Let’s Get It On… I mean, fight!

Bloody-UFC

I’ve been a fan of martial arts for as long as I can remember. While I’m not a fighter (I’m a pussy) I have great respect for the athletes that beat the crap out of each other for our entertainment. I also love a bit of choreographed hijinx in films as well.

But for some reason there are people who don’t share my love and respect for people punching each other in the face until someone carts them off on stretchers. They decry boxing and MMA as bloody and violent sports that should be banned – won’t somebody please think of the children! At the same time they blithely ignore the injury and deaths from good old harmless football et al.

So I thought that I would run through a few of the statistics and studies on those violent sports to see if the claims stack up. Yeah, you know what’s going to happen: don’t you!

Let’s start by looking at boxers and MMA fighters: just how likely are injuries and knockouts? Well, a study of 1181 MMA competitors and 550 boxers found that boxers were less likely to suffer the cuts and bruises of MMA fighters, but they were more likely to be knocked out.

Boxers were significantly more likely not to experience injury (49.8% vs 59.4%, P < 0.001), whereas MMA fighters were significantly more likely to experience 1 injury (typically contusion/bruising, P < 0.001). Boxers were more likely to experience loss of consciousness (7.1% vs 4.2%, P = 0.01) and serious eye injury (1.1% vs 0.3%, P = 0.02).

This makes sense given that there are more ways to win an MMA bout than by points, KO, or bookmaker arranged dive. Also the overall injury rate in MMA fights of 8.5% is surprisingly low for two people beating the crap out of one another.

The overall injury rate was 8.5% of fight participations (121 injuries/1422 fight participations) or 5.6% of rounds (121/2178 rounds). Injury rates were similar between men and women, but a greater percentage of the injuries caused an altered mental state in men. Fighters also were more likely to be referred to the ER if they participated in longer bouts ending in a KO/TKO.

Other studies have found higher rates of injury, 28.6%, but have similar conclusions regarding the types of injuries – facial cuts and bruises – being higher than boxing, but knockouts being lower.

Part of this is down to the small, fingerless gloves used in MMA. Less padding, that is mainly there to protect the hands from breaking with every punch, leads to a different force being applied to the opponent’s face.

All padding conditions reduced linear impact dosage. Other parameters significantly decreased, significantly increased, or were unaffected depending on padding condition. Of real-world conditions (MMA glove–bare head, boxing glove–bare head, and boxing glove–headgear), the boxing glove–headgear condition showed the most meaningful reduction in most of the parameters. In equivalent impacts, the MMA glove–bare head condition induced higher rotational dosage than the boxing glove–bare head condition. Finite element analysis indicated a risk of brain strain injury in spite of significant reduction of linear impact dosage.

Okay, so how do these nasty violent sport stats compare to less violent sports? What is the chance of dying in MMA or boxing compared to, I don’t know, horse riding? Well, a 2012 study from Victoria found motor sports, fishing, equestrian activities, and swimming all led to more deaths in a year than boxing. That’s right, riding a horse or going fishing is deadlier than standing in a ring getting punched in the face. That brutal and nasty boxing didn’t even make it into the top ten. Hell, even real life is more dangerous, as another study found motor vehicle accidents and falls were far more likely to kill people than boxing or any other sport. It’s almost as though the controlled forum of a boxing ring or MMA octagon are somehow stopping things getting out of hand.

The Victorian study is only looking at one state in Australia, so hardly representative of the entire world, and only looked at 2001-2007, which isn’t a huge time span, but the results are still very interesting:

There were 1019 non-fatal major trauma cases and 218 deaths. The rate of major trauma or death from sport and active recreation injuries was 6.3 per 100,000 participants per year. There was an average annual increase of 10% per year in the major trauma rate (including deaths) across the study period, for the group as a whole (IRR 1.10, 95% CI, 1.06-1.14). There was no increase in the death rate (IRR=0.94, 95% CI, 0.87-1.02; p=0.12). Significant increases were also found for cycling (IRR 1.16, 95% CI, 1.09-1.24) off-road motor sports (IRR 1.10, 95% CI, 1.03-1.19), Australian football (IRR 1.21, 95% CI, 1.03-1.42) and swimming (IRR 1.16, 95% CI, 1.004-1.33).

