Tony Kornheiser always writes with engaging wit and style. However, in his piece "The Sweet Science" (July 9), he has chosen the wrong subject for his satirical thrusts. There is nothing amusing about the prospect of a boxer dying or ending up as a vegetable every time he enters the ring. By ridiculing those who express their anxiety over the possibility of such an eventuality, Kornheiser exposes his insensitivity.
Unfortunately, the defenders of boxing, which at its worst is nothing more than legalized manslaugther, have all the weight on their side, in numbers and in access to the media. There is a desperate need for an even-handed public debate on this issue.
Although Kornheiser devoted most of his column to defending the mismatch between Larry Holmes and Scott LeDoux, his statements contain a number of dubious assumptions that call out for a response. Let's look at several of his points:
The Divine Right to Turn a Profit Argument: Kornheiser dredges up the assumption that the networks, motivated by the single factor of profit, are not obligated to assume any moral responsibility for what they offer the viewers on prime time. As a stance on laissez-faire capitalism, this places Kornheiser somewhere to the right of Adam Smith. How about ABC presenting prime-time cock fights to turn a profit? or live barroom brawls? The potential impact on ratings would be irresistible.
The Bill of Rights Argument: If I read Kornheiser correctly, he takes the position that we have no right to protect a boxer against himself. When a boxer steps into the ring, he knows what he is doing and chooses to risk brain damage or death. In other words, a boxer with suicidal and masochistic tendencies should not be deterred from venting these impulses. The question here, it seems to me, is not a matter of the rights of the individual, but whether self-destructiveness should be exploited in a public spectacle before a prime-time audience of five million or more, including children. I doubt if John Stuart Mill, the great English libertarian, could see his way clear to accepting that one.
The Pornography Argument: "Boxing," says Kornheiser, "is the pornography of sport, appealing to our dark side, offering vicarious, cathartic release to our aggressions." Carrying this reasoning to its logical conclusion, it would be permissible for ABC to show hard-core sex films in prime time because, if one merely places "sexual" before "aggressions," they serve the same therapeutic function as Kornheiser says boxing does. Of course, we know that hard-core sex films are not shown on prime time because it is assumed that they would inflict psychic and emotional damage on children. And here is where the hypocrisy comes in. Watching one man knock another man unconscious can certainly inflict more serious psychic and emotional damage on children than the viewing of explicit sex acts. While any adult can plump down five bucks to see a porno flick and thus "release his aggressions," there is absolutely no way that such exclusiveness can be achieved on prime-time television. I wish that Mr. Kornheiser would get his thinking straightened out on this matter. Does he advocate prime-time pornography or not?
The "Bleeding Heart" Argument: Throughout his piece Kornheiser ridicules a friend who phoned him after the Holmes-LeDoux mismatch and said anxiously, "LeDoux might have been killed!" Kornheiser refers to his friend as a "sofa-bed solon," a term which sounds like a not too distant cousin to "bleeding heart liberal." The speciousness of this tactic is evident. If you are unable to defend your position, hit your opponent where it is likely to hurt the most -- in his sense of manhood. Thus, the proponents of boxing glorify the virtues of machismo, physical toughness, and gutsiness while putting down those who reject pornographic violence as weak and effeminate. What is even worse, in the eyes of the pro boxing people, those opposed to the sport might be intellectuals.
The object of a prizefight is not to run over an opponent's goal line, or to kick a ball in a goal, or to score more points than one's adversary. The object is to knock one's opponent unconscious. If this were not the goal, then the participants would wear protective headgear.
Apart from the huge amounts of money that can be made by any champion in his weight division, there is no argument that can justify the existence of the sport. It brutalizes the fighter, it dehumanizes the spectators and it befouls the social climate. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that the sport will be banned. There are too many Yahoos around to profit from it. But we should try to contain it, as we have succeeded in containing pornographic films. Boxing is a sleazy business and no society that calls itself civilized would place legalized mayhem under the umbrella of economic freedom or the Bill of Rights. Tony Kornheiser thinks otherwise. In my opinion, he is wrong. Dead wrong.