By Tucker Ives
This afternoon the NHL’s Winter Classic kicks off at 3pm between the Rangers and Flyers. Last year’s game is partially remembered for one of the big hits on Sidney Crosby that forced him to miss the rest of the season (and most of this season).
This has me thinking again about a topic we recently covered on Where We Live: sports and violence. John started off this episode by explaining his own conflicting feelings on this topic as a Pittsburgh sports fan. Here’s the transcript:
If you’ve listened to this show for a while, you know I’m from Pittsburgh. And that makes me a Steelers fan. Steelers fans root for their team in good seasons and bad, and have always had a belief that their players embody the spirit of Art Rooney, one of the founders of the modern NFL. Their players are tough and gritty, without being thuggish. They play hard…and they play right.
(high-res version can be seen here)
If you haven’t seen the hit, it’s gruesome – one of many that linebacker James Harrison has leveled on opposing players over the years. He’s gained such a reputation in fact that this hit cost him a game suspension – and about $75 thousand dollars. That’s on top of $125 thousand he was fined last year for blows to the head. Many football players – and Steelers fans – defend Harrison, saying he’s just playing a fast game the way he was taught…and the way fans like.
Detractors say these fines – and others levied by the league in a recent crackdown on hits like this – are essentially meaningless to players who make millions. They worry that the game will only really change when a player dies on the field. Or maybe, as in the case of pro hockey – it’ll be the story of Sidney Crosby, an icon for my hometown team, the Penguins. The best, most skilled player in the league, has missed roughly a year – and is still recovering from concussions received on consecutive, dirty hits. The NHL is facing enough bad press already, with a groundbreaking profile of “enforcer” Derek Boogaard, who died young after a career of league-sanctioned brawling.
Question: What’s the penalty for a gloves off, blood-on-the-ice fistfight in the NHL?
Answer: Five minutes in the penalty box.
Isn’t this all just part of the game? Yes, but it shouldn’t be. Of course fights are going to break out from time-to-time when cheap hits are made and elbows are flying. In baseball, benches clear and punches are thrown but those players are then suspended and fined. If fans want to see fights, there are plenty of avenues for that (boxing, UFC, Jackie Chan movies). Hockey is exciting enough without this ugly part of the game. Here’s an excerpt from the NY Times’ profile on Boogaard:
There is no athlete quite like the hockey enforcer, a man and a role viewed alternately as noble and barbaric, necessary and regrettable. Like so many Canadian boys, Boogaard wanted to reach the National Hockey League on the glory of goals. That dream ended early, as it usually does, and no one had to tell him.
But big-time hockey has a unique side entrance. Boogaard could fight his way there with his bare knuckles, his stick dropped, the game paused and the crowd on its feet. And he did, all the way until he became the Boogeyman, the N.H.L.’s most fearsome fighter, a caricature of a hockey goon rising nearly 7 feet in his skates.
Derek Boogaard (NYR) vs. Steve MacIntyre (EDM) 11.14.10 (Photo by Matthew D. Britt, Flickr Creative Commons)
Boogaard was a man who fought his way into the NHL and then to his death. This should be unacceptable in 2012. For as long as I’ve been alive (which admittedly is not very long), athletes have been idolized by people of all ages including children. This idolization will not change anytime soon and leagues and athletes need to accept this responsibility.
We should move past the gladiator mentality of athletes being expected to put their bodies on the line for the sake of sport. Sure, hockey is supposed to be a physical game. But it shouldn’t be as explicitly violent as it is. One of the more troubling aspects is the belief throughout the hockey world that “enforcers” are actually making the games safer. This is from an AP story in December:
(NHL) Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the league last discussed stronger penalties for fighting from the current 5-minute major penalty at general manager meetings two years ago and there has been little appetite for it recently.
“Fighting is part of our game,” Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello said. “It impedes more injuries to happen because of what potentially can happen with people taking liberties they shouldn’t take.”
Here’s an idea: change the rules and train the referees to be stricter. The referees have turned into something like prohibition-era police officers in Chicago. They leave enforcement to the players on the ice and have lost their authority. While there is a fine line between over-regulating the game and turning it into a free-for-all, the current system is not working. The belief that players can police themselves through fighting is damaging to the players involved and the game as a whole.
One listener emailed us after the Where We Live episode and said that highlighting violence in hockey is hypocritical. Richard said, “Compare this to deliberate beaning of your opponent in baseball. Pitcher throws 90+mph at the head of a perhaps unsuspecting, minimally protected batter. Which usually results in the other pitcher doing the same next inning.”
I agree with most of what Richard says, but the one big difference is the league’s response. A pitcher suspected of throwing at a batter is ejected from the game and the pitcher and manager are suspended. Tempers will always flare up in sports but the consequences need to be strict enough to prevent it from becoming a regular occurrence.
If you take the fighting out of hockey, the fans will still come (or at least I will).