Did you take that in? I’ll let the authors summarise:

The rate of major trauma inclusive of deaths, due to participation in sport and active recreation has increased over recent years, in Victoria, Australia. Much of this increase can be attributed to cycling, off-road motor sports, Australian football and to a lesser extent swimming, highlighting the need for coordinated injury prevention in these areas.

But is this representative? UFC boss Dana White likes to compare his sport to NFL, as MMA fighters are kept sidelined after concussions for longer than their football (should be hand-egg, but let’s not quibble) counterparts. According to a report made by One Sure Insurance, the fact remains that under all that protective gear used to play rugby, NFL players are hitting each other with the (padded) equivalent force of a car crash. Studies of brains show that all contact sports are bad for the brain. Even Soccer (or is that Football?) players are at risk of brain injury. MMA like to keep their fighters healthy, whilst most sports want their players back next week to go again.

I keep seeing these claims about MMA or boxing being dangerous to health. Meanwhile, football, rugby, gridiron, that skating sport that Canadians jizz over, all seem to have just as much chance of injury or death. Essentially, we can easily list a dozen sports more dangerous than fight sports (seriously, cheerleading: WTF!). But that doesn’t really matter. The main thing is to know the actual risks so that athletes (and spectators) are making a well informed decision. Because as much as horse riding is bad for your health, it is also boring to watch (NB: personal opinion and quite a snobby one at that) so people won’t really care about another death in that sport. Whereas a death in an exciting sport like MMA is much more visceral and likely to have spectators on hand. Hard to compare horse riding to MMA, unless we had Kentucky Thunder step into the octagon.

The main problem I see with the “MMA is violent and dangerous” or “Boxing is a brutal sport” and “They should be banned” (please, think of the children!) is that it assumes fighters are unaware that being punched in the head is bad for their health. Do people really think that fighters love being knocked out or injured, instead of just spar that vast variety of dummies (e.g. these mmalife.com/the-6-best-grappling-mma-dummies/)? Even UFC and Boxing acknowledge that they need to understand the risks of a career of head-butting people’s fists.

It could be argued that young athletes are unaware of the risks of being an athlete, what with the naivety of believing they are bulletproof and will be young forever – don’t worry kids: you’ll be cool your entire life. People do have a fascinating ability to ignore long term risks in favour of short term gains. UFC champion George St Pierre reportedly retired from MMA due to persistent headaches (maybe). So it is important that athletes are made aware of the risks of injury and long term debilitation, with further research in this area being essential – yes, there is an echo in here. But it also has to be acknowledged that athletes aren’t exactly unaware of the issue. George Foreman was aware of the risks of eponymous naming of kitchen appliances, but the money was good. He was also aware of the risks of being a boxer, and named his kids George so he wouldn’t forget them – “You have to plan for memory loss in boxing.”

Then there are those that see fighting as entertainment for lowlifes and thugs. That somehow only the uneducated or the uncivilised enjoy seeing two people belt each other around the head. This is, of course, just more of the “I don’t like it, therefore it is bad and only poo-poo heads like it” argument that snobs like to make. Nothing like playing the moral and intellectual superiority card to denigrate something. Ignorance is always funnier when someone thinks they are superior.

Some argue, as the AMA does, that the intent of boxing and MMA is to belt each other senseless. If all you see in fighting is two people trying to kill one another, then you aren’t watching. You’re distracted by the superficial aspects of the events. Insights that shallow just show an ignorance of what is happening in the ring. In MMA and boxing there are many ways to win a fight, as already alluded to above. Take for example this famous clip (more here from my friend Stick):

Now the superficial view of the video has us watching Ali wailing on a guy against the ropes. Obvious, but not the reason this is classic boxing footage. Boxing fans would point out Ali’s footwork, the athleticism and skill involved, the amazing speed, and the fact that his opponent is seriously outclassed. Boxing isn’t just about punching your opponent. Watch what happens when someone tries to reverse the tables with a flurry of punches thrown at Ali:

This is athleticism defined. This is why Ali is still regarded as such a great fighter, as it takes far more than turning your opponent’s brain to mush to win a fight. And that is what non-fight fans don’t understand. They can’t get past the superficial to see the sport. They are so caught up in being snobbish and outraged that they missed the amazing athletes doing amazing things.

