Last week brought media reports of a new study undertaken by Professor Willie Stewart at the University of Glasgow which apparently demonstrates that professional footballers who play in defence for ten to fifteen years are five times more likely to suffer dementia that the general population, leading to suggestions either that heading should be banned in the game and/or even that footballs should be sold with accompanying health warnings.
Coming on the backs of both (1) the settlement reached four years ago between representatives of former pro American footballers and the leading American NFL team owners costing hundreds of millions of US dollars over the prevalence of ex-players who have developed degenerative brain issues as a result of playing the game and (2) the recently highly-publicised attention given to the effects of repeated concussions in rugby union (including a raft of new head injury assessment (“HIA”) protocols for the professional version of the game and lawsuits being brought by prominent ex-players), Professor Stewart’s findings bring new focus to the effects of sports – particularly at elite level – upon the human body.
It was only a matter of time.
Someone once said – perhaps rather glibly – that “life is a terminal disease” and many humans, possibly because we believe that exercise is de facto good for us and enjoy undertaking it (and/or indeed enjoy watching others doing it) either ignore or pay little attention to the progressive effects of excessive exercise upon the human body despite the inescapable fact that ultimately – like all living things – we go the way of all flesh.
All sports fans – no, make that all human beings – accept that the process of ageing brings with it occasional bouts of minor stiffness, lack of flexibility and various aches or pains.
We all know those in our personal lives – and have heard of sports stars whom we worshipped in our youth – who in middle and later life undergo hip or knee replacements, even ACL, back or shoulder operations … and just accept these as accompaniments to life as it eventually has to be lived by some of us.
I can recall once reading an article on the apparently indestructible, combative legendary Liverpool footballer Tommy Smith who – only few years retired – in his early forties used to take up to thirty minutes every morning massaging his knees simply so that he could get out of bed.
On a more mundane level, I once had a cortisone jab in an Achilles tendon about five weeks before taking part in a London Marathon after I’d yanked it badly whilst on a training run. The private doctor that I saw about the problem had “stopped me in my tracks” somewhat when – in reviewing my options – he told me “You’ve got to remember that your Achilles is 44 years old: it’s a bit like a rubber band, eventually its elasticity wears out …”
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to my subject today.
Like all those with even a passing interest in the Noble Art, I have always accepted the fact that – irrespective of whether or not one has willing accepted the risks by taking part in sparring or actual bouts – repeated blows to the head (either received or dished out) aren’t exactly going to improve someone’s health. Examples of “punch drunk” former boxers abound in every form of the game from well-regulated schoolboy clashes through to amateur and/or professional contests and even the bare-knuckle (illegal, underground) variety.
The issue is no respecter of talent or background.
Who can ever forget the great sports journalist Hugh Mcllvanney’s memorable dispatch in the wake of the tragic 1980 bout in which the Welsh challenger 24-year-old Johnny Owen lost his life in a world bantamweight contest against the Mexican Lupe Pintor:
“Our reactions are bound to be complicated by the knowledge that it was boxing that gave Johnny Owen his one positive means of self-expression … It is his tragedy that he found himself articulate in such a dangerous language.”
As I watched some of the highlights of the latter stages of the Olympic boxing tournament yesterday – as ever, Team GB hitting both highs and then also lows – I found myself reflecting on the current ludicrous state of the world professional heavyweight scene in which Messrs Joshua, Wilder, Fury et al. seem to have spent the past two years minimum bombarding the media with highly-inflated “stories” about trash-talking, potential bouts they’re going to have (or not) with each other, ad infinitum … and yet there’s been precious little action in the ring.
Let us leave aside for a moment the fundamental issue of whether or not boxing can be justified as a sport at all given the obvious effects of blows to the head involved in beating the crap out of another human being can have upon the latter’s health.
Overnight it occurred to me that it might be an improvement if “professional boxing” as it is currently conducted around the world was abolished overnight and instead all the accompanying power, glory – and indeed gold medals – for boxing were decided at the Olympics held every four years.
Just thought I’d mention it.