The brutality of boxing and football

I have been writing about the dangers playing American football due to the increasing number of reported cases of brain injury due to the repeated concussions that American football players experience, and argued that there are strong grounds for schools and colleges not fielding teams since educational institutions should not be encouraging young people to run the risks of permanent damage by seeming to endorse a dangerous activity. If as adults they want to play, there is little we can do except not support them.

Mark Frauenfelder shares a gif showing a slow motion video what happens when a boxer gets hit in the face. The massive distortions that ripple across the face like a wave are quite frightening to see and, in a sane world, would result in people giving up boxing altogether.

It struck me that a similar video showing what happens to football players when they get hit may have a similar sobering effect. The catch is that we cannot see what happens to their faces because of the helmets.


  1. says

    One may not see inside the helmets, but seeing the helmets is enough. I watched an interview with a former NFL player (I forget who) talking about collisions at the line of scrimmage. He said his objective on every play was to push the offensive linemen’s heads backwards and upwards as their bodies were moving forwards, usually with an arm or the head. Effectively, he was trying to decapitate opponents on every play. You can still see that in any game you watch.

  2. Glenn says

    It’s perfectly legal to risk brain damage from sport concussions but go to jail for the alleged risk of using marijuana.

    What kind of brain damage produces social norms such as these?

  3. moarscienceplz says

    Yes. I always thought boxing was brutal and barbaric. I can enjoy the occasional football game though, and I never saw it as brutal because of all the padding and stuff they wear. Now I have to change my attitude. Unfortunately, this causes me to wonder how many other sports are damaging our kids? AND this comes at a time when we are realizing how NOT being active is really harmful, too. It’s kind of like food issues in light of what we know (and what we DON’T know) -- everything we do has positive and negative consequences -- how do we arrive at a sensible balance?

  4. tecolata says

    A person can be physically active without getting his/her brain scrambled! Walking, running, softball/baseball, dancing, swimming, etc. cause very few head injuries.

  5. says

    It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a helmet -- the brain is simply not evolved to withstand that kind of repeated impact -- just the forces of it whacking against itself or tearing against itself can damage nerves — usually the important bundles that carry signals between different lobes/regions of the brain. That’s why ageing boxers are “punch drunk” -- they have diskinesia resulting from (usually) damage caused when the frontal lobes shift against the temporal gyrus. I had a friend in college who dropped a motorcycle and -- even though he was wearing a helmet -- hit his head side-on to the road surface so that the impact apparently set up a vibration in the helmet and tore the crap out of his brain (that’s the technical term for it) he had severe coordination and memory problems after that. We get the same kind of injuries in wartime because of high explosive: the shockwave inflicts peak forces on the skull and the brain that they simply were not evolved to take. If you think about it, an early human’s biggest likely shock would be falling out of a tree or getting whacked in the head by another human. The latter can cause catastrophic damage but in neither case would the brain/skull be exposed to the kind of peak instantaneous accelleration that you’d get from the supersonic shockwave of high explosive going off.

    If you look at that boxing shot carefully what you’ll see is that the target’s skull is being literally knocked away from the meat comprising his face. I have done some similar studies with high speed cameras and the kind of effect you see here is quite striking (I wish they’d had a decent camera on the guy…) I did some early experiments with an aerobics instructor friend of mine shooting a high powered rifle (a .308 to be exact) and you could see the way the recoil of the gun knocked her skeleton away from the muscled flesh of her arms and back near the firing shoulder. It was quite unsettling to see the bones of her shoulder briefly exposed until the meat caught up.

    A few weeks ago I had a friend bob me rather gently in the face while I recorded it at 2000FPS with my Edgertronic high speed camera. Sadly, the main take-away from this one is that a lot of people like seeing me slapped.
    I also think it’s interesting how fast my eyes started to try to close as the slap came. I suppose I could count back the number of frames and calculate the reaction time, but it’s small.

    College football: go for the education, stay for the traumatic brain injury.

