stories concerning the ongoing class action suit by ex-players against the league concerning concussions and other brain trauma suffered during games and what they allege is the NFL’s lack of response. The letters “CTE” – which stand for the degenerative brain disease “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” – have been uttered more times lately than LOL, IOU, CEO, CIA and IRS.

The never-ending onslaught of anti-football stories are starting to sink in – and in some cases they have inspired action. On May 8, 31-year-old guard Jacob Bell announced his retirement just 32 days after joining the Cincinnati Bengals because he feared for his long-term health. The eight-year veteran said that while he had been concerned with the effects of playing football for some time, the Seau story proved to be the final straw.

That’s the kind of influence today’s sports media wields. Their words and images – combined with the public’s willingness to absorb and believe them – can either build foundations or render them rubble.

Boxing is a sport that knows this all too well. Through a process that began nearly 30 years ago, a varied series of events combined with a barrage of negative stories resulted in “The Sweet Science” plunging into mainstream media purgatory. But before recounting how boxing’s decline occurred, here’s an overview of where the sport once stood.

From the time Jack Dempsey burst onto the world scene with his sensational third-round knockout of Jess Willard in July 1919 through the “Four Kings” era of the 1980s, boxing occupied a major place in the sporting culture. The biggest fights once merited daily multi-page spreads in the New York Times and during the earliest days of television boxing was featured in prime-time six nights a week. Hollywood cranked out dozens of movies with boxing as its backdrop, three of which – “On the Waterfront” in 1954, “Rocky” in 1976 and “Million Dollar Baby” in 2004 – earned Academy Awards for Best Picture.

Boxing terms became part of the lexicon: “She’s a knockout,” “He’s a stand-up guy,” “Those politicians went toe-to-toe,” “They really slugged it out,” and so on. Moreover, the sport had deep roots in everyday life and its ideals were passed from generation to generation. High schools and colleges fielded boxing teams and Police Athletic Leagues offered boxing programs to youths across the nation. Earning a Golden Gloves title was the ultimate affirmation for an amateur, whether he came from New York, Chicago or some other urban area. That hard-earned designation was enough to earn the deserving few instant celebrity status – and even the treasured label “Olympic hopeful.”

Television played a pivotal role in inspiring future stars. Multiple networks showcased up-and-coming amateur boxers in country-versus-country dual meets, allowing viewers to learn the athletes’ names and follow their progress toward possible Olympic berths. Once the Olympics began, ABC – which aired nearly every Summer and Winter games for a generation – made boxing a prominent part of their coverage.

That phenomenon peaked in 1976 when five U.S. team members – Leo Randolph, Howard Davis Jr., Sugar Ray Leonard, Michael Spinks and Leon Spinks – captured gold medals and received ABC’s trademark “Up Close and Personal” treatment throughout. Those segments not only captivated viewers, they had a direct effect on the fighters’ earning power. Immediately after Montreal, Leonard, Davis and the Spinks brothers signed TV deals that made them fabulously wealthy even before they fired their first professional punch.

That’s the persuasive power of the media; if it believes something is worthy, it becomes worthy.

During the early- to mid-1980s, big-time boxing’s prominence was such that mainstream TV staples like “Good Morning America” did remote shows from Las Vegas solely because that was where the match of the moment was about to be staged. Additionally, ESPN’s “SportsCenter” and CNN’s sports division regularly dispatched anchors and experts for multi-night preview segments. Back then boxing had real buzz, and a tremendous source of that buzz was generated by interested journalists.

While boxing always had its seamy, corrupt underbelly, that didn’t discourage networks and newspapers from fully covering the sport. That’s because there always was an assembly line of star fighters to profile, a succession of compelling fights to report and a countless number of beyond-the-ring characters to interview.

During those years, the dynamic between boxing and the mainstream sports media was a symbiotic one. Each fed off the other. But somewhere along the way, that symbiosis began to turn into a vicious circle.

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