A Crisis of Conscience?

(Relevant part starts at 3:50)

It’s summertime and I want to get all philosophical and heavy up in here.

I know I am not exactly breaking new ground by bringing up the topic of violence in hockey but it is one that is surely not going away any time soon and I am especially curious to hear some opinions from you folks.

I just want a quick sampling of opinion to the question, do you believe that the NHL has a moral responsibility to remove fighting from the game?

Let me explain why I am even asking this question. Last week, I was lucky enough to attend a conference (with generous help from my university) in Brazil to give a paper related to my master’s research.

I will spare you the boring details of the paper itself but basically my talk addressed the history of violence in hockey. It was a great experience: I ate some chicken hearts, chocolate churros, and tried to explain Don Cherry to some Brits. More importantly than churros, the conference led to some great discussion that I wanted to continue when I got back to Calgary.

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The discussion that followed was centered around a perceived moral problem facing the NHL as a whole.This ‘crisis of conscience,’ as I perceive it, is that professional hockey in North America, and more precisely the National Hockey League, has taken many unprecedented steps to address the spectre of the long term effects of head trauma to its players.

In doing so, the National Hockey League has both acknowledged the danger that concussions pose to players while simultaneously allowing fighting to remain a component of their business and their professional brand. How, in good conscience, can the NHL maintain this dualism? My paper sought to analyze the precedent for this institutionalized disjuncture through examining the history of hockey’s institutions and violence.

However, I am not here to pontificate, if you are bored and want to find out what my paper was about, ask me in the comments and I’ll email you and we can have a lovely chat.I am here on Flamesnation because I want to see what hockey fans think about this issue.At the conference, the vast majority of the attendees were from the UK and USA and very few had familiarity with hockey. Their responses and questions to me struck me as different from what I would expect from a more hockey-savvy audience.   

For example, one retired professor from Northeastern University told me that the fighting he saw in the 60s and 70s turned him off the game completely. This strikes me as an extreme case but it got me wondering just how different the context would be if I framed this discussion in Canada.

Recently, at an Enmax leadership talk, Brian Burke mentioned fighting in hockey contributed a great deal to the entertainment value of the game. If the NHL knows the long-term effects of head trauma (i.e CTE), then, aside from the more obvious legal responsibility that will be fought out in the courts over the next little while, does the NHL have a moral responsibility to do something? What role should the players association play in this discussion? 

Spill, I want to hear what you guys think.

  • BitGeek

    This article made me think of Bullfighting around the world and how so many countries have now made it illegal to kill the bull as part of the performance. This used to be a big part of the sport if I understand it correctly.

    Since Bullfighting is not a sport I’m accustomed to seeing, it makes sense to me to eliminate the death of the bull (seems like an unnecessary killing). However, I bet the traditionalists and die hard fans of the sport, might think the elimination of the death of the bull somehow makes the experience less enjoyable.

    To us, removing fighting from hockey might be a hard pill to swallow if you grew up with the sport and actually enjoyed that part of the game. To “outsiders” it might not make any sense to keep fighting in the sport, especially when compared to other team sports that don’t sanction that kind of activity (e.g. Football, soccer, baseball etc).

    When I say “outsider” I use the term loosely and include anyone that does not follow hockey religiously, not just those from other countries.

    So the question is, how do you change the paradigm of someone who is a die hard fan of hockey (and of the fighting) to accept the removal of fighting? You’d probably do it the way the NHL has been doing it and gradually make it less acceptable, and less appealing for players and fans alike. Eventually you’ll be able to remove it completely and everyone will wonder why it wasn’t done sooner.

    I don’t know that you can make an overnight change like the complete elimination of fighting and not get some serious push back from the fans though. Yet, the fans keep coming back to the sport (even after 2 lockouts fairly close together) despite saying that they are done and will never watch it again….

    • “So the question is, how do you change the paradigm of someone who is a die hard fan of hockey (and of the fighting) to accept the removal of fighting? You’d probably do it the way the NHL has been doing it and gradually make it less acceptable, and less appealing for players and fans alike. Eventually you’ll be able to remove it completely and everyone will wonder why it wasn’t done sooner.”

