In 1867, John Douglas, the Marquess of Queensbury, set out to regulate the sport of boxing. With the help of John Graham Chambers, he published the Queensbury Rules of Boxing. One of the main changes to the sport was the introduction of boxing gloves. Prior to these new rules, all boxing was bare-knuckle. Sports historian Nicholas Hobbs paints a picture of these brawls lasting 75 rounds until one of the fighters succumbs to exhaustion.
Interestingly though, as the bare-knuckle campaigner Dr. Alan J. Ryan pointed out,"In 100 years of bare-knuckle fighting in the United States, there wasn't a single ring fatality." In 2013 we had the passing of Frankie Leal as well as Magomed Abdusalamov being put in a coma following a beating from Cork-based Mike Perez, in a HBO televised bout at Madison Square Garden.
The reason Magomed Abdusalamov was put into a coma is simple. Over 12 rounds, he took a beating to the head that caused internal bleeding. Due to the fact that he wasn't knocked out, he was allowed to continue and therefore didn't show signs of ill health until later in the evening. How then did bareknuckle fights go on 75 rounds with no fatalities in the 1800s, while a 12 round live broadcast from New York City results in a man being severely paralyzed and on the brink of death?
Economics is a topic I generally try to stay well away from for two reasons: for fear of highlighting my lack of intelligence and for possibly embarrassing my parents and former educators with my clear dearth of knowledge of the field. With that in mind, let's tackle an economic definition - Moral hazard: "The lack of any incentive to guard against a risk when you are protected against it."
In real financial terms, "moral hazard" refers to when large financial institutions make high risk plays because they know weak corrupt governments will ultimately bail them out, should these high risk plays fail. The polar opposite of this is when unemployed citizens choose not to find paid employment because they know they will receive social welfare payments. The introduction of gloves to the sport of professional boxing is an application of moral hazard to sports.
The reality is, punching someone's jaw consistently over the course of 70 odd rounds is not practical or possible. The bones in your hand break quite easily when they land on a jaw, and after several blows, your hands swell. As such, bare-knuckle boxers focused on the stomach, chest and arm regions. However, with the addition of 10 pound gloves, chins became a viable target again. Constant punches landed to the head region is not healthy and has caused the fatalities in boxing to rise. In essence, the Marquess of Queensbury made boxing a more dangerous sport rather than a safer one.
As sports consumers, we all want to see the best product: the hardest hits, the largest dunks, the longest home runs. However, we must ask ourselves what physical effect this is having on the athletes involved. During the broadcast of the Perez-Abdusalamov bout, Max Kellerman announced that we could be "watching a contender for fight of the year."
As a kid I grew up watching Irish boxer Wayne McCullough take rope-a-dope to another level and wear punches to the jaw like a badge of honor. Nobody at the time told me of the retribution to his health from this tactic and as such I've grown up idolizing boxers who take two punches to deliver one.
Just last week Judge Anita Brody denied preliminary approval on the concussion settlement of $765 million between the NFL and all retired players. The NFL is a sport that has suffered greatly from both our increased bloodlust and from moral hazard. As our lust has grown, so too has the inherent need to "protect" the players though larger and stronger helmets.
However, this has now reached an apex, where players use their helmets as battering rams making the game increasingly unsafe and causing a rise in concussions. The simple fact is, players wearing helmets feel more protected and as such, act recklessly.
In his book David and Goliath, Malcom Gladwell introduces the theory of an inverted U curve, which is broadly similar to the law of diminishing returns. At a certain point on an axis, advantages tip and actually become disadvantages. Safety equipment in sports is a prime example. Small helmets protect you. Large helmets seemingly insulate you from danger and actually hurt you.
As more and more sports try to remove risks from their games for fear of litigation, sports should be mindful of moral hazard and its effect on participants. As sports fans, what is our duty of care? Do we have any?
If we as consumers refuse to buy the product, sports will have to change. Will it take a tennis player to die from heat exhaustion before we switch off? How many ex-NFL players does it take shooting themselves in the chest before we'll say enough? Or when we hear that bell, do we really care? Are we merely modern day spectators at the Coliseum, baying for blood?