That and the beating the crap out of each other.

Other articles:
Australian Sport Injury Hospitalisations 2011-12
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-11/uoa-mma110515.php
http://www.heraldsun.com.au/sport/boxing-mma/more-brain-injuries-caused-by-sparring-than-real-fights/news-story/258aa1bd5e7d7823d3ddb102310f1dba
https://theconversation.com/should-boxing-be-banned-38907
http://www.thejournal.ie/the-journal-factcheck-mma-boxing-safety-injury-2713577-Apr2016/
http://www.bmj.com/content/352/bmj.i389 and http://www.bmj.com/content/352/bmj.i389/rr-0

http://www.grapplearts.com/does-mma-make-you-stupid-impact-concussions-and-brain-damage-in-mixed-martial-arts/

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Is sport king in Australia?

Sports Supporters: Alcohol Compulsory Accessory
Sports Supporters: Alcohol Compulsory Accessory

With pork-barrelling season in full swing, we will be seeing plenty of politicians hitching their wagons to prominent sports and sporting teams. The proclamations that sports are True-blue, dinky-di, Aussie will come to win over voters, with a little somethin’ somethin’ in the budget to sweeten the deal. Because sport is king in Australia, right?

Aussies are routinely described as sports mad, sports addicts, and that we love watching and playing sports in sporty sports ways. But how many of us actually play sports? How many of us actually watch sports? Given that you could describe weekly matches of football as repeats of the same teams doing the same thing for months on end annually, it is worth taking a look at a few of our assumptions about the claims.

Let’s start with a look at how many Aussies play “sports”. Inverted commas around sports? Yes, because when people say that 60% (11.1 million) of Aussies play sports – down 5% compared to 2 years previous – what they actually mean is that we’re classifying walking and generally not sitting on the couch watching TV as sport. Let’s make it fairer on sports and subtract the walkers from being classified as sport participants. And let’s not succumb to temptation and call golf just more walking with intermittent cursing. That means that our 11.7 million “sports” participants is suddenly 7.5 million, which is 41.4% of the population (and falling with the ageing population). That figure sounds impressive until you realise that figure is participation of at least once in the past year and doesn’t account for the regularity of participation. How regularly someone is involved in sports is a much better indicator of our interest and love of sports. As opposed to accounting for that time you went to the gym because of a New Year’s resolution or because the doctor ordered you too out of concern for being dragged into an orbit around you at your next visit. The reality is that less than half of the population engage in regular (3 times per week on average) physical activity, with roughly a third of those people being gym junkies (NB: young men are more likely to play a sport, that drops with age and isn’t replaced with other activities, whilst women are more likely to be involved in non-organised sports and remain doing so).

The Top 20 most popular physical activities are dominated by fitness activities like the already mentioned walking, aerobics/fitness, swimming, cycling, and running. One of the big name sports, AFL, ranks 16th on the list behind yoga. When yoga beats football for popularity it must only be a matter of time before the PM declares it the most exciting sport. For those wondering where rugby is on the list, the rest of Australia says ‘hi’.

Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 12.56.43 PM

Of course, this is only looking at sports. How does sports participation compare to other activities? Well, ABS figures show that we spend roughly 23 minutes a day reading, versus 21 minutes on sports and outdoor activities (NB: this varies between genders and age groups). The US figures show similar results with more time reading than playing sports, but they also spend less of their day on both activities. So at least we are still better read and fitter than Americans in the low bar metrics.

Obviously sports aren’t all about participation and most would regard themselves as avid armchair sportspeople. It could be argued that the best way to stay injury free in sports is to participate from the comfort of the couch in front of the TV at home. The other option is to attend a sporting stadium dressed in clothes made from random assortments of gaudy colours to cheer on a team who are wearing similar clothes but are less inebriated. Or would the most appealing option be to go to a movie, concert or theme park? The correct answer is that people would prefer to attend a movie (59%), a concert (40%), or a theme park (34%). Live Comedy (31%) was more popular than Football (30%), Cricket (29%) and Rugby (25%).

Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 12.42.50 PM

Of course, someone is bound to point to spectator numbers for AFL, A-League, and NRL that look very impressive. With average match attendances in the tens of thousands, and millions annually, sports are clearly important.

Competition Total spectatorship Average match attendance Year Ref
A-League 1,887,206 13,480 2013–14 [108]
Australian Football League 6,975,137 33,696 2014 [109]
Big Bash League 823,858 23,539 2014–15 [96]
National Basketball League 574,813 5,132 2013–14 [96]
National Rugby League 3,060,531 15,940 2013 [110]
Super Rugby 773,940 19,348 2012 [111]

At a glance the figures look mildly impressive, but much like enhancement pouch underwear, things aren’t nearly as impressive when you look at the attendance figures in the cold light of day.

Even if we disregard the doubling up and totalling of attendance occurring in the stats, it is easy to see that even the most popular sport in Australia would rank behind visiting Botanic gardens, zoos and aquariums, and libraries. They aren’t even in the same ballpark as cinema attendance. But we can go deeper on the reading, library and cinema figures, even getting frequency statistics so we can tell the difference between the people doing something “at least once” versus people doing something regularly in the past year. 47.7% of people are reading a book weekly, 70% of library attendees (mostly women) visited at least 5 times in the past year, 65% of Australians are (computer) gamers, and 65% of Aussies go to the cinema an average of 6-7 times a year. And yet sport has a segment in news broadcasts whilst reading, gaming, and parks and zoos battle to get media coverage. Technically if we wanted to be fair then the sport segment would be cut to make way for movie news and a live cross to the local library.

What about the economy? How much are households spending on sports? That’s a great question and a great segue into a discussion of how trickle-down economics doesn’t work in sports either. I mean, funding sports that way when it hasn’t worked in the economy must be a no-brainer, right? [Insert low IQ athlete joke here] Or we could stay on topic and discuss the $4.4 billion sports and physical recreation spend by households annually. Let’s not complicate things by talking about the buying of stuff like footwear, swimming pools, and camper vans. Seriously, camping is in the sport spending category? Either way, $4.4 billion sounds like a lot of money, until you realise that gaming is a $3 billion industry, and that households spend $4.1 billion on literature and $4.7 billion on TV and film.

We allow governments to spend a lot of money on big sports and big sporting events. Think that hosting the Olympics will encourage people to play sports? Nope. Actually, seriously, nope. One report described this idea as nothing more than a “deeply entrenched storyline”, sort of like a fairy tale handed down from one Minister for Sport to the next. Part of the problem is that we buy this narrative hook, line, and sinker, such that the sports themselves (and surrounding data agencies) never really bother to keep statistics to prove the claims. But they make for great announcements and ribbon cutting events on the election campaign trail, so the myth keeps on keeping on.

Ultimately the argument isn’t that sports are unpopular or bad but rather that we spend an inordinate amount of time pretending we like them far more than the reality. And that is impacting our elected officials more than a chance to wear a high-viz vest at a press conference. Maybe it is time to rethink what media and funding we throw at sports, and perhaps consider a gaming segment on the news.

So this pork-barrelling season look forward to the announcement of a new multi-million dollar yoga stadium in a marginal electorate near you.

Update: Charlie Pickering and The Weekly team cover some similar points for the Grand Prix events in Australia.

NB: I haven’t covered sports injuries, particularly how over half a million Aussies have long term health conditions as a result of sport. Please see this report for more.

Further reading:

Australian Sport Injury Hospitalisations 2011-12
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19407963.2012.662619
http://apo.org.au/files/Resource/Crawford_Report.pdf
http://www98.griffith.edu.au/dspace/bitstream/handle/10072/57329/91705_1.pdf
https://theconversation.com/we-need-abs-arts-and-sports-data-to-understand-our-culture-30255
https://theconversation.com/olympics-success-leaves-a-mixed-legacy-for-australias-sporting-life-7531
https://theconversation.com/will-the-olympics-really-inspire-more-people-to-play-sport-8913