Raul Alvarez Jr., a 16-year-old resident of North Hollywood, CA, died last Thursday after his sparring partner hit him in the face during boxing practice. Alvarez apparently complained of a headache immediately after he was hit, and lost consciousness shortly after an ambulance rushed him to the hospital. He died an hour later. According to the Huffington Post, both young men were wearing appropriate head protection and standard boxing gloves. Alvarez’s death, however, begs a few questions: is current youth boxing gear protective enough? Should kids even be boxing in the first place? Obviously, as with any controversy involving kids, there are two emphatic sides to this debate.
1. Boxing, the life saver
Boxing is one of those sports that has been embraced by many as a godsend for kids otherwise bound for trouble, especially in the inner city. Aside from actually getting them into shape — which, in light of the childhood obesity epidemic, is all-important — it teaches them discipline, self-control and gives them an outlet for pent-up anger. It also not only keeps kids off the streets and consequently out of trouble, but gives them the confidence and know-how to stand up for themselves when push comes to shove. Many kids who turn to boxing do so out of a need to protect themselves from bullies as they walk home from school in rough, violent neighborhoods.
15-year-old Austin Morrissey, who trains at Ashland Youth Boxing Club outside of Boston, MA had this to say to the Boston Globe:
I had anger issues…I was short-tempered. I had trouble at school, acting out, giving teachers trouble…[Boxing has] taught me to be more controlled…Now I use my emotions inside the ring. The self-control I’ve learned here I have to take outside.
Steven, a 13-year-old who boxes at John’s Boxing Gym in the Bronx, NY was likewise dubbed a “problem child” until he took up boxing. He told CNN Health in 2011:
I [learned] how to control myself…If I have something on my mind, a little stress, I just take it out on the bag.
He was apparently ranked in the U.S. as a 12-year-old, and according to his father, his behavior is much more manageable.
2. Boxing, the potential killer
Despite Austin and Steven’s endorsements, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a statement in 2011 strongly opposing boxing for children under the age of 19. According to a study on youth boxing injuries in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, the number of injuries among kids ages 6-17 increased 211%, from 5,361 in 1990 to 17,000 in 2008. Obviously, some of these injuries would have been relatively minor cuts and abrasions; however, it’s the not-so-minor injuries that have physicians worried. Head trauma is their main concern, as head researcher Dr. Gary Smith explained to Medical News Today:
We expected a smaller proportion of concussions…among younger boxers, since they generate a lower punch force…The fact that young boxers are experiencing a similar proportion of concussions and [closed head injuries] as older boxers is extremely concerning given the potential risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) with repetitive brain trauma. These repetitive blows to the head may be placing boxers under 18 years of age at risk for neurological impairment and psychological problems due to CTE.
Definitely a reason to think twice about letting your kids box.
Pro-youth boxing advocates still insist that boxing’s ability to foster motivation and self-discipline in youth outweighs the risks. According to CNN Health, protective equipment has improved, making severe head injuries rare. Additionally, Bronx boxing club owner Joe DeGuardia points out that sparring comprises a very small part of overall training, which consists more of conditioning and shadow boxing than actual fist-to-face contact.
Concerned doctors and researchers do recognize the character-building aspect of youth boxing, but point out that several other sports like cycling, tennis or swimming offer the same advantages minus the potential for traumatic head injury. Dr. Smith again makes his stance on boxing quite clear:
Although there is a risk of injury with most sports, boxing is unique because participants are rewarded for intentionally striking their opponent in the face and head with the intent of harming or incapacitating them.
Obviously, the Olympics are here. Not only does this mean a two-week-long visual feast of elite athletic performances, but also that many kids will be inspired to try out a new sport or two themselves, including boxing. Between Alvarez’s recent death, physician warnings and all the heartfelt pro-youth boxing testimonials floating around out there, it’s difficult to decide if the rise of youth boxing really is for better or for worse.
What do you think?
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