I sent the following response to the WSJ. They chose not to publish it, but I post it here for you perusal and comment:
In his article: "In the Fray: If Birds Were Doing It, It Would Be Banned," Professor Gordon Marino proffers a seemingly ethical indictment against the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). While citing research suggesting that the risk of severe head trauma in considerably less in MMA bouts than in the widely accepted sport of boxing, Marino argues that "injury risk may not be the best indicator of the level of violence in a sport." He concludes by asserting that "Instead of asking if mixed martial arts is a sport, it might be more useful to ponder whether it is a sport that ennobles or imbrutes participants and fans."
As I understand his argument, it is the "violence" within the sport - by whatever definition he finds acceptable- to which he objects. Whether or not injury risk is the best measure of violence in a contact sport, it certainly is a relevant one to consider from a public health perspective. The study on injury to which he refers found that the overall injury rate in MMA bouts is comparable to that found in other contact sports (not just fighting sports) and that knockouts occur only about half as often in MMA as they do in boxing.
Brain injury is arguably the most serious type of contact sport injury. Yet some studies have found that NFL body hits have a greater force impact on the brain than do punches from professional boxers, let alone MMA athletes. The one-pound gloves used by boxers protect the puncher, not the one being punched. In fact, the heavier gloves (as opposed to the usual 4 oz. MMA gloves) allow the punch to carry even greater force, potentially causing greater trauma to the brain. That fact, combined with differing rule structures between pro boxing and MMA, may make MMA a safer sport in many ways, at least with regard to brain trauma.
While numerous boxing-related deaths have occurred over the years, there are no known deaths arising from MMA-related injury. Death, of course, may not be the best indicator of the level of violence in a sport. I do not know that we can all agree on a specific definition of violence, but I suspect that many would acknowledge some distinction between antisocial and prosocial forms of aggression. Contact sports have generally been regarded as manifestations of prosocial – or at least not antisocial – aggression.
MMA is now well-regulated in the U.S. The athlete-participants are not the barroom brawlers of the early "Toughman" competition. There are rules and weight classes and athletic commission safety regulations. No promotions to my knowledge permit – as Marino's note implies - strikes to the throat and head kicks when a fighter is on the mat. If Professor Marino or others want to argue against all sport contact on a public health or humanitarian basis, I may disagree, but I would at least see the integrity of that position. I do not, however, know of any evidence to suggest that MMA "imbrutes" participants or fans any more than boxing or even sports where contact is central or common, such as football, hockey, or basketball or of evidence that any of these sports necessarily have an ennobling effect.
Dr. Randy Borum is a Professor and violence researcher at the University of South Florida.