Nobody this side of a Roman emperor wants athletes to perish for the sake of entertainment. Let's get that straight. We like our thrills (secondhand, of course) but are not so jaded that mortality is necessary. Nobody's really cheering for fatal NASCAR wrecks, and nobody's really hoping that a crumpled boxer never gets up. We're more civilized than that. But it does up the ante, admit it, when we know death is possible.
That's what makes us so uneasy each time one of our sportsmen dies for the sake of second-rate spectacle. Beethavean Scottland, a 26-year-old father of three, had delivered enough stand-up courage in his June 26 fight with George (Khalid) Jones in New York City to satisfy any of us. He was outclassed, sure, but he fought resolutely enough that going into the final round of an otherwise unimportant bout, ringsiders thought he could still have scored a knockout.
He suffered one instead, and soon lapsed into a coma from which he never returned. Scottland died of his brain injuries on July 2, six days after the fight, for which he was paid $7,000.
Ring fatalities happen often enough that boxing is constantly challenged to provide as many safeguards as are logically possible in a sport organized around the defining effects of unconsciousness. In Scottland's case it appears that the sport served him well, that—excepting the usual debate over whether the referee should have stopped the bout sooner—he was not the victim of administrative neglect. Which is to say, boxing always has a clear conscience as long as ambulances are close at hand.
The uneasiness, which always dissipates with time, goes to the heart of boxing, which for all its good intentions really does require a Beethavean Scottland (or a Johnny Owen, or a Duk Koo Kim) to die every once in a while. Most fights do not end so tragically, and many end up reinforcing a heroic idea that is absent elsewhere in our lives. Had Scottland somehow landed a punch in that last round to win the fight, the fans in attendance would have left a little better off, having absorbed (secondhand) the possibility of glory.
Every once in a while, though, it has to go the other way, else that glory would seem too cheap. In boxing, anyway, it's exorbitantly costly, the last luxury of our civilization, really. As long as we can live with that, young men like Beethavean Scottland will die for it.