16th century French philosopher Jean Bodin once said; “The study of history is the beginning of political wisdom.”, luminaries including Churchill and Confucius have all similarly opined on the need to understand the past to enjoy success in the future but it is Bodin who captured the sentiment most succinctly.
Life in 21st century Britain, the malevolent media machine would have you believe, is to exist in a frightened society. Nervously hiding behind twitching curtains from the ‘the lost streets’ and the generation of ‘hoodies’ and ‘knife wielding’ teenagers that patrol them. Barely a television drama or news item can pass without reference to it. Alongside immigration, it is the subject most likely to stir the invective of middle England, filling radio-air space with solutions or balms for the irritation, crime and angst these young people inflict.
Many of those irrate commentators seem to miss the irony of their own collective responsibility for this misguided, unmotivated, directionless group on whom they bestow so much blame. They are, after all, the generation that created the uninhibited, unrestricted, unguided, gluttonous environment in which ‘they’, thrive. A world of reward on credit, in which the spoils are enjoyed before the war, where easy materialism replaces realism and parenthood and where the entirely honourable idiom of working to obtain something is dismissed as the path of the stupid. Have it now, pay later.
Rather like the credit card and loan firms who operate on such terms, from whom Britain has borrowed more per capita than every other developed nation, society is now experiencing the end of the interest free period; children taking the lives of other children on the streets of British cities, the 3d, real-life manifestation of the post-Christmas credit card statement. In the light of a stream of gang and race related murders, suicide deaths, as well as the ticking time bomb of childhood obesity, Britain is being forced to reassess how it educates, moulds and teaches its most prized asset. It’s children.
In the stark spotlight cast by a media monster hungry to shape rather than inform opinion, those responsible for structuring the systems, parameters and direction of the nation are looking backward for the keys and tools to address the problem. Seeking inspiration from bygone generations who seemed more able to equip young people with the skills of self-discipline, self-control and respect. Once upon a time it was the call for a return of National Service, now boxing is the preferred ‘therapy’ for the ills of a nation’s teenage populace.
To many, it chimes no more than other sound bytes and schemes delivered, glamorised and subsequently forgotten but to a few it has the telling ring of common sense. Not only does it provide a positive channel for the aggression inherent in adolescence it requires self-discipline and is built upon the foundations of respect for others, and for oneself. Not in a glib, enforced or contrived fashion, but just because boxing simply demands it. A boxing ring is not a place where words can replace action, where bluster and bullying are tolerated, where the lore of the gang is king. There is no escaping the reality that between the ropes, you are on your own.
The psychological benefits are more subjective and open to conjecture than the easier to measure and undeniable physical benefits, but it is the mental aspect on which the return of boxing is being sold. An instructive and positive tool to reclaim young people, notably young men, from the cowardice of gang culture and the entirely misplaced and inappropriate notion of respect on which their petty, social and increasingly grave crimes are legitimised.
Reintroducing boxing in schools is one such scheme, and has support at a high level in the present Labour Government. Sports Minister, Gerry Sutcliffe falls neatly in line behind the revived popularity of the sport and the simplistic idiom that boxing could re-engage disenchanted young people. “It teaches them respect, discipline and camaraderie,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live recently, adding “There are many youngsters involved in gun crime and gangs, and I think boxing may touch some of them, and take them down a different route.“
High praise indeed and while the solution may strike some libertarians as too simplistic and, frankly, a touch dictatorial it will resonate with a host of people involved in the sport for whom boxing provided a route out of trouble and poverty. A viable alternative to the Hobson’s choice many youngsters living in inner cities are presented with.
Boxing, contrary to popular belief, has never been ‘struck off’ the list of permitted sports in British schools. Parent pressure, galvanised by Edith Summerskill, a Labour member of parliament in the 1960’s, forced the gradual removal of boxing as an accepted cornerstone of Physical Education lessons. 35 years on, and close to the 28th anniversary of Summerskill’s death, boxing is making a return.
Wayne Llewellyn, a heavyweight of some note during his own wandering international career, founded Boxing4Schools in 2005 to capitalise on the newfound interest in boxing. With the assistance of former British heavyweight champion Julius Francis, Boxing4Schools is taking boxing back in to the education system. Focusing on three principle aims:
> Improve discipline, focus and concentration
> Build self esteem and confidence
> Encourage healthy eating.
All noble objectives of course, but despite the anecdotal evidence in place there remains resistance to the idea of encouraging schools to reintroduce boxing to their offering, irrespective of the safety alignment with their local Amateur Boxing Clubs assures. Mr McCabe of Headway, a charity dedicated to supporting those with brain injuries is very much against the idea, speaking in January 2007, McCabe pointed to the widespread medical evidence of boxing’s effect on the brain; “Eleven medical associations around the world have said chronic brain damage is caused by recurrent blows to the head, experienced by all boxers. As long as it is legal to hit an opponent above the neck – there aren’t any safety precautions which can prevent this damage.”
The resistance he will doubtless hope to be a cheerleader for may prove futile as every week heralds the inception of another boxing related scheme, the most recent being East Cambridgeshire District Council’s GOBB Project (Group of Boys Boxing). Aimed at referred boys aged 13-16 the scheme will also put an acknowledgeable educational slant on the activity, primarily designed to reconnect these disillusioned youngsters with their community but offering them achievable, accredited qualifications too.
It will be interesting to see if boxing’s role models can sustain the popularity of this groundswell to the extent they’ve inspired growing membership of local Amateur clubs, my own local club, Haverhill Amateur Boxing Club, has seen attendance leap almost three fold since September. And, more importantly, whether embracing boxing as a therapeutic tool makes a genuine difference to the direction of the young people it touches.
It will be ironic if boxing, often derided for the charlatans, villains and egotists at the heart of its professional operation, proves to be the saviour of the petty offenders and social miscreants awash in our communities wouldn’t it?