Boxing’s History With CTE

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Boxing and brain injury go hand in hand. While chronic traumatic encephalopathy is just now becoming a serious part of the discussion of football and its safety, studies linking CTE and boxing were being published in 1928. Boxing culture has even given the condition cute nicknames, a kind of macabre way of dealing with knowing that they all will be brain damaged by the age of 30. Punch drunk syndrome, Boxer’s dementia, and etc., they all just mean CTE.


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The longer history also means the rhetoric around boxing and CTE is much more advanced than that of the NFL’s current debate. We have learned a lot about chronic traumatic encephalopathy and traumatic brain injury in the decades since the first scientific literature came out on the condition, and recently it was discovered how to identify proteins linked to CTE in living patients. However, the NFL is still performing rhetorical gymnastics to avoid stating a direct link from the sport to brain injury. The legal suits against them are actually preventing the NFL from being able to deal with the association between the two.

Helmets have been shown to help prevent boxers from suffering traumatic brain injury, though recent studies suggesting sub-concussive hits can lead to CTE suggest the helmets may not be so helpful there. Still, professional boxers do not wear them and have no regulations for head protection.

Violent sports are facing a critical point in their history, and boxing may be forced to address their long history with CTE soon. Ninety percent of boxers suffer concussions through their career, and it is likely a large amount of them also deal with CTE, though the exact amount is unclear. Boxing.com suggests the number could be twenty percent of boxers, though they also say it is very possibly more.

Regulation is clearly the best path for all parties. The NFL can tone down their huge hits to protect their players, or keep fighting lawsuits while their popularity fades. Boxing is strictly regulating how long boxers must wait before re-entering the ring after a knock out, but the refusal to enact helmet rules for boxers in favor of K.O.’s isn’t going to protect anyone’s brains.

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