  6. DonDueed says

    If colleges and universities wanted to reduce the amount of brain damage suffered by their students in sponsored settings, they should start by shutting down fraternities. I’d bet my original script of the pilot episode of Firefly that the number of brain cells lost at a single kegger exceeds that in a typical football game, if only due to the larger number of students involved.

    I don’t mean to minimize the issue of brain injuries in contact sports, which are certainly a serious problem. But sports are hardly the only risky behaviors that young people engage in.

  7. Mano Singham says


    What you say is correct but the problem is that schools and colleges are not organizing the drinking parties. They are organizing and supporting football.

  8. Mano Singham says


    So that’s what you look like!

    Seriously, the way your face got moved back did not suggest a “gentle bob”. Unless even gentle slaps produce such a reaction and we just don’t see it in real time motion.

  9. Mano Singham says


    Yes, you are right. People who take part in boxing and football are likely not doing it for the exercise, at least not in the main part. They and the people who watch it are enjoying the gladiatorial aspects of it and seeing people get hurt is what seems to turn them on.

  10. lorn says

    Generally any impact sufficiently hard to cause unconsciousness is hard enough involve a small but not insignificant risk of death, disability, or impairment.

    Google : “Killed with a single punch”

    Some of those who die have defects in, usually, circulatory system which allows bleeding into the brain, but some who die have no identifiable defect. Humans are something of a paradox. Some times and some places people have withstood huge amounts of damage and survived with little or not long term issues. On the other hand, a single punch from an untrained and unremarkable person, and they die.

  11. says

    At least hockey can eliminate bodychecks and fighting and still be able to play the game, football can’t. (Hockey is played on ice. Field hockey is played on grass. Don’t confuse the two or mislabel them. ^_^) In all major hockey playing countries, deliberate body contact is outlawed for players under age 12, 13 or 14, depending on the country. Children’s brains are still developing until that age, so they are at a greater risk for long term brain injuries than adults. In time, all hockey federations may choose to eliminate all deliberate hitting, and that would be a good thing.

    Hockey isn’t likely to catch on everywhere in the US because of climate. It’s too bad that it’s sibling sport, lacrosse, is only a regional game. Lacrosse would be a great replacement for football -- an exciting game to watch, lots of contact, and much less risk of concussions (which would be even lower with rule changes).

    The football players at U of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) should consider themselves lucky. Their football program ceases to exist after this year, and the university has promised to fulfil the promised scholarships even though the players aren’t playing anymore. They were unlikely to ever play pro, so now they have a chance to complete an education for free without the risk of further injury or brain damage. Unfortunately, as could be seen in the meeting between the team and UAB administration, the players see themselves as being cheated because they’re being given a free lunch.

  12. Dunc says

    I’d bet my original script of the pilot episode of Firefly that the number of brain cells lost at a single kegger exceeds that in a typical football game, if only due to the larger number of students involved.

    I’ll take that bet!

    Alcohol does not kill brain cells. It can damage the dendrites, but that damage is not permanent.

    (See also, if you have journal access.)

    So, about that script…

  13. invivoMark says

    Dunc, you beat me to it! I’ve got a friend who would very much like to have that script…. Trade ya for it when Don Dueed sends it to you? 😀

  14. Holms says

    At least hockey can eliminate bodychecks and fighting and still be able to play the game, football can’t.

    Are you sure you’re talking about ice hockey -- one of the most violent sports ever -- when you say that?

  15. boadinum says

    Holms@14: Yes, hockey is a violent sport. Any sport played on ice at 30 mph can’t help but be violent. Leftoverunder@11 is right about young hockey players, ~<14, not being allowed to use body contact. They are encouraged to develop their skills until they are old and mature enough to handle hard body contact; and even then they are gradually introduced to it until they decide whether they should make the step up to junior pro. I think that all high school football programs in the U.S. should practice a similar philosophy. Mano recently posted about how some cricketers are now using intimidation and even intent to injure as tactics against their opponents. Cricket has always seemed to me to be a chivalrous sport (though try as I might I can't figure it out), so I hope that its governing body will adopt rules to eliminate dirty tricks. Hockey is a noble sport with its own code of chivalry. You should watch a game, Holms. It's like ballet on ice 🙂

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