Beneath Contempt

…Mark Burnett Productions, DreamWorks Television, and the cable sports giant [ESPN] announced today that the network will become the new broadcast home of The Contender, last winter’s critically-acclaimed but low-rated reality boxing series that NBC canceled after only a single season.

“There’s something very noble and heroic about the sport. We both remember back to the Muhammad Ali era, when I grew up,” said [producer] Jeffrey Katzenberg, nodding to partner Burnett.”

How clueless do you have to be, in plugging a boxing show, to mention in the same breath Muhammad Ali, whose brain-damaged wreckage has very little of the noble and heroic about it? What is it with these people trying to sell us boxing?

For those who don’t know, boxing is an exercise that uses two remarkable devices in a very odd way. One of them is a servomanipulator of incredible versatility, delicacy and precision, a gadget that can play a violin or caress a cheek or fix a watch or carry a suitcase. The other is a computer with capacities we still haven’t exhausted. It’s small enough to carry around at all times, and it can write a sonata for the violin, do rocket science and every other kind of science, and give advice to children. Try that with your laptop. Oh yeah; this computer is capable of love…the real thing, not reciting a script.

What’s truly amazing about boxing is how these wonders are used. You might think the computer could be hooked up to instruct the servo to make something incredibly cool, but you would be wrong. In boxing, the game is to take the servomechanism and use it like a hammer to whale on the computer until its little lights go out and it stops working. Usually the computer can be rebooted after this abuse, but it loses something every time and eventually winds up with dementia pugilistica, mumbling and bumping into things, cadging free drinks in cheap bars. If this isn’t substance abuse, I don’t know what is. It’s right up there with using a big Rubens painting as a tarp over your woodpile, but especially blasphemous in its trashing of God’s most remarkable creations.

A century ago the guy swinging the servo had to be careful not to break it on the computer case, but not enough lights got put out for good business, so we now wrap it up in padding that allows super-destructive, full-force whacks, and everyone watching has a good chance of seeing some real damage.

Should this be legal? Probably; the boxers are grownups and have to be allowed to manage their own lives. What I can’t understand is how this savagery can even be discussed by people who claim to be civilized, much less sold for money and treated like a sport. I know, people get hurt in all sorts of sports, but this is the one where the whole point is to hurt people, and not just arms and legs but the part that makes us human. Sure, there’s lots of cant about the science of defense and tactical blows to the body, but it’s the KO that sells the tickets. See the camera linger over Rocky Balboa’s bloody, blind, weaving face in the movie: sport? skill? Give me a break.

Katzenberg, you’re beneath contempt, beneath tobacco merchants. Mark, do you really want to ‘reform’ something like this? Fight fans, you raise a troubling problem for a free society: what should we do about bad behavior that doesn’t justify being made illegal? Our habit lately is to want to outlaw anything offensive or immoral, but this is a letoff. Boxing should have its lights put out by social disgrace, the way we taught each other that lighting a cigarette in someone else’s house or a bus is uncivilized and disgusting. The next time you think you want to watch a fight, think about your kids watching you at the moment the blood sprays and the brain slaps the inside of the skull. The next time you walk into a water-cooler conversation on the fine points of this sick behavior, try walking away the way you’d leave a conversation about setting cats on fire.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.