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Religion in the ring: death, concussion and brain bleeds

Religion in the ring: death, concussion and brain bleeds

In an interview for the Catholic Herald (2013, Sept, 16, p. 7), UK heavyweight boxer and Roman Catholic, Tyson Fury, comments on how he prays for his opponents before a fight.

He uses his ‘religion as a strength not a weakness’ - a theological tightrope indeed, according to the faith of St. Paul who was ‘strong in his weakness’ (2 Cor. 12: 10). When the pugilist, however, goes on to state that ‘I’ve a wife and two kids to provide for and if that means killing you in the ring, that’s what I will have to do’, he comes dangerously close to transgressing the six commandment, as noted in one of the few theological essays on this topic. The presence of a number of well-known professional Muslim boxers, such as, Mike Tyson, who Gordon Marino  calls the 'incarnation of pure rage', as well as the more cultured Amir Khan, and, the titles of the biographies of Christian boxers, such as, Foreman’s God in my Corner and Evander Holyfield’s Holyfield the Humble Warrior, also raise a host of ethical questions and paradoxes for the theologian.

Given that over 700 churches in North America have begun to integrate Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) into their ministry programmes, and the fact that MMA is now the fastest growing spectator sport in the US, surpassing boxing, one might argue that such developments demand a need for serious reflection from scholars of religion. There are obvious differences in those two sports, but they’re similar in one essential respect: the principal ‘goal’, within the rules of both sports, is to inflict harm on one’s opponent in order to win. Participants in other sports may be seriously injured (or even killed), as has so tragically become apparent in the last few weeks. But in rugby, American football, or cricket the intention is to stop the opposing player advancing into one’s own territory, to induce a top-edge catch, or whatever, and not to physically harm.

The instrumental nature of violence in boxing and MMA compared to other sports, and the well-documented risk of traumatic brain injury, concussion, irreversible neurological dysfunction, eye injuries, psychiatric conditions and death, has led to the British Medical Association (and many other national medical governing bodies), repeatedly calling for a ban. In addition, a moment’s theological reflection on the grandeur and dignity of human personhood in the sight of God – imago Dei – as well as the centrality of the call for non-violence in Jesus’s teaching, raises a ‘moral thorn’ for the religious amongst us. If the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, what could be the theological grounds on which the brutal and intentional infliction of violence against the body and the soul when watching or participating in boxing or MMA could be defended?

Tom Krattenmaker writing in USA Today,  extends this argument beyond those sports with intentional violence as the goal (which, it might be argued, may not be legitimately classified as sports), and asks: should we endorse other sports, such as, rugby and American football, which have recently come under intense medical, political and legal scrutiny, for the 'institutional acceptance and denial' of the major problem of concussion? As Alan Hubbard notes, central to these questions is the reality that 'too much is at stake financially, and this is a world in which money inevitably KO's morality', in boxing, MMA, the NFL and a list of other modern-day sporting activities. 

Are there any positive and redemptive aspects to these violent arts? Many have historically been supportive of boxing as a form of inculcating social control and character traits, such as, discipline, respect for self and others, a strong work ethic and what Gordon Marino , calls 'anger management therapy' for disaffected young men. During the 1920's, when European immigration of peoples to the cities of the eastern seaboard of the US caused widespread social unrest and an endemic gang culture, Catholic clergy and Jewish Rabbis actively developed boxing clubs and organised competitions. Neither has the notion that boxing and MMA can develop character and assist in maintaining social harmony, and even attract young men to attend church, been lost on some modern Church leaders. Mark Driscoll, the well-known US evangelical pastor, is a strong advocate of MMA. Ex-heavyweight boxing champion, and now Christian minister, George Foreman, suggests that boxing 'makes young people less violent'.  In response, we might well say that there are many other sporting activities that are physically demanding, involve physical contact and may assist in character development, but without beating one’s opponent into submission and risking inflicting brain bleeds, concussion, and in a small handful of cases, death.

Gordon Marino, who is both a professional boxing trainer and Professor of Philosophy at St. Olaf’s College, US, interviewed the professional boxer, Manny Pacquiao. The interview provides insight on to both the current position of the Church (ambivalence), and in turn, a mandate to be embraced by theologians and religion scholars alike:

The boxer Manny Pacquiao is a devout born-again Christian. He has earned world titles in eight weight divisions and was anointed “Fighter of the Decade” by the Boxing Writers’ Association of America. Before a recent bout, I pressed Pacquiao about the apparent conflict between his devotion to the God-man who insisted that we turn the other cheek and his concussive craft. There was a silence. I was worried that I stepped over the line and said, “I’m sorry if I offended you with that question.” The Pac Man responded, “No it is a good question. I think it is wrong that we try to hurt one another, but I also think that God will forgive us (him and his opponent) because it is our calling.” I could have pushed, “But why would God give you a calling that was sinful?” but instead I back peddled and left it at that – that is, at ambivalence.

Perhaps then, it is time for the Church and scholars and practitioners from other world religions, to seriously consider the difficult ethical questions that boxing and MMA bring to the fore.

Nick Watson and Brian Brock

Dr Nick J. Watson , is a Senior Lecturer in Sport, Culture and Religion at York St John University and co-Director of the Centre for Sport, Spirituality and Religion.  He is co-author (with Andrew Parker), of Sport and the Christian Religion (2014).  He is the convener of the forthcoming Inaugural Global Congress on Sports and Christianity (2016), which is hosted by York St. John University, UK, in collaboration with the Bible Society.

Dr Brian Brock  is a Reader in Moral and Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen, UK, and author of Captive to Christ: On Doing Christian Ethics in Public (2014).

This essay is based on Watson, N.J. and Brock, B. (2016, forthcoming) Christianity, Boxing and Mixed Martial Arts, in Adogame, A., Watson, N.J. and Parker, A. (eds.) Global Perspectives on Sports and Christianity, London: Routledge.

Image by martialartsnomad.com from flickr.com under the Creative Commons Licence

Posted 15 December 2014

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