What a nutty sport

October 20, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- At least they didn't crown him the Mental Health Poster Child. They just said that Mike Tyson was "mentally fit to return to boxing." Whatever that means.

The team of six doctors reported to the Nevada Athletic Commission that the champ of chomps did not have -- where do they get these names? -- "Intermittent Explosive Disorder."

Yes, the "32-year-old right-handed gentleman" was troubled. He struggled with issues of trust and anger and "low self-esteem." But that didn't rule out the ring.

Now before we discuss the ther-apeutic benefits of fisticuffs, let us go back to those wonderful yesteryears in the Life of Mike Tyson. Not all the way back to childhood when friends remember him mugging old ladies in the elevator. Not all the way back to the days when he said, "I like to hurt women when I make love to them. I like to hear them scream. . . . It gives me pleasure." Not even all the way back to his rape conviction.

Just back to the June night in 1997 when he bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield's ear. It was the assault on Mr. Holyfield in a boxing ring, not the assault on Desiree Washington in a hotel room, that finally outraged the boxing world.

The boxing commissioner was belatedly "speechless and stunned."

In the end, the convicted rapist had his license revoked for assaulting an aural organ. Indeed, it was the desire to get back into the ring that brought the heavyweight to the doctors for a required evaluation.

This medical team was not, whatever you may think, a group of fly-by-night shrinks for hire. Chosen from the ranks of the prestigious Massachusetts General Hospital, they packed the report with caveats about Mr. Tyson's "emotional problems and cognitive problems" and acknowledged their own limits in predicting human behavior.

But the MGH Six nevertheless declared him fit to "comply with the rules and regulations and do so without repetition of the events of June 28, 1997."

How on earth did they come up with this conclusion? Is this medicine or a hunch?

A week ago in North Carolina, Wendell Williamson, a murderer, successfully sued his psychiatrist for not knowing how ill Williamson was before he fired an M-1 rifle on a street near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus. That psychiatrist asked the court, "How can I be responsible for something that is not predictable?"

In Mr. Tyson's case, if there's another ear lobe on the canvas, will the MGH Six be responsible?

Margaret Hagen, a Boston University professor of psychology and law, compares two imperfect ways we have to predict violent behavior. One is essentially intuition, a gut feeling that may be labeled in the fancy words, "professional opinion." The other is statistics, actuarial tables, risk factors.

"We've known for 30 or 40 years that clinical intuition isn't worth anything. Add six intuitions together and you still get zero," she -- says. It's better to add up the known risk factors for violence. This boxer has broken more rules than china plates. Indeed, during his five-day evaluation, Mr. Tyson threatened one of the doctors, who manfully reported that he didn't feel threatened.

More to the point, can any psychiatrist in his right mind determine whether a fighter in the adrenalin rush of Round Six will cross the fine line between the fair and foul violence that makes up this "sport"?

But there is something else bizarre in the entry of the MGH Six into boxing psychiatry. By merely accepting the assignment to parse fair from foul violence, by agreeing to decide whether Mr. Tyson is mentally fit for the ring -- not the real world -- they have entered the alternative universe of boxing.

In this world it is OK to beat someone's brains in, but not nibble their ear. It's OK to pummel someone to death, but not deliver a low blow.

For doctors -- healers -- to play a role in this alternative universe is to legitimize the notion that one man can brain-damage another in, of course, a mentally healthy way. Which is, if you will forgive the layman's term, "nuts."

It's now up to the commissioners to decide whether Mr. Tyson fights again. But in this uneven matchup between Mike and the MGH Six, the shrinks went down for the count.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/20/98

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