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Gladiator Sports Risk Brain Injuries, Not Audience Decline

Two men will pummel each other May 2, and it will generate hundreds of millions of dollars.

That’s a rather simplistic description of the long-awaited pay-per-view fight between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, but it accurately reflects what this HBO-Showtime collaboration represents — and why talk about efforts to curb big-money sports to better protect the athletes is, mostly, just that.

Indeed, for all the coverage generated by the subject of brain trauma related to football, the game’s popularity — and the piles of money surrounding it — has cities falling over themselves seeking to attract or retain franchises. Nor is there much evidence litigation on behalf of former players will do much more than provide them with overdue compensation for their risks.

There is nothing new, obviously, about the gladiatorial instinct, or the willingness of athletes or daredevils to brave irrevocable damage. What has changed is the expanded appetite for content, and the allure of live events as a hedge against recorded viewing that frequently skips past advertising.

Another factor, no less significant, is the influence of reality TV, which requires pushing ever further to tickle nerve endings of an audience that’s been there and seen that. Small wonder boxing has ceded ground to mixed martial arts, which ratchets up the violence by reducing restrictions on what body parts can be used as weapons.

That’s not to say what we know about sports and their repercussions doesn’t have an impact. For many who once thrilled to the prospect of a championship fight, the advancing image of Muhammad Ali — spouting poetry and floating like a butterfly then; a shadow of his former self now — is difficult to banish from one’s mind.

Still, critics needn’t invoke ancient history to witness boxing’s effects. Last month, 23-year-old Australian fighter Braydon Smith collapsed after losing a 10-round bout, and died two days later.

New data, meanwhile, paint troubling pictures of the long-term effects associated with concussions suffered during football, boxing and MMA.

Playing pro sports, obviously, isn’t the only hazardous occupation around. And defenders of the games — including fans and those profiting from them — can seek to rationalize away health issues by saying combatants are more aware than ever about potential consequences.

At this point, no one is stepping into a ring or onto a football field without some idea that they could be gambling with their lives for their livelihood. As a boxing blogger in the Guardian put it, fighters might work in “an ugly industry that profits from their blood, sweat and tears, (but) … people want to watch fights and people want to fight.” Supply, meet demand.

Still, nobody should harbor any illusions about the complicity of those who stage these events and, in the case of Pacquiao-Mayweather, the millions who’ll pay the equivalent of a ticket to Disneyland to watch. Although a few NFL athletes have garnered attention for deciding to quit playing due to medical concerns — such as the San Francisco 49ers’ Chris Borland — the financial incentives are so great that finding enough willing bodies to field teams isn’t likely to become an issue any time soon.

In this context, a conversation years ago with “Big Brother” mastermind John de Mol is worth mentioning. Asked about the ethics surrounding perilous reality programs, the Dutch producer noted matter-of-factly that while he would never do it, he would have no problem finding contestants for a program in which 10 people jumped out of an airplane knowing that only nine of the parachutes were functional.

That sort of leap into the unknown is precisely what we’re allowing young people who participate in dangerous sports to do — putting a grim spin on the idea of dying to entertain us. The major difference, really, is that their faulty parachutes are failing to open in very, very slow motion.

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