Friday Night Fights

Fight sports have always been a part of public entertainment, from ancient Roman gladiator games to medieval jousting and contemporary mixed martial arts. The beginnings of contemporary boxing are typically traced to late-19th-century England, when the ninth Marquess of Queensbury endorsed a code generally accepted to outline the rules of the sport. The golden age of boxing in the United States started in the 1920s with fighters such as Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney, and in the 1950s, boxing benefitted from the television broadcast of matches combined with the emergence of legendary figures such as Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard. Friday boxing broadcasts, “Friday Night Fights,” were communal experiences that strengthened bonds of family and friends in much the same way that sports entertainment does today. Yet this opportunity for familial bonding was not entirely wholesome, especially for the athletes involved.

Benny “Kid” Paret’s death sparked a conversation about the safety of the sport of boxing. Yet Paret was only one of many boxers who have died as a result of boxing injuries. And for many other fighters, the sport’s long-term physiological effects can be horrific. “Boxer's brain,” from which Griffith himself suffered, is a term used to describe traumatic brain injuries that result in dementia and other problems for professional boxers, including Muhammad Ali. Chronic traumatic brain injury (CTBI) occurs in approximately 20% of professional boxers and results in various degrees of cognitive and behavioral impairments. Those who suffer with CTBI experience symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease but cannot be treated with the same medications; the most effective form of treating CTBI is thought to be prevention.

CTBI and other similar syndromes have been observed in football players, leading to recent discussions around the safety of the sport. In 2017, TIME magazine reported that degenerative brain disease was found in 87% of former football players, and a large post-mortem study found that 110 out of 111 deceased National Football League players suffered from what is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This disorder has been linked to dementia, suicidal thoughts, and declines in memory, cognitive abilities, and mood. In 2013, the NFL even implemented a four-year initiative to accelerate the diagnosis and treatment of traumatic brain injuries called Head Health Initiative.

The more modern medicine understands about how the brain functions, the more scrutiny contact sports have received. At the same time, boxing and football are hugely lucrative parts of the athletic and entertainment industries. Even for many players, the possibility of a large paycheck can overcome the fear of long-term brain injury. It is thus unlikely that these sports will ever cease to exist. But the stories of Emile Griffith, Benny Paret, and those like them, remind us that there can be a real human cost to our entertainment. As consumers, we can advocate for rigorous safety standards and lasting change.