The Paradox of Boxing Gloves

Boxing is not a safe sport.

It sure is difficult to watch this video of former famous boxers now unable to speak because of the brain damage from repeated concussions. Imagine getting car-crash like brain damage by being punched in the head — then getting that thousands of times for a career.

Boxing wasn’t always this way. Boxing doesn’t have to be this way. Much of the blame can be laid at the hands of boxing gloves which, counterintuitively, actually make boxers less safe.

The purpose of boxing gloves is not to protect opponent’s bodies. The reason boxers started wearing gloves was to protect their hands when they threw punches. Prior to boxing gloves becoming the norm, it was uncommon to punch someone in the head with full force.

Wikipedia summarizes the research:

Hitting to the head was less common in the bare-knuckle era because of the risk of hurting the boxer’s hand. Gloves reduce the number of cuts caused, but British Medical Association research has stated that gloves do not reduce brain injuries and may even increase them, because the main cause of injury is acceleration and deceleration of the head, and fighters wearing gloves are able to punch harder to the head.

So why don’t we legalize bareknuckle boxing? Because the public is ignorant to these facts. And because bareknuckle boxing, though safer, draws blood, making it seem less safe. I say it just adds to the spectacle.

I have stated before that safety is one of the two most overrated thing in the West. That statement is incomplete. True safety is often underrated. Safety theater is overrated.

American Football is not a safe sport for the same reason.

The tackles that cause problems are not even interesting or extraordinary. An idea is gaining traction that brain damage doesn’t just come from the big impacts, but also the accumulation of many small impacts. Football players, though to a lesser extent than boxing, risk brain damage. And if you know how this is going, more equipment is not the answer.

It was not always this way. Let’s dive in the history of football rules. This was the first filmed game (skip ahead a bit and mute):

It looks so different than modern football! Most runs are short, ending in a big mosh pit in the center. You may think this looks boring, but your perception may be biased by how many games you have watched football with the current rules. Many people who are not fans of modern football may actually prefer this style of football.

Here’s what happened shortly after this footage (Wikipedia):

Finally, on December 28, 1905, 62 schools met in New York City to discuss rule changes to make the game safer… One rule change introduced in 1906, devised to open up the game and reduce injury, was the introduction of the legal forward pass. Though it was underutilized for years, this proved to be one of the most important rule changes in the establishment of the modern game.
As a result of the 1905–1906 reforms, mass formation plays became illegal and forward passes legal… Other important changes, formally adopted in 1910, were the requirements that at least seven offensive players be on the line of scrimmage at the time of the snap, that there be no pushing or pulling, and that interlocking interference (arms linked or hands on belts and uniforms) was not allowed.

The reason that the old game footage looks so weird is that the forward pass was not yet legal. It was later was introduced for safety reasons. But I question whether, like boxing, we have merely traded visible danger (i.e. bloody noses) for invisible danger (the more pernicious kind).

I allege that rule changes which reduce close-quarters impacts by making the players more spread out have the effect of allowing players to build up enough physical momentum that the collisions which do occur are much more concussion-inducing. If that sentence was confusing, here’s a diagram. The circles represent players, and arrows represent collisions:

And maybe the forward pass does make the game more safe, but we should make that determination based on research, not safety theater.

Why I am talking about this? Because it reminds me of my article on fragility vs. anti-fragility. Read it for context.

An less “fragile” rule set will incorrectly appear to be more dangerous, because collusions/bloody noses/etc. are more numerous. What we miss is that these many small hits are the price of avoiding the actually dangerous blows.

Sports leagues, when they tame themselves for general audiences, will prefer the “fragile” rule set, because the less-numerous injuries they produce can be conveniently swept under the rug. We all have it backwards.

An example of fragility (as opposed to antifragility): while regulations make it more difficult for modern furnishings to catch fire, when the do catch fire, rooms with modern furnishings burn significantly faster than those from the 1950s.

People, in general, have no idea of what types of intensity are good vs. what are bad. For instance, barbell training is the best way to gain muscle, but people are averse to it because of its intensity. They imagine it’s “unsafe.” But it works. People are so intimidated by barbells that the prefer bodyweight, circuit training, or light weights. This is a waste of time. I find that the more intimidating an exercise seems, the more effective it is. This is not reckless; I am very careful and measured with training. If people understood the concept of good intensity vs. bad intensity, they would not be so misguided about what is artificially save over what is actually safe.

I recently discovered that this “true safety” question is also relevant to Historical European Martial Arts. I’ll save you from watching this whole video:

For context, HEMA has an unearned reputation as a dangerous sport. HEMA is actually extremely safe.

The man in the video explains why, during his time in a small HEMA club, the club never had any serious injuries playing with historical weapons even with little protective gear:

  • Head hits didn’t count towards scoring (nor hands, nor feet).
  • They all trained together and built up a level of trust. As a result they were not terrified of being hurt. Scared people are those who lash out erratically in defense.

Injuries were small and almost never caused by weapons.

He then went to a big HEMA gathering where more protective hear was expected. He explains the drawback of more gear:

  • Gear that covers your face makes it harder to read expressions and leads to miscommunications.
  • Gear that covers your hands sacrifices your dexterity, which reduces your coordination and could cause you to injure someone. The main thing that keeps you safe is your opponent’s control over his weapon, and gloves reduce needed tactile sensitivity.
  • If people are wearing lots of armor all the time, then sparring opponents will think they can be less careful about safety with their moves.

The norm of being careful with and having control over one’s weapon is what keeps HEMA practitioners safe. Protective gear erodes that trust.

It gets worse for two reasons.

First, it’s a prisoner’s dilemma situation. Even if protective does gear make you safe, it makes your opponent less safe. Who takes the first step in armor removal? The rules really aught to restrict protective gear.

Which takes me to my second point: the rules are a zip tie. It’s easier to say, “let’s introduce a new required piece of gear!” than it is to say, “actually, that protective gear we’ve been wearing should be removed!” It is not politically popular to oppose safety theater, the most overrated thing in the west.