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Tough Luck

Mark Poutenis

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.

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 is...basketball. 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.)

Same with sports. Many more people get hurt playing, say, baseball (about 174,000 every year) than those who sustain injury while parachuting. But a parachuting injury is far more likely to be really bad news -- about thirty people die every year from leaping out of airplanes. About fifteen years ago, a survey by the U.S. Hang Gliding Association found that air-show pilots had an absurdly high fatality rate: five for every thousand. Yet only about a thousand pilots considered themselves air-show participants, so the tiny sample size (and admittedly unfortunate number of fatalities) resulted in an overblown mortality rate.

All that said, many sports truly are dangerous. By any measure, professional race-car driving is an extremely perilous sport. Between 1991 and 2001, when Dale Earnhardt hit the Big Wall at Daytona, there were sixteen fatalities on U.S. racetracks --1.6 per year. (Daytona International Speedway, incidentally, has a particularly bad record, having hosted 27 departures from this mortal coil since its opening in 1956.)

Scuba diving sees about 75 deep-water swimmers die every year. Eight high school football players left the living in 2001. About 2,000 swimmers sink each year. Seventy-five hunters ended on the wrong end of the gun in 2001 -- the same year that 728 bicyclists pedaled into eternity.


Legislators aren't talking about banning scuba diving or high school football or boating, though. For that matter, we permit extraordinary risk when it comes to non-athletic activities, such as smoking cigarettes (about 400,000 fatalities yearly in this country). So why are lawmakers getting so stodgy about brawling?

In boxing -- and in its bastard sons, of which Toughman is one -- the idea of the sport is to inflict pain and injury: Those who tend to give the most hurt tend to win. As a result, it's not surprising that people can and do get seriously injured when they fight each other. Every year, a handful of them fight to the death.

According to the Journal of Combative Sport, which keeps the most exhaustive records of fatal boxing injuries, since 1920 an average of about ten people a year worldwide have gone to the great ring in the sky while boxing. About 70 percent of those fatalities involved professional fighters. The vast majority of boxing's deaths (566) occurred in this country. New York State saw the most casualties: 73. Colorado can claim eleven boxing life-stoppers.

By that measure, Toughman Contests are comparatively safe. The sport has had only seven deaths since its inception in 1979, or less than one every three years. (Some published reports put the total at thirteen, or a death every two years. But several of those fatalities weren't in official Toughman bouts; they were in Toughman-like bouts -- like the event held this past weekend in Denver, in which no one died.)

If we're going to accept the statistical specter of death as a reasonable measure, then boxing, football, bicycling, car racing, skydiving and scuba diving -- to name just a few -- are all considerably more dangerous than Toughman fighting. So if the statistics don't justify banning Toughman contests, why prohibit them?

That's where legislative "intangibles" enter in. At the State Capitol, logic and fact are not always the bricks and mortar of lawmaking. Legislators take other factors into account. For example:

Too legit to quit. The deeper a dangerous sport is embedded in the culture, the less the chance of pulling the plug. It's way too late to outlaw the crash-prone NASCAR races; President Bush even attended one such event a couple of weekends ago. (Hint to aspiring lawmakers: Don't try to ban any sport that has grown into its own voting bloc.)

Make sure you can win. Lawmakers, self-preservationists at heart, shy away from impossible issues. If one tried to ban the deadly sport of high school football, he'd come across as an insane zealot headed for a long career as just one more trial lawyer. Ban Toughman, though, and he's a concerned senator working the Issues.

Go where the money...isn't. When it comes to our nation's health, boxing is by far the worse threat. But do you think Donald Trump (not to mention Donald King) and HBO are going to allow their meal ticket to be taken away? More people died while skiing in Colorado last season (fifteen) than have been beaten to death in a quarter-century's worth of Toughman contests. On the other hand, skiing also contributes about $1.4 billion to the state's economy annually.

Okay, as long as you're trying. Legislators tend to ignore bad news if someone can give them a piece of good news to chew on. Two hundred twenty-five kids died on bikes last year -- but helmet laws have cut deeply into biking fatalities. Thirty-six high school kids died playing football in 1968 -- but rule changes and better equipment have drastically lowered the numbers to today's annual single digits. Keep up the good work!

Is it loved only by losers? If an activity can be made to look ridiculous to the average citizen, it makes a better target for crusading legislators. In its editorial, the News did this twice. It referred to the deadly Toughman match as "bare-fisted" (images of drunken meatheads whaling on each other) when both fighters wore boxing gloves. It also chose to highlight the Florida woman's death (what kind of sport allows women to fight to the death?!) even though it was the first recorded female boxing fatality ever. The result: Toughman comes off looking like a feudal death rite enjoyed by morons and misfits. So who would really miss it?

That may sound cynical. After all, our lawmakers wouldn't ban something just because it was popular with barroom punks, social dropouts and poor people.

Would they?


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