Tough Luck

Why are lawmakers putting up a fight against the Toughman contests?

The ever-vigilant Colorado Senate recently passed a bill that would ban so-called Toughman contests -- three-round pick-up boxing matches that pit untrained fighters against each other, generally in front of drunken fans. The proposal, which has since been PC-ishly amended to address "Toughperson" contests, now awaits a hearing in the House.

More than a dozen other states have already banned or heavily regulated the sport. And lawmakers aren't the only ones calling for its demise. Citing the death of a female contestant in Florida, the Rocky Mountain News has editorialized strongly against the contests. "The results of these brutal fight shows are anything but make-believe," the paper lectured. "What will it take for the legislature to ban them?"

There's no doubt the Toughman bouts can be brutal. Untrained fighters are unpredictable. Anyone can throw a punch; fewer people are trained to avoid one. And when an inexperienced fighter goes up against a superior brawler, the result is often a bloody mess. Those matches are the exception, though. Like Super Bowls, the vast majority of the fights don't live up to the gory hype.

Mark Poutenis
Mark Poutenis

So why did the Colorado legislature decide to pick this fight? What, exactly, do reformers mean when they say a sport is too dangerous to exist?

Number of injuries is a good place to start. The National Safety Council issues an annual report detailing which sports give their participants the biggest pain. The data is gathered from hospital emergency rooms, where patients are asked to tell the truth about how they got banged up. According to this very basic measure, the most dangerous sport out there The NSC counted 653,661 hoops-related injuries in 2001. Next up: bicycle riding, which contributed 546,236 bruises (and other owies of varying severity) -- and that doesn't even include mountain biking!

But is basketball really that dangerous? No, because simply adding up numbers doesn't create a complete picture. Basketball has so many injuries because lots and lots of people -- just over 28 million in 2001 -- play basketball.

To get a better understanding of a sport's danger level, we must turn to the laws of probability, to determine an athlete's odds of getting hurt while participating in a given activity. According to American Sports Data Inc., a New York company that specializes in sports and fitness research, a tackle-football player was more likely to sustain an injury than any other athlete last year. Just under one in five players (18.8 percent) could expect to get hurt while scrambling for the pigskin. Coming in second was ice hockey, which put the hurt on about 16 percent of its participants.

But while a football player may be at greater risk of being injured than other athletes, most people still don't consider the game particularly dangerous. That's because there's another element at work, which we'll call "exposure" (taken from the sport of climbing, where exposure to a long-distance tumble figures into the rating of a route's difficulty). The idea of risk exposure is subjective, of course. One person's death-defying sky jump is another's National Guard weekend commitment.

A few weeks back, Aaron Boone tore some knee ligaments while playing basketball. In the scheme of things, it wasn't an earthshaking event; millions of people injure their knees every year and, like them, Boone will probably recover fully in several months. What makes Boone's injury a case study in risky behavior is that he's a professional baseball player. The New York Yankees pay him $5.75 million every year to play third base, and the baseball team considers basketball such a dangerous game that its player contracts specifically prohibit it.

Most people don't have so much riding on a basketball game, though, so we'll confine the discussion of exposure to something everyone can understand: the threat of serious bodily injury. The University of North Carolina maintains the aptly named National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, which keeps tabs on the major sports played in high school and college. According to the NCCSI's measure, football -- in particular, high school football -- again leads the pack.

The NCCSI found six gridders who suffered permanent paralysis in 2001; ten more sustained terrible career-ending injuries. In fact, of all the catastrophic injuries absorbed by high school athletes between 1982 and 2002, 97 percent were incurred during football. The sheer number of boys playing football complicates matters, however. Two other sports -- hockey and gymnastics -- actually boast a slightly higher per capita rate of injury.

Admittedly, paralysis and concussions are bad. But sports in which those injuries are common pale compared to athletic endeavors that include the very real possibility of death in their exposure ratings.

Some events thrive on the lurking presence of the ultimate sacrifice. Without danger hovering about, BASE jumping, in which participants leap from buildings and bridges with a parachute, would be just another hop. Similarly, street luge, speed skiing and any number of so-called extreme sports sell tickets based on the possibility that a spectator could at any moment view some major harm.

The threat of death can also skew the stats. Often, it's the mere suggestion of death, rather than the odds of a fatal accident actually occurring, that gives us chills. Most people are more afraid of flying than driving, even though you are far more likely to die behind the wheel than plummeting out of the sky. (Conversely, almost no one is afraid of boating, which kills about 700 people annually.)

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