Whether entering as an officer or through enlistment, the military is not for wimps. But the recent spate of concussions, stupid stunts, and efforts to hide data regarding boxing injuries at West Point, Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy merit reconsideration of that sport as a required activity among first-year cadets.
According to a New York Times examination of health reports at the aforementioned academies, boxing concussions comprise one-fifth of all concussions among Army plebes while accounting for one-fourth of total concussions among Navy midshipmen and Air Force cadets. When a cadet/midshipman is injured, he or she misses not only academic classes, but is limited in other activities for some time. If an injury prevents a cadet from completing the boxing class, the class must be repeated. Yet, neither ROTC cadets nor enlisted troops have to complete a semester-long course on boxing.
One weak argument made in defense of mandatory boxing classes is that such activities uphold traditions dating back to the days when Theodore Roosevelt was president. A lot of things have changed since boxing was instituted in 1905, yet, we are supposed to revere an activity which can permanently disable a cadet before they are commissioned and see real combat. Another “tradition” is the pillow fight among cadets at West Point at the end of the initiation period. This year, that spectacle resulted in 24 concussions after some cadets loaded pillows with hard objects. Sooner or later, someone is going to get killed upholding tradition.
Given that the military academies already have a similar-type class on martial arts, it seems like an easy fix to mesh some boxing training into such a course. After all, person-to-person combat entails using all available means to disable an attacker, not just one’s hands. Apparently, the Air Force tried to do away with boxing as a mandatory sport as recently as 1995 but caved to the old-school fanatics.
The question of why only freshman have to take the requisite boxing class is a good one. When The New York Times and other outlets started probing the inordinate number of injuries caused by boxing and filing Freedom of Information Act requests, West Point answered by its inaction, delaying what should be regarded as public information and seeking to counter negative fallout by planting positive stories about boxing’s redeeming qualities. For that alone, and certainly, combined with the pillow fight fiasco, the commandant deserved removal.
It is no coincidence that 18 of the last 20 intercollegiate boxing champions have come from one of the military academies. There is nothing wrong with retaining boxing as a voluntary sport there or elsewhere. But keeping that sport as a required activity is just dumb, especially when other long-time mandatory activities like horsemanship and swordsmanship have been terminated.
To repeat: joining the military is not for the squeamish. Nor should it be for forcing plebes to engage in a brutal sport under the guise of proving one’s bravery.
Editor’s note: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. He is a past recipient of a military-history fellowship from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Dr. Hoff served as ROTC director at DSU from 1993 through 1999.