Boxing rings produce serious brain injuries

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Boxing has a long and colorful history in Maine, and Lewiston has often been at the epicenter of the sport.

But professional prizefighting in the state ended in 2005 when the Legislature disbanded the Maine Athletic Commission to save money.

Now, some would like to again stage professional fights here.

Before that happens, however, the Legislature should review some of the reams of recent research on concussive sports injuries.

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Rep. Matthew Peterson, D-Rumford, is sponsoring LD 889 to permit traditional prizefighting in Maine.

Last week, a variety of people associated with boxing testified in favor of the bill before a legislative committee.

The group included Joe Gamache Sr., who has devoted decades to training young boxers and promoting fights in the Lewiston area.

Among those young boxers was his son, Joey Gamache Jr., winner of the WBA Super Featherweight title in 1991 and the WBA Lightweight Championship in 1992.

The Gamaches, along with the Muhammad Ali title fight in 1965, cemented Lewiston’s place in boxing circles.

Times change, however, and it is important to recognize the increasing body of research connecting blows to the head to a host of serious ailments and disabilities.

The image of the punch-drunk boxer has been around for decades. It was thought, however, such brain damage only developed after a long professional career.

Increasingly, however, research has shown that it doesn’t take a knockout or loss of consciousness to result in brain tissue damage.

At Thursday’s public hearing, Dr. Robert McAfee of Portland was the only person to testify against the boxing legislation.

McAfee, a vascular and renal surgeon for more than 40 years, told legislators he served as a ringside physician at many fights over the years.

“We’re dealing with a delicate brain suspended by little blood vessels,” he told legislators. “Every time the brain is hit, nerve cells are lost permanently.”

Rep. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, pressed McAfee on the issue: “Couldn’t we say (there is a risk of serious injury) in about any sport?”

“In no other sport is the object to injure your opponent,” McAfee said.

In fact, the result and goal of a boxing match often is to render your opponent unconscious, the very definition of a traumatic brain injury.

But there are two other concerns that have come to light in recent years.

Researchers have found that young brains are particularly susceptible to brain injuries. What’s more, they have found that sub-concussive blows to the head can result in significant long-term damage.

The American Association of Neurological Surgeons has found that head blows tear nerve networks, cause lesions, bleeding and even blood clots. They have found that ex-boxers are more vulnerable to a host of problems, including declining mental ability, memory loss, decline of motor skills, changes in personality and tremors.

Often, these issues do not become apparent until years after the injury occurs.

Clearly, boxing can have some of the same benefits as other sports, helping young people develop confidence, self-discipline and courage.

Unfortunately, those benefits come with more risks than many other sports.

From the high school level to the pros, physicians and trainers are looking for ways to make their sports safer and reduce the incidence of head trauma.

It is difficult to see how boxing could be made safer without eliminating the essence of the sport. It is even more difficult to justify bringing back a sport that we know with certainty to be dangerous.

That’s not good public policy.

rrhoades@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.

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