After the tragic September death of U.S. boxer Levander Johnson from brain injuries suffered in a lightweight title fight, an editorial La Civilta Cattolica, an influential Jesuit magazine, condemned professional boxing as "a form of legalized attempted murder."

The piece was published toward the end of what could be called the year of the boxer. In 2005, we have been treated to three thoughtful and moving depictions of the "sweet science": a PBS special on the first African-American champion, Jack Johnson, and two Hollywood offerings, Million Dollar Baby and Cinderella Man. Indeed, our culture seems fascinated with the sport at a time when no boxing heroes currently dance in the ring.

Despite the culture's fascination, Christians have been at best ambivalent about how sweet this science is. This Catholic editorial—which was summarized in Catholic News Service (from which I will quote in italics)—falls clearly on the side of moral opprobrium. But when you examine its arguments one by one, you realize that the case against boxing is no stronger than it is against any sport.

The editorial is troubled, for example, because boxing has left more than 500 boxers dead over the last 100 years.

Indeed, we should be troubled, and more troubled than the editorial lets on, for the number of deaths is likely double that, according to an article in The Journal of Combat Sport. This anti-boxing study covers everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-death-and-boxing. But in the end, when it compares death rates of professional and amateur boxers with those of industrial workers, it is forced to conclude, "While death rates in professional boxing are higher than the average for all workers, they still compare favorably to the average for other industrial workers."

Add to that the 1,600 football-related deaths since 1931, according The Annual Survey of Football Injury Research—well, one can see that something more than the mere number of deaths has to be considered when evaluating the morality of a sport.

Then there is this: Unlike other sports that also include an element of risk, the violence of boxing is intended and inevitably provokes physical damage, the magazine said. For that reason, it goes against the basic commandment, "Do not kill," it said.

But Christian ethics have never held that an action that inadvertently results in death is equivalent to attempted murder—even if one is deliberately attempting to injure the other party.

Now, as to whether it is morally permissible to deliberately inflict temporary harm on another: Let's remember that most competitive sports involve just this sort of aggression. Football, soccer, and basketball all require intense intimidation. One aims to dominate one's opponent physically and devastate him psychologically to gain the edge that leads to victory.

Article continues below

A key difference in boxing, of course, is that destabilizing one's opponent physically is the direct aim, whereas in other sports, it is but an indirect and inevitable consequence of other goals (like opening a hole for a fullback). It is precisely the directness and simplicity of boxing that is so unnerving: it exposes the aggression inherent in nearly all sports. This theme will be developed in future columns, but suffice it to say here that many sports demand a deliberate and intense aggression that takes its toll on soul and body.

Professional boxing, it said, is an industry controlled by powerful economic organizations which are often "pitiless and cruel," and for which the boxer is simply a moneymaking machine.

Naturally, if this is a telling argument, we would need to ban all professional sports (and probably modern capitalism itself). Every professional athlete who has been summarily traded or cut will tell you that he very much feels like a "moneymaking machine" for corporate interests.

Finally, The magazine said it was raising the issue of the immorality of boxing because "the human conscience cannot fail to rebel and cannot remain silent in the face of aberrations that are so contrary to human and Christian morality and gravely damaging to man, his life, and his dignity."

And yet the success of the recent PBS and Hollywood offerings on boxing—each of which showed the sport ennobling the humanity of the participants—suggests that boxing is more complex than our Jesuit friends suggest.

I'm not defending boxing, as such—which at the professional level is corrupt, pointlessly dangerous, and in desperate need of reform. But I am arguing that the knee-jerk ethics we apply to boxing would, if applied consistently, eradicate many sports that bring us joy and meaning. Surely, we must think more deeply about these matters.

In the next few columns, I will explore the unique nature of boxing precisely because I believe it reveals a great deal about all sports, which combine play, tragedy, art, and spirituality in a combustible and glorious mix.

Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today. Play Ball, a column on the intersection of sports and faith, appears every other week, but has been on hiatus during an editorial "off season."

Article continues below

Related Elsewhere:

Other Play Ball columns include:

Something Noble and Good | Professional sports is often boring, but real sports is not. (May 13, 2005)
The Lovely Paradox of NFL Draft Day | It's an event of biblical proportions—and wisdom. (April 29, 2005)
Negotiating Sunday Sports | This culture war was lost long ago. Now what? (April 15, 2005)
The Prodigal Sports Fan | There is hope for the idolater. (April 08, 2005)
The Thirst of the 24/7 Fan | Understanding the idolatry in sports. (March 01, 2005)
March Madnesses | The layers of insanity know no end—thank God. (March. 18, 2005)
Spectating as a Spiritual Discipline | For those who have eyes to watch, let them watch something more than highlight films. (March 11, 2005)
The Grace of Sports | If Christ can't be found in sports, he can't be found the modern world. (March 4, 2005)
Baseball Isn't Entertainment | The sooner we stop thinking sports are about the spectators, the more enjoyable the games will be. (Feb. 25, 2005)
Rooting for T.O. | Why Terrell Owens irritates most of us most of the time. (Feb. 11, 2005)
Freedom Between the Goal Posts | Sports is much more important than our culture lets on (Feb. 4, 2005)
Salt and Light in the Arena | It's going to take more than a few good Christians to clean up sports. (Feb. 18, 2005)
Rooting for T.O. | Why Terrell Owens irritates most of us most of the time. (Feb.. 11, 2005)

Play Ball
From 2005 to 2007, "Play Ball" examined the relationship of sports and faith: sports is important precisely because it is a form of play, that is, a manifestation of the Sabbath. Contributors included Mark Galli, Collin Hansen, Mark Moring, and others.
Previous Play Ball Columns: