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Hero In The Ring: Concussions Or No, We Won't Stop Playing Contact Sports

Theron Tingstad: "While I don’t know if boxing was, on balance, the right thing to do for my mind and body, I do know that it was good for my soul." Pictured: A fight at the World Championships at  Albert Hall, London, on Feb. 18, 1930. (AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Theron Tingstad: "While I don’t know if boxing was, on balance, the right thing to do for my mind and body, I do know that it was good for my soul." Pictured: A fight at the World Championships at Albert Hall, London, on Feb. 18, 1930. (AP)

I had just collected one of the half-dozen victories that would make me collegiate boxing’s 2000 Midwest champion. I sat down on a folding chair in a back room of the arena. I could hear the crowd roaring in the background as my coach pulled off my gloves and cut the tape from my fists. I leaned forward, put my head in my newly bare hands, and rested my elbows on my knees. I was enjoying the adrenal denouement. Suddenly, something felt wrong. I raised my head and stared with confusion at my uncovered palms. “What happened to my hand-wraps?”

Concussions are headline news. In May, President Obama hosted the White House Healthy Kids and Safe Sports Concussion Summit. Earlier this year, the NFL reached a $765 million settlement with thousands of former players suffering the enduring effects of brain injury. The NHL is facing a similar lawsuit from former players. Former collegiate football players are suing universities and the NCAA over head injuries. And last week, to much fanfare, the NCAA released new guidelines to protect student-athletes from concussions.

The archetype of confrontational competition is as much a part of humankind as the love story, the war story or the odyssey.

An HBO Real Sports/Marist Poll in October 2013 revealed that about one third of Americans have become more concerned because of the link between football, concussions and long-term brain injury. Yet, the same poll found that seven in 10 Americans, despite these concerns, still believe that the benefits of this violent contact sport outweigh the risk of injury.

What is it about football, or any contact sport, that makes 70 percent of Americans believe it’s worth the risk of traumatic head injury? Are these people crazy?

No. Something else is going on here. There is something primal and human about these structured physical confrontations. The archetype of confrontational competition is as much a part of humankind as the love story, the war story or the odyssey. When I stepped into a boxing ring as a 20-year-old, I was stepping into the role of the hero. I was stepping into the recurring, time-honored role that we celebrate in history and myth. Sometimes, I was heavily favored: I was Achilles terrorizing Troy. Other times, I was the underdog: David facing Goliath.

Boxing not only functions, like myth and legend, as a metaphor for life’s challenges. It also provides the intensity and excitement that is so often missing from our everyday affairs. When I entered the ring, all of my preparation, hard work and dreaming were compressed into a blur of activity and split decisions. It was a concentrated, distilled experience happening at 10 times the speed of ordinary life.

Visceral physical competition stands the test of time because, in a civilized society, no other experience offers such a sharp connection between one’s actions and the consequences of those actions. When I was in college, I could turn a paper in late, I could call in sick to work with some excuse. But once that bell rang during a college match, there was nothing but aggression, sweat, confusion, near misses and the shockwave of a good punch traveling from my knuckles through my arm and into my body. In the end, I had nothing but the regret of defeat or the thrill of victory. There are few other areas of life in which, as legendary football coach Vince Lombardi put it, “to the winner, there is one hundred percent elation, one hundred percent laughter, and one hundred percent fun; and to the loser the only thing left for him is a one hundred percent resolution, one hundred percent determination.”

Boxing not only functions, like myth and legend, as a metaphor for life’s challenges. It also provides the intensity and excitement that is so often missing from our everyday affairs.

In my memory, these one hundred percents are more real than most other life events. I wouldn’t want to deny a young athlete the opportunity to know what I’ve known.

Research suggests that up to five years of fighting poses little risk of permanent brain injury. It is true that this research is ongoing and new findings are generated every year. For example, one recent study found significant elevations in biomarkers for brain injury immediately following amateur boxing matches. But there is no linkage yet to long-term damage.

During my five years of boxing, I got my “bell rung” more than once. But I’ve yet to see or feel any symptoms of lasting damage. In fact, I recently graduated from Harvard with my master’s degree. There is, however, still time for symptoms to manifest. While I don’t know if boxing was, on balance, the right thing to do for my mind and body, I do know that it was good for my soul.


Related:

Theron Tingstad Cognoscenti contributor
Theron Tingstad is a former all-American collegiate boxer, an Airborne Ranger who served with the 82nd Airborne in Iraq and a recent Harvard Kennedy School grad.

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