      Great post, I like the bullfighting analogy. I think you’re right, and the NHL will just do it and it will become something a part of the game’s heritage rather than its future. I just wonder when that will be if the NHL continues to draw in record revenue. The impetus for change won’t come from the business end, as the game right now is more profitable now than ever, that’s kinda why I am wondering if it will become a moral issue.

      • BitGeek

        I think the league does recognize their moral obligation to do “something” about it but is not pressured to make immediate changes. The pressure is starting to build though, as more and more people speculate about the value of fighting in the sport and the implications that protecting their athletes has.

        From a business perspective, eliminating head injuries (and by necessity not just targeted checks to the head, but also fighting) will also help to protect their assets. Imagine if Sidney Crosby had never returned to the NHL after suffering from his (multiple) concussions? I think they (NHL managment) see the repercussions of not protecting their “money makers” and will continue to whittle away at problem till it’s gone.

        It definitely makes it easier when the fans start calling for it too. Then they can claim that they did it because it was the morally responsible thing to do.

        Here’s another example. Do you think MacDonald’s eliminated Styrofoam contains because it was the right thing to do? or because they knew they would lose customers over time because of their lack of action? Was it a business decision or was it a moral obligation?

  • Fighting is in a very weird *legal* space in Canada – the Supreme Court of Canada has said very clearly that there are limits to the kinds of assault a person can consent to, and that one cannot consent to engage in a fist fight. That decision hasn’t been applied to sports by lower courts, though, and the legality of fighting in hockey hasn’t been tried at the SCC.

    I hate fighting in hockey, but I don’t think it’s going anywhere in the near future. It’s going to stick around in one form or another until some poor 22-year-old kid trying to make a name for himself and justify his $1,000,000 salary gets a heavy shot to the temple, falls and hits his head on the ice, has a brain hemorrhage and dies. Then either the courts/government will step in and put an end to it, or that player’s family will sue the NHL for a huge sum of money and the league will put a stop to it.

    • BitGeek

      I wonder how the Supreme Court of Canada allows boxing or MMA then? Those sports are all about the fighting where two people consent to engage in a fist fight. Maybe they treat hockey the same way and look at fighting in Hockey as inherent to the sport itself?

  • It’s a real blurry line. I think fighting in hockey is okay, but for a multitude of reasons I hate the enforcer role that is still somehow part of the game.

    And those are the people who you’re trying to protect if you ban it outright. Obviously if you subject your skull to getting punched 10X the amount of anyone else, you have a greater risk of feeling the effects of CTS or whatever head related traumas are out there. Jarome Iginla has had some 40 odd fights over the course of his career, which seems like a lot, but that’s over 20 years. I’ll bet if you looked at his brain it would be just fine. Compare that to George Parros or whatever veteran facepuncher you can think of, their fight card is somewhere in the 300s. Bob Probert probably had way more than that.

    Of course banning hockey outright means these guys are basically out of the game, so they’ve been protected. It’s a lot easier to mandate “no fighting” across the board than it is to say “you can fight, you just can’t have guys that are only here for that”, which is what I wish the league could do.

    From a moral perspective, yeah they should probably ban it. I like fighting as much as the next guy, but anyone who goes to a hockey game demanding to see a fight can take his or her money somewhere else. I don’t think the entertainment value argument is as high as Brian Burke says it is. The average fan can watch a compelling game sans fights and go home happy (especially if their team wins).

    However it’s a slippery slope. If you can argue that fighting causes CTE and a blanket ban on fighting eliminates that problem, you could also logically conclude that headshots also lead to major concussions and a ban on body contact altogether would put an end to that. Now I think you can play the game without contact and morally speaking you’d be well served to do so if it eliminated headshots, but I do think there’s a lot of entertainment value in a physical game, and that’s when the LEague starts to run into problems.

    So, in conclusion, haha, I don’t know. I think I’d prefer the common sense approach where you take goons out of the game and just let the Iginlas of the world go about their business once every 15 games or so, but NHL GMs long ago decided they never needed to employ common sense ever again, so we might never see that day.

