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Concussions pose threat to boxing at military academies

WEST POINT, N.Y. — A bell clanged and two cadets in boxing gloves surged from their corners in a gym at the Military Academy last week, throwing jabs and uppercuts while other cadets yelled “Keep working him!” and “Use the hook!”

For more than a century, boxing for male freshmen here has been a rite of passage and an academic requirement — one they share with male cadets at the Air Force Academy and cadets of both sexes at the Naval Academy. Officials say there is no better way to teach the grit needed for combat.

“We want to expose them to fear and stress and teach them a confidence to respond,” Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Gist, director of physical education at West Point, said. “We’d rather teach that at the academy than in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

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However, data obtained by The New York Times show the lesson comes at considerable cost. In the last three academic years, West Point has documented 97 concussions from boxing, the most of any sport, including football. The Air Force Academy has reported 72, and the Naval Academy 29.

The injuries regularly sideline cadets from varsity sports, academics, and military training, officials said. Cadets too concussed to complete the boxing class must repeat it.

Now some parents and policy makers are asking whether the military needs better ways to instill perseverance than having its best and brightest repeatedly punched in the head.

“Whatever benefit a cadet gains from boxing, the cost of missing studies, of missing training, of becoming more vulnerable to injury down range, are detrimental to military readiness,” said Brenda Sue Fulton, a West Point graduate who is the chairwoman of West Point’s civilian advisory committee, known as the Board of Visitors. “It’s possible by trying to prepare our cadets, we are making them less ready.”

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Boxing is not required for students in ROTC or for those who enlist as infantry troops.

Some medical experts say the risk of boxing may outweigh the rewards. “No brain trauma is good brain trauma — even if there are not diagnosable concussions, there can still be lasting damage,” said Dr. Robert Cantu, a leading neurologist at Boston University who has advised the Army and major league sports on concussions.

Boxing has a hallowed history at the military academies. And it has endured even as the military has become increasingly aware of the seriousness of traumatic brain injury.

Boxing was made a requirement at West Point in 1905 at the behest of President Theodore Roosevelt, joining horsemanship and swordsmanship as necessary skills for young officers. And although swords and horses were cut long ago, boxing remains.

To some extent, the heightened national concern over concussions in recent years has softened plebe boxing. Cadets at West Point now wear thick padded gloves. In sparring bouts, fighters can throw only one hook, one cross, and one uppercut per round. And after each of the 19 classes and three test bouts, coaches give a short talk, telling cadets to report to the health clinic if they feel symptoms of concussion.

But during a recent class, cadets still took repeated jabs to the head.

She and other parents interviewed asked that their names not be used out of concern that the publicity could negatively affect their children’s careers.

Last fall, after getting two black eyes and a concussion from boxing, an Air Force cadet who is a varsity athlete told his mother not to worry because he was taking only body blows in class until he recovered.

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In a phone interview, his mother said he had another concussion in a boxing bout a week later, and then woke up vomiting in the middle of the night. He was forced to curtail schoolwork as symptoms lingered for more than a week.

“I was livid, beside myself, in a panic,” his mother said. “I knew he could be severely impacted, maybe for life, and for what? He is a math and science guy, this is the Air Force. He doesn’t need to know how to box.”

Twenty years ago, the Air Force announced plans to end mandatory boxing because of mounting pressure from the medical community. But boxing continues. The Air Force did not respond to questions, or make any staff members available for interviews.

After his second concussion, the Air Force cadet was forced to drop boxing class. He has to take it again this year.

“I tried to get him to leave the academy, and he wouldn’t,” his mother said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”