Brain damage, broken limbs, ruptured organs, severe lacerations- these are just some of the possible injuries a boxer may sustain throughout the course of an often short career. In any other circumstances the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) would categorise the infliction of these types of injuries as an assault occasioning actual bodily harm or even grievous bodily harm. Boxing has to date largely maintained its privileged status and thus defied the law. Perhaps this is a testament to a sport which demonstrates the need for skill and mental fortitude as well as having perceived societal benefits which have helped maintain public policy protection. Statutory provisions have protected boxing from the harshness of the common law throughout the twentieth century. However mounting medical evidence and changing social mores have in recent times called its legitimacy as a sport into question. This essay will first look at the history of boxing and how its rules has developed through the common law, before focusing on the legal issues surrounding the sport and analysing whether on the basis of changing scientific and socio-political attitudes boxing should be banned.
A historical analysis reveals that a combination of factors including the socially approved athletic nature of the sport and evolution in the rules have protected the status of boxing as being in the public interest and facilitated its cultural acceptance. In the 1866 case of R v Young a participant in a sparring bout with gloves died from the injuries sustained in the fight. It was held that sparring with gloves was not inherently dangerous and it was accepted that a display of skilled sparring was not illegal. While an eighteenth century case may be judged as unpersuasive the strength and dexterity demonstrated in the spectacle of boxing is still a pertinent issue in its legality as a sport.
Before judges and moralists began criticising boxing, it was prize-fighting which was argued to be the main threat to social order. It was described as serving “no valuable purpose but on the contrary encouraging a spirit of idleness and debauchery.” Several legal cases have highlighted the historical distinction between prize fighting and exhibition sparring, which was crucial in developing the laws of boxing. Prize-fighting involved fighting often with bare-knuckles until one of the participants was too exhausted to continue. In the 1882 case of R v Coney the court held that a knuckle fight in public was illegal. The fundamental reasoning was that the consent of the protagonist was seen as no answer to a charge of assault. Stephen J stated that “the injuries given and received…are injurious to the public, both because it is against public interest…and because prize-fights are disorderly exhibitions.” Therefore consenting to prize-fighting was invalid due to its unrestricted nature and lack of any societal benefit. This demonstrates that there has been a long history of legal questioning over whether the violence inherent in a sport like boxing damages the society as a whole through the acceptance of violent activity.
Attempting to regulate the degree of harm to which a person could consent was seen as essential to the Crown in order “to protect the public and keep the peace.” Boxing adopted the Marquis of Queensberry Rules to increase the regulation of the sport and thus distinguish itself from unlawful prize-fighting. The changes intended to improve safety measures and included the requirement of padded gloves and the 10-second knockout rule. The importance of the rule changes was highlighted in the 1901 case of R v Roberts when it was held that boxing under the new rules demonstrated the amicable “skill of sparring” and was subsequently legal. These cases demonstrate the importance of the public interest in providing statutory immunity for activities that may fall outside the common law.
The most important case...