    • beloch

      I don’t have the statistics, but thinking back I’m hard-pressed to recall a single incident where a fight (actual fighting) resulted in a concussion (except where someone fell headfirst onto the ice), and I recall many incidents where a concussion resulted from a vicious hit to the head or a boarding incident. If we’re concerned about concussions maybe the league/refs should focus more in that direction than against fighting per se.

      I realize the league’s head office has done just that under Shanahan, etc though I think the consistency has been lacking and more severe in-game and post-game penalties/suspensions would probably help.

      • Ah, but CTE and concussions are two different things. CTE is definitely indicative in cases where there are multiple concussions, but it’s something that arises from head trauma in general, which is not always a concussion.

        It’s entirely possible to spend an entire career in the NHL getting your face punched in and avoiding a concussion while still developing CTE. Concussions, I believe, are the most sever head trauma cases that lead to CTE, but repeated and consistent head trauma, like the kind facepunchers in hockey endure, are more prone to CTE even if they never get concussed during that time.

    • “From a moral perspective, yeah they should probably ban it. I like fighting as much as the next guy, but anyone who goes to a hockey game demanding to see a fight can take his or her money somewhere else. I don’t think the entertainment value argument is as high as Brian Burke says it is. The average fan can watch a compelling game sans fights and go home happy (especially if their team wins).”

      Yeah this is true for sure, I was asked by an guy from the UK if they have ever tried to eliminate fighting in the NHL or a lower level, just to see what the entertainment product was like.

      My response was basically, no they haven’t really, except for the 2 months a year with essentially no fighting called the playoffs. Kinda glib of me, but I was trying to impress upon them that fighting has no real bearing on the entertainment value of the game.

  • McRib

    “..one retired professor from Northeastern University told me that the fighting he saw in the 60s and 70s turned him off the game completely….”

    I HATE it when people use this example (fairly often) as a reason for not watching Hockey, let’s face it anyone who was that easily turned off of Hockey was not a fan to begin with, but why do these types always feel compelled to give you an all “high and mighty” doucy response to justify it.

    I’m not against fighting when it is between two regulars and is a heat of the moment-spur of the moment exchange, but keeping around a couple of face punchers who play 3-4 minutes a night is a waste considering there is very likely a young prospect or two in the AHL that would deserve that roster spot and may never get a legitimate opportunity to showcase their talents at the NHL level because of being constantly buried behind an enforcer (see John Scott, Colton Orr, Paul Bissonnette, Brian Mcgrattan, etc). I think in 5-10 years it will be very rare to see “everyday fighters” on NHL rosters, as there are just too many good young players coming up the ranks these days, but I also hope that fighting isn’t taken out of the game completely, which I doubt happens.

    • piscera.infada

      I’m not against fighting when it is between two regulars and is a heat of the moment spur of the moment exchange, but keeping around a couple face punchers who play 3-4 minutes a night is a waste considering there is very likely a young prospect in the AHL that would deserve that roster spot and may never get a legitimate opportunity to showcase their talents at the NHL level because of being constantly buried behind a face puncher or two (see John Scott, Colton Orr, Paul Bissonnette, Brian Mcgrattan, etc). I think in 5-10 years it will be very rare to see “everyday fighters” on NHL rosters, as there are just too many good young players coming up the ranks these days, but I also hope that fighting isn’t taken out completely.

      From a purely hockey stand-point I agree with this whole-heartedly. I don’t think we’ll ever see the day where fighting will totally be banned from the game – the fights that you speak of above are part of the allure of the game (moment of passion and intensity). I’m with you though. I full expect that as we see the archaic dinosaurs in management phased out, the new blood will move away from the pure face-punching “enforcer”. Here’s hoping anyway.

      While I’m aware that the head-injuries and fighting arguments are not mutually exclusive, I don’t think it does either argument justice to lump them together. The merits of each are separate in my view.

    • Yeah it’s weird, this man was a lifelong baseball fan, grew up in Brooklyn and worked in Boston his whole life. I was puzzled by that response because I think it might be him attempting to rationalize not having familiarity with the game rather than not liking it because of fighting. It did seem kinda disingenuous of him

  • prendrefeu

    I am not a proponent of fighting (even though I do like what happened to Vancouver’s mental space after the Flames lit up their rink at the drop of the puck). Watching a game on the screen, fights don’t interest me at all, and watching the game live it seems that I’m even less interested – perhaps even disappointed.

