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Boxing Disappears From College Sports

Steve Acunto teaches an amateur.
(Photo courtesy of Steve Acunto)

The only reason 85-year-old Steve Acunto is in a wheelchair is because he slipped doing his daily 250 push-ups against his bathroom sink last May. Otherwise, he’d still be at his exercise regimen: three minutes of rope skipping each morning, followed by time on the treadmill. At least he still works the punching bag, though the flat, red boxing gloves seem far too small for his enormous hands.

Today, Acunto teaches boxing at Westchester Community College, as he has for 33 years and trained some 8,000 students. “It’s good for the discipline and the overall results,” he said in his home in Fleetwood, N.Y. College boxing is a mission for him, and he wants to see the sport freed  from the cliché that it is only for uneducated men. “It’s for everybody,” Acunto said. “But colleges are turned off by the scandal caused by men like Mike Tyson and Don King.”  To raise awareness of the sport, he has brought a steady stream of professional boxers and even such world champions as Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano to Westchester.

Today, only about 25 U.S. colleges teach boxing and compete with one another under the umbrella of the National Collegiate Boxing Association. The NCAA long ago dropped it, and it is no longer mandatory at Harvard, where students like Theodore Roosevelt chose it as their sport.

It’s a far cry from a century ago, when colleges offered scholarships for boxers and collegiate bouts attracted audiences between 10,000 and 20,000 people.“Boxing was one of the major sports in the U.S., together with baseball and horse racing,” said boxing historian Mike Silver, the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science.” Boxing really took off in the 1920s when many states legalized it, and the sport had a renaissance after World War II when returning soldiers attending college on the G.I. Bill pleaded that it be offered as a college sport.

But after the Depression and as America became more prosperous, the sport declined. There were other ways for young men to make money besides “getting their heads banged,” said Silver. Today the sport mainly attracts poor men. “If you want to know who the American underclass is, take a look at the boxers,” said Silver.

Former college boxer Pete Spanakos, 72, said there was also another reason for the fall of college boxing: the death of his roommate and friend Chris Mohr, the national collegiate boxing champion from the University of Wisconsin. He was knocked out on April 9, 1960, defending his title and died a week later from brain injury.

The University of Wisconsin dropped boxing immediately, followed quickly by the NCAA.  Today, the NCAA says it dropped the sport because so few colleges offer it, said Cameron Schuh, the organization’s associate director for public and media relations.

Health concerns about the sport remain. In 1983, physician George Lundberg published the article “Boxing Should be Banned in Civilized Countries” in The Journal of the American Medical Association. “Professional boxing is an abomination,” said Lundberg in a telephone interview. He is against the idea of the sport being offered on college campuses. “We humans need all the brains we can get and I think damaging the brain is bad at any level.”

Dr. Michael Schwartz , the founder of the American Association of Professional Ringside Physicians, contends that boxing is less dangerous than football, motorcycle racing and mountaineering. “When people look at boxing, they only look at the intent, and this is to hurt the opponent. I think this is very short-sighted. Boxing is about so much more, about discipline and respect. It’s one of the best conditioning sports.” He contends that boxing is safer than other college sports, like football.

A a recent study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine from February 2011 showed a crucial annual increase in boxing injuries. The 19-year study found out that there had been about 8,700 boxing injuries treated in U.S. emergency rooms in 1990. This number was almost at 17,000 in 2008. A fracture was the most common injury.

For his part, Acunto has never suffered a severe boxing injuries, although his nose was once straighter. For him safety comes first, and he understands worried parents very well. His own parents refused to sign the authorization he needed to pursue a career as a professional boxer when he was 18.

But he promotes safety gear, short fights and thorough training, and says that boxers should retire at age 40. By offering boxing at more colleges, Acunto said, more future citizens could learn earlier important things for life. “It gives you confidence. It teaches you the science of an art. And it’s its truism. That’s why I also like baseball. I like all sports of truism. You can’t lie to it. You hit the ball or you don’t. But you can’t lie to it.”

Source: Columbia News Service

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