Football’s Head Games: The Concussion Question
snake has been let loose in the autumn Saturday and Sunday afternoon Edens of those couch potatoes among us who love to watch football.
I heard Charles Barkley, interviewed at Wimbledon, remark that now that the word is out about the frequency of concussions in football more young black athletes will begin playing tennis, golf, and other sports where the life-shortening element isn’t so serious. Is this, I wonder, true? I have no notion, though, contra Sir Charles, the number of African Americans currently playing major league baseball, last I had heard, had dropped from 33 percent to roughly 8 percent.
The concussion question reminds me that boxing—one of the great sports of my boyhood in the 1940s and early ’50s—is, if my interest in it is any measure, moribund. Every so often, channel surfing on HBO or on one of the ESPN channels, I come across a prize fight and pause. The spectacle on view is generally two Hispanic-surnamed guys, heavily tattooed, in garish shorts, flailing away at each other under sad and swollen faces. Truth is, I feel a little unclean watching it; it feels, more precisely, like viewing pornography, something one shouldn’t be doing.
How did boxing go from the premier American sport to its wretched current condition? Baseball may long have been the national pastime, but nothing drew the excited attention of sports fans the way a heavyweight title fight did. I recall, at 14, sitting in the Nortown movie theatre on the northside of Chicago on a Friday night in the autumn of 1951 when the movie was stopped to announce that 28-year-old Rocky Marciano had knocked out 37-year-old Joe Louis two and a half minutes into the eighth round of their fight in Madison Square Garden. Movie-stopping—that’s how big boxing was in the United States in those days.
So sad that watching a boxing match has begun to resemble watching a human sacrifice.
Every boy of any athletic pretension knew all the boxing moves: Jabs, hooks, crosses, uppercuts, the bolo punch (devised by a welterweight named Kid Gavilan, née Gerardo Gonzalez). Playground fights always began in boxing posture, with one’s guard up. My father, Canadian born, and hence a man with no interest in baseball or football, liked boxing, and bought two sets of boxing gloves with which he taught me, at roughly age seven, the rudiments of the sport. (My own last fight, let me insert here, was at age 11 with a boy named Barry Pearlman in the Eugene Field School playground, and it ended in a draw.) He also took me to the Golden Gloves, the intercity amateur competition of three-round fights in all weight divisions that served as a minor leagues of sorts for professional boxing.