Lee Groves

Boxing and Football: The Message and the Massage

Floyd Mayweather, the face of U.S. boxing, grew up with his sport often vilified in the mainstream media. New York Jets runningback Thomas Jones (left) is getting a taste of what that’s like with the recent slew of negative reports on the NFL and football’s long-term effects on its athletes’ brains.

 

The seeds of boxing’s decline might have been sown on March 24, 1962 when Emile Griffith – on live TV – inflicted the damage that eventually killed Benny “Kid” Paret. Following an enormous initial outcry, those calls were stilled largely because of one extraordinarily charismatic figure: Muhammad Ali. Once he departed the scene two decades later, those seeds of negativity began to germinate with a series of unforeseen yet devastating events.

It all began when undisputed welterweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard announced he was canceling his scheduled May 14, 1982 defense against mandatory challenger Roger Stafford due to a detached retina, an issue that compelled him to announce his retirement on November 9 despite undergoing successful surgery. While Leonard was applauded for putting his health over his career, boxing as a whole was dealt a severe blow because its most prominent and magnetic star chose to leave the sport at the absolute peak of his powers. Moreover, it scuttled any hopes for a superfight between Leonard and undisputed middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler sometime in 1983.

Three nights after Leonard’s announcement Aaron Pryor pounded Alexis Arguello into a semi-conscious nightmare in a HBO-televised megafight that rated only behind Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney in mainstream media appeal that year.

The following afternoon CBS aired Ray Mancini’s WBA lightweight title defense against mandatory challenger Deuk Koo Kim, a sensational 14-round war that ended with Kim carried out on a stretcher and, a few days later, in a casket. The fact that Kim had written the Korean equivalent of “kill or be killed” on his hotel room lampshade only amplified the scope of the tragedy.

Those unspeakably brutal knockouts were joined by two other matches that emphasized boxing’s uglier side. First, on November 26, 1982 Larry Holmes’ dismantling of Randall “Tex” Cobb on ABC was so graphic that Howard Cosell – the network’s voice of boxing for most of the previous two decades – severed his ties with the professional game the following morning. Two weeks later Michael Dokes scored a 63-second knockout of Mike Weaver on HBO that many believe smelled of cronyism at best and corruption at worst.

At the time these series of events struck, boxing had the best of all worlds as far as coverage was concerned. Its major fights were still written about in the largest metropolitan newspapers. Cards featuring up-and-comers and down-and-outers were televised by basic cable networks like ESPN and USA Network. Free over-the-air networks aired live year-round matches that featured contenders and lower-division champions, all the while producing excellent pre-fight profiles that provided professional and human-interest context. HBO was starting to hit its stride in terms of production value and its ability to attract the fights that were too pricey for the over-the-air networks’ budgets. Pay-per-view access within the home was starting to replace closed-circuit as the platform of choice for transcendent mega-matches.

Every level of the game was addressed like a pyramid rising toward the heavens. There was the firm foundation, the supportive middle and the definitive peak.

However, the cumulative damage wrought in the 32 days between Leonard’s retirement announcement and the scandalous Dokes-Weaver I bout shook the sport’s foundations in ways few ever thought possible. As the dust began to settle, the weight of the aftermath would slowly rot that pyramid from the inside out.

The tenor of the stories turned from personality profiles and upcoming superfights to an overarching examination of the sport’s inherent risks, its administrative evils and the question of whether boxing should even exist within a civilized society.

In a January 14, 1983 editorial, Dr. George Lundberg, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, urged that boxing be banned, citing the Holmes-Cobb and Mancini-Kim fights. He asserted that although the fatality rate may be higher in some other sports such as college football, sky diving and horse racing, “in contrast to boxing, in all other recognized sport, injury is an undesired by-product of the activity.” While his assertions were roundly criticized in the pro-boxing community, enough media outlets began to reconsider boxing’s worth – and they weren’t afraid to say so on the air and in print. Repeatedly.

For example, on November 14, 1982, a New York Times editorial declared that boxing be abolished, equating the sport to public hangings. John Noble Wilford, in critiquing Lundberg’s editorial, wrote “boxing seems to me to be less sport than is cockfighting.” Times writer George Vescey opined that “society has the right to protect the health of its members, sometimes even by banning activities.”

The resulting media onslaught eventually took a toll on this most resilient of sports and the damage reached the highest levels of government. On June 7, 1983, a House Education and Labor Committee voted 12-11 to approve an amendment by then Rep. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) to have a study panel decide “whether boxing as a professional sport should be abolished.” Of course, it wasn’t but the sentiment to pursue that objective was definitely present.

It has been said that if the world were to end only the cockroaches would survive – and to many, boxing is the cockroach of sports. However, if those who have the power to influence opinion and shape programming schedules decide to stomp a cockroach hard enough and often enough it will eventually die.

Such was the fate of boxing as far as its consistent prominence in mainstream society. Boxing became politically incorrect and many parents dissuaded their youngsters from taking up the sport. Only the most desperate and/or contrarian souls managed to push aside the public pressure and chase after their dreams within the squared circle. Access to the sport through the schools withered away, leaving those who wanted to box far fewer options. Meanwhile, the availability of football fields, baseball diamonds and basketball courts continued to expand.

Over the next several years, boxing’s media presence eroded. Award-winning sportswriters that had spent decades exclusively working the boxing beat either retired or were ordered by their editors to cover more palatable sports like football, baseball, basketball and hockey. TV network decision-makers in the sports divisions at ABC, NBC and CBS stopped airing prime-time boxing extravaganzas and soon cut off access to the weekend anthology shows like “Wide World of Sports,” “CBS Sports Spectacular” and “NBC’s SportsWorld.” The public at large, in effect, was being weaned off boxing.

In the prime years the networks aired matches 30-36 mostly consecutive weekends a year, but then the schedule was whittled down to 18 non-consecutive weeks, then to 12 weeks, then to a six-week late-summer series and then – poof – nothing. Even though the die-hards protested vehemently their voices were ignored. The die had been cast and no minds were willing to be changed.

Never was that arrogance more evident than during the final months of the USA Network’s “Tuesday Night Fights” series in 1998. Boxing fans pleaded for a change of heart only to be rebuffed by the channel’s freshly-minted hierarchy, who arbitrarily decided that boxing was too old and too stale for the younger demographic they wanted to pursue. This, despite boxing’s more-than-respectable ratings on that network.

The downward spiral extended to the Olympics. After a series of debacles in the 1988 Seoul Olympics aired by NBC – topped by a ring riot and Roy Jones Jr.’s horrific robbery loss to South Korean Park Si Hun in the 156-pound gold medal match – the network removed boxing from its prime-time coverage starting in 1992. To be fair, the network’s 1992 TripleCast showed plenty of boxing on its Red Channel and in the last three Olympics many hours of coverage were available on CNBC. But as far as exposure on the main network – the station with by far the highest viewership and the venue of choice in terms of piquing the interest of potential new fans – boxing was nowhere to be seen.

The blackballing of boxing over the past generation surely affected the sport’s prospective pool of competitors – especially in the United States. The adage “out of sight, out of mind” was applicable here; for countless candidates to be the future of American boxing instead turned to basketball and football. It’s easy to see why given the 24/7/365 coverage both sports enjoy today. The physical demands of all three sports are considerable, but the rewards of big money and consistent TV exposure lie with only two of them. When ESPN decided to start airing high school games in basketball and football a few years back, that all but cemented the decision-making process for future athletes – and the loved ones who influenced them most.

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