    I have also played around with the idea (in my head of course), of integrating Football/Soccer’s “card” rules into hockey. As in there are still penalty boxes, still penalties and timed man advantages, but some types of penalties – such as boarding – or instigating fights, results in a yellow card. More severe ones obviously would be a direct red. Two yellow cards results in a red. That not only means that the player is ejected from the game right there and then, but the entire team is penalized for the remainder of the game: they must play one man down for the remainder of the game, regardless of rotations or bench availability. Just cursorily thinking about this, I believe that it would reduce unnecessary goon-like fighting, or fighting as a result of petty sh*t, as the costs for fighting hurt the entire team for the remainder of the game. Eventually goons are less favoured as a player type to have on the team.

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    I enjoy a good tilt now and then. I’m not ashamed to say I loved watching the huge brawl between Flames and Canucks. It was entertaining.
    I think fighting in hockey has its place, a fight every few games is fun to watch. Professional boxing, MMA, wrestling, surely have access to the same information regarding concussions and brain damage as the NHL does, yet the sports continue to thrive and people willingly participate. As long as the players are for it, then I think it has its place.

  • NHL93

    I see no reason to have fighting in the game.. but like most people I am a bit of a hypocrite. Some of my favourite moments as a Flames fan involved Sandy McCarthy/Gary Roberts/Jarome Iginla beating the crap outta a player on the other team. It’s a rough sport that gets the blood running. Take a step back and look at the game objectively and fighting looks moronic and savage.

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    meh.. I could do without the fights. I don’t go to a game hoping for a fight. It’s hard explaining to my young daughters how intentionally hitting another grown male is suddenly ‘ok’ in the hockey rink – that was a tough question to answer!

      • Bean-counting cowboy

        I fumbled around helplessly for a few seconds before finally settling on some b.s. about how they both wanted to do it and it has always been a part of the sport – blah, blah, blah. I think I ended with; “this should never happen out in the real world”. How dumb does that sound?

        • It is weird isn’t it, the type of argument you end up making sometimes to justify something you like on one level but understand on a higher level to be utterly ridiculous.

          Part of my Iginla fandom is still predicated on his willingness to fight even though it runs contrary to my beliefs about fighting in the game.

          • Skuehler

            I think they call that cognitive dissonance. Apparently it’s a common human trait. We do it all the time. We read the ingredients on the side of a Twinkie pkg and decide to eat it anyway.

          • That’s exactly right. Excellent point. That same cognitive dissonance exists, I think, when the NHL says that they are attempting to remove targeting of the head. They want to remove it but can’t seem to remove an act that is targeting of the head in the purest form.

  • piscera.infada

    Very broadly, the head trauma rhetoric spewed by the NHL, and other professional sports leagues just seems like lip-service to me. Sure, they probably care, but it’s far easier to convince the viewers you care than do anything substantial about it.

    Moreover, there is an identity inherent in sport, that makes it decidedly difficult to effect the type of change you’re alluding to in this article. Athletes – especially those in hockey, football, rugby, etc. – are typically viewed as willing combatants – warriors within the “arena-Colosseum”. The amount of money that passes through these industries only further cements the rhetoric that is commonly used to overlook the abuse taken by many of its employees.

    As such, it will take the narrative changing before the respective leagues are willing to do anything more than pay lip-service to the fans. Now, the fans buy it, but it’s not entirely their fault. “They signed up for this, and we paid to watch”.

    • I like what you are saying about the identity/narrative of the sport reinforcing the rhetoric. One of the articles I referenced was from National Post writer Jesse Klein.

      He wrote an editorial on October 13, 2011 which argued that fighting has a place in today’s game because it is a part of hockey’s long, Gladiator-like history: “In Ancient Rome upwards of 50,000 people would fill the Coliseum to watch men battle condemned criminals and wild beasts…Today’s coliseums have names like Saddledome and Gladiators are no longer slaves, they’re multi-millionaire celebrities.

      It’s fascinating to me the way that history is used as reinforcement for violence’s place in the game