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Boxing World Grapples With Threat of AIDS

October 28, 1987|STEVE SPRINGER | Times Staff Writer

It used to be regarded as a red badge of courage.

Ringside fans would save programs of fight cards if there were bloodstains on them to show just how close they'd been to the action.

Fighters would measure how badly they had hurt an opponent by the amount of his blood they carried back to the locker room on their gloves or trunks.

Referees and trainers traded war stories on the blood baths they'd been involved in.

Even in football, a linemen would look with pride on the amount of blood soaked into his uniform, provided that blood belonged to the man across the line of scrimmage.

No more.

It's a new era. A frightening era. The AIDS age.

Ringsiders these days are holding up their programs as shields.

In New Jersey and Florida, state athletic commissions now require referees and seconds to wear surgical style gloves. The New York State Athletic Commission also makes gloves available for both boxing and wrestling personnel, but use of them in that state is optional.

There haven't been a lot of takers in New York.

"We have found that most people, and I'm talking about 95%, refuse to use the gloves," said Marvin Kohn, a deputy commissioner with the New York body.

In California, however, there are no such recommendations and no plans to institute any.

Said Marty Denkin, assistant executive officer of the California State Athletic Commission: "The risk of AIDS in boxing is so minor that it has not come up and is something we are not going to address at this time. Because at this point, there is no evidence we have found that indicates AIDS can be transmitted through normal lacerations.

"Besides, if you start, where are you going to stop? I also referee and I've gotten more blood in my nose and mouth during a fight than on my hands. If you offer gloves, next they're going to want goggles and a mask. People at ringside are going to want plexiglass as a safety shield so they don't get splattered.

"From what we know, AIDS is highly communicable through homosexuality or through intravenous use of drugs. Now nothing is ever absolute, but I would say that for boxers, both of those areas do not come into play."

Kohn agrees with Denkin that it is unlikely many boxers are going to contract AIDS through dirty needles.

"We conduct drug tests on our fighters and we find that less than 2% test positive," he said. "Boxers are not drug users, and are probably not going to get involved in the AIDS problem that way."

To Dr. Robert Karns, a Southern California ringside physician, the chances of contracting AIDS in a boxing situation appear almost farfetched.

"It would take a significant amount of blood, the amount in a transfusion," he said. "It would have to be transmitted from an open wound into an open wound.

"For example, a fighter would have to have a big gash, say on his forehead, and he would then have to almost press his head onto the head of a referee or corner man who, in turn, had a large gash on his forehead."

Boxing is not the only sport grappling with the problem, though. Blood has been spilled on the football field as well. The AIDS problem suddenly seemed a lot closer to that sport last October when Jerry Smith, a retired NFL receiver, died as a result of the disease.

"You always worry about it," said Don Cochren, a Dallas Cowboys trainer. "You see it on the TV screen every night and read about it in the newspaper every day.

"We wear sterile gloves when we're treating wounds. There's no proof you can get AIDS that way, but using sterile gloves is a good technique to have anyway."

The Cowboys went even further last summer when they began testing their players for the disease.

"Each individual player was given an envelope when they were given their examinations," he said. "If they wanted to be tested for AIDS, they were to sign up and give the envelope to the team doctor. The results of those tests are strictly between the doctor and and the player. I don't know the exact number who signed up but I think it was somewhere in the 90% range."

In New York, there is talk of testing fighters for AIDS as well, but the obstacles loom large.

"Would it be cost effective?" Kohn asks. "We would have to have a budget. Right now, a boxer comes into New York and all he is required to do is pay $10 for a license and $19 for a fingerprint check. For that, he already gets a physical worth over $400.

"Adding an AIDS test would make it more expensive. We would have to test 40 to 50 fighters a month. Some say the promoter should pay for it but that would make it really difficult for them.

"The New York City Health Department has an AIDS test that is free, but I don't know if we could descend on them with all the fighters we'd have to test."

Even if the testing problem could be worked out, there's a bigger one that all the money in the city treasury couldn't solve.

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