In my last column, I suggested that boxing opens a window into the essence of all sports. This is no more true than in the area of violence. Boxing is unique, and discomforting to many (including me), precisely because it displays this element of sport in the raw.

Football or hockey are hardly the only sports in which overwhelming the opponent physically and/or psychologically is very much integral to the game, either explicitly or implicitly—that is, in the language used to understand and frame the action. George Carlin has a comedy routine in which he contrasts the violent language used to describe football (the quarterback throws a bomb, the linebacker blitzes) and baseball (the batter bunts and the runner just tries to get home.) But baseball too has its share of violent metaphors. Pitchers overpower batters. Runners steal a base. Batters smash a line drive. And do not tell a catcher waiting for a throw at the plate with a batter barreling down on him that baseball is a non-contact sport.

Basketball was originally designed to be a purely non-contact sport. But today under the boards, it is one of the most physically brutal of contests, as giants in height and weight and muscle shove and elbow each other to own the little piece of real estate known as the key. Even the dunk—also called a jam—is mostly about the fierce display of one's physical superiority.

It's no different with the seemingly pastoral game of golf. Every golfer says he wants to crush his drives, nail his irons, and drain his putts. Tiger Woods is known for trying to intimidate opponents, hoping to unnerve them with his demeanor on the course. And the clenched fist and pumping arm and furious "Yes!" have become the ubiquitous ritual of victory in this, the supposed sport of gentlemen.

Even the tranquil sport of fly fishing is premised on violence. The fly fisherman puts on his line an imitation insect, an outward sign of the invisible violent world below the surface of the water, where nymphs struggle to reach the surface to fly free, only to be devoured by hungry trout, who in turn nervously avoid the surface fearing that an eagle or bear will devour them. The fly fisherman participates in this brutal Darwinian drama with every cast.

I cannot think of a sport that is not immersed in violence or that uses violent language to describe its action. Furthermore, every sport is about mastering both a physical skill and an opponent. And this requires violence against the unruly parts of the self—which we call discipline. And violence against an object—often a ball. And violence directed at another living being.

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Furthermore, this violence is not incidental to sport, a necessary evil of an otherwise noble venture. It is intrinsic to it, a necessary good. Take away the violence, and the sport vanishes.

How interesting would baseball be if a pitcher was prevented from hurling the 95 mph fastball on the inside corner in a deliberate attempt to frighten the batter away from the plate? How long would we watch golf if players were required to toss the ball gently into the air? What would football become without blocking or tackling? The case is more absurd, and therefore more revealing, when it comes to boxing—how could you have boxing if hitting were forbidden?

Sport is many things—play, entertainment, fun, business—but it is also the art of controlled violence.

This is one reason we become especially unnerved when uncontrolled violence erupts in the context of sport—when players jump into the stands to attack abusive fans, when riots erupt after a soccer game, when baseball teams empty their benches to brawl. The juxtaposition shocks us, because we have been witnessing violence very much under control. It has been exercised within time (innings/sets/etc. or a clock), space (the lines of the court or field), and social mores (rules). When violence breaks out of these constraints, we rightfully gasp. But when practiced within these constraints, we find it not only entertaining, but ennobling, and even redeeming.

Boxing is where sporting culture lives on the raw edge, flirting with danger under the tight constraints of three-minute rounds, padded gloves, fighting rules, and learned technique. With every punch, we wonder why a brawl doesn't break out. But as every boxer knows, he who cannot master his heart, soul, and mind in the ring is doomed. Boxing, more than any sport but like them all, is about controlling the violence within.

If I have not made it clear, let me do so now: violence is not a strike against sport, but one of its enduring values. As sacred history shows—whether we are speaking of the Flood, the Exodus, the Exile, the Cross, or the final defeat of the Beast—redemption does not come without violence. How exactly controlled violence ennobles and redeems, however, is the subject of future columns.

Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today. Play Ball appears every other Friday.

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Related Elsewhere:

Other Play Ball columns include:

Should We Ban Boxing? | The usual arguments against the "sweet science" cut many ways. (Oct. 28, 2005)
Something Noble and Good | Professional sports is often boring, but real sports is not. (May 13, 2005)
The Lovely Paradox of NFL Draft Day | It's an event of biblical proportions—and wisdom. (April 29, 2005)
Negotiating Sunday Sports | This culture war was lost long ago. Now what? (April 15, 2005)
The Prodigal Sports Fan | There is hope for the idolater. (April 08, 2005)
The Thirst of the 24/7 Fan | Understanding the idolatry in sports. (March 01, 2005)
March Madnesses | The layers of insanity know no end—thank God. (March. 18, 2005)
Spectating as a Spiritual Discipline | For those who have eyes to watch, let them watch something more than highlight films. (March 11, 2005)
The Grace of Sports | If Christ can't be found in sports, he can't be found the modern world. (March 4, 2005)
Baseball Isn't Entertainment | The sooner we stop thinking sports are about the spectators, the more enjoyable the games will be. (Feb. 25, 2005)
Rooting for T.O. | Why Terrell Owens irritates most of us most of the time. (Feb. 11, 2005)
Freedom Between the Goal Posts | Sports is much more important than our culture lets on (Feb. 4, 2005)
Salt and Light in the Arena | It's going to take more than a few good Christians to clean up sports. (Feb. 18, 2005)

Play Ball
From 2005 to 2007, "Play Ball" examined the relationship of sports and faith: sports is important precisely because it is a form of play, that is, a manifestation of the Sabbath. Contributors included Mark Galli, Collin Hansen, Mark Moring, and others.
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