01 May 2011

Disparate Impact I

'That's not fair!'

One hears it often from the mouths of youngsters.  Universal justice has not been satisfied if I don't get one more cookie.  I was good, I deserve it.

Mom replies,

'Life isn't fair.'

It's a lesson we quickly forget.

Tennis fans, gather round.  Riddle us this:  Why don't women and men compete against each other in professional tennis? 

Is that fair?

You may not know this, but tennis began as a women's sport only.  After a while men got interested too, and demanded to be let into the tournaments. Which they were, and soon roundly beating the top women players 99% of the time. Fair?

Women knocked out of all the top spots, and most of the middle spots, relegated to 'mop-pushing' at the bottom of the ranks.  Not fair.

The ladies at last put their foot down and relegated men to certain matches only, and then certain tournaments only, and finally to their own separate tour.  Total gender segregation.


Yes yes, it didn't happen exactly that way.  But if tennis had in fact started out co-ed, would it have shaken out any differently?  Probably not.  All right, definitely not.

True as it may ring, my tennis-origins story was indeed a fable; my boxing-origins one, however, is not:

The first documented account of a bare-knuckle fight in England appeared in 1681, and the first English bare-knuckle champion was James Figg in 1719. […]  Early fighting had no written rules. There were no weight divisions or round limits, and no referee.

No tennis free-for-all ever happened, but a boxing one sure did.  These two would have been thrown in the ring together, and 'may the best man win.'   That is, Genaro there would likely have been squashed like a bug.

But rules appeared, weight classes came into being.  So…

Boxing fans, gather round.  Riddle us this:  Why must some boxers fight in 'featherweight' and others in 'heavyweight' matches?  Why not throw any two in the ring, and let the best man win?  It's a dog-eat-dog world after all.  Why coddle the short fries?

Our friend Wiki tells us this terrible inequity began in 1909, and why:

'Size mismatches were dangerous for the smaller boxer and unsatisfying for the spectators.'
Dangerous?  Unsatisfying?

But the heavyweights, don't forget, rake in a hefty chunk more prize money than the little guys.  A very hefty chunk indeed.  It's just plain unfair, really, to assume the lads born with a smaller frame are incapable of punching in the highest weight class.  They too deserve the fame, the glory, the riches of the big guys.

Or so they think.

So they picket.  They pester.  They write angry letters to their congressmen.  Laws are passed.

What they want are quotas.

And quotas are what they get.

The World Boxing Association bows to political pressure and agrees:  A certain number of sub-126-pounders must be let into the heavyweight class every year.  By mandate.  They would have in fact already been there, if they had just had a better upbringing and smarter trainers and lots of vitamins, which we'll be happy to supply them, with a nice public subsidy of course.

Off we go, the 'integrated' WBA matches start, and…

The fights are, quelle surprise, a giant bore.  They're over quick.  The viewers lose interest.  Stop buying tickets.  Stop buying merchandise.  Revenue plummets.  The Association is now laying off staff.   WBA would love to put an end to these unprofitable bouts, but with the Small Boxers' Lobby such a fearful force in Congress, they can't.

'Unsatisfying to the spectators,' Wiki told us.  'Unsatisfying to the spectators,' says the WBA to the government.

The government's response?  'Tough.'

There is a wrong that must be righted here, and justice has a price.

Nonetheless, politicians are scratching their heads.  Why are these poor little fellows losing so consistently?  We've poured millions into top-notch trainers for them, and sparkling new equipment, and eating regimes, and…


And still, why not hold them all to the same standard?  Punch like a 200-pounder, or go home. That's what I want to see.  Exciting boxing.  Biggest, strongest.  

Yet try as they might, each bout ends up looking like this. 

Perversely, it almost seems that demanding the same punching ability from a featherweight as from a heavyweight results in fewer featherweights being able to compete at all.

Why on earth, befuddled politicians whisper in hushed tones, is this perfectly sensible standard having such a... such a 'disparate impact' on these two groups? 

Nature has so clearly made them equal.

Stay tuned for Part II...

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