Cooke: Look, I know I’ve made mistakes. I’m a physical player and yes, I step over the line sometimes. But so do lots of players, and most of them don’t get big suspensions.
Campbell: Exactly. I went easy on Dany Heatley and Brad Marchand, and I didn’t suspend Chara at all…
Mellieux (under his breath): Or that jerk who took out Marc Savard.
Campbell: Shush. The point is, plenty of players do dirty things without getting suspended. Why start getting tough now, right?
The general sentiment surrounding Matt Cooke’s recent suspension is that the league finally got something right: the sentence of 10 regular season games plus the first round of the playoffs is a particularly stiff one relative to punishments the NHL has routinely handed out in the past for similar transgressions. More needs to be done before the league can be applauded however.
In my post on this subject last week, I noted that the league frequently struggles with two main aspects of behavior modification when it comes to their attempts at discipline and justice: contingency (consistency of consequence of behavior) and size (degree/significance of the consequence). With the Matt Cooke suspension, the league probably got the size part right – missing the final 10 games will cost Cooke north of $200,000 in salary. The additional punishment of missing the first round of playoffs (which could constitute the Penguins entire post-season) adds teeth to the consequence because it removes something Cooke likely finds intrinsically rewarding.
Contingency is the necessary and more difficult factor to ensure going forward. Given his history and the timing of his infraction, Matt Cooke made for an excessively easy target for punishment. The plain truth is, the optics of the situation demanded a hefty sentence with the ever increasing media scrutiny around headshots, plus Cooke’s steadily descending reputation as the NHL’s premier cheap-shot artist. When he decided to elbow Ryan McDonagh in the head on Sunday, Cooke gave Colin Campbell an easy way to placate the public’s demand for justice and slake the media’s thirst for the NHL to “do something”.
The truth is, the Cooke suspension was an easy one. He’s become an incontrovertible villain in the game owing to his now lengthy rap-sheet. In the wake of the Pacrioretty incident, Sydney Crosby’s concussion and the league’s stated mandate to “crack down on concussions”, there was little room for further lenience when it came to sentencing him.
The issue isn’t that Cooke is a scapegoat. He most assuredly deserves his punishment. What’s important is the league should resist the temptation of merely making an example of an easy target for the sake of perception over effectiveness. Meaning: contingency in behavior modification is about applying clear, explicit consequences in a consistent manner. Discipline and justice in the league should not simply be about pile-driving an obviously unsympathetic character to quell the angry mutterings of the fans and media. If the true concern is the 80+ concussions suffered in the NHL this year and the true goal is to effect change in the behaviors causing concussions, then Campbell and the NHL need to explicitly define, outlaw and similarly punish such behaviors…even when they aren’t engaged in by guys like Matt Cooke.
This is noteworthy because the league has a long history of enacting arbitrary and uneven punishments, apparently because their decisions are implicitly guided by what should be marginal or irrelevant factors: for example, the “star power” of the perpetrator. When the league uses tangential issues to limit consequences, they essentially excuse behavior and undermine the effectiveness of applying consequences at all. Punishments become uneven and apparently arbitrary. No one really knows what is expected or outlawed nor what the potential punishment will be. Dangerous plays therefore continue apace.
On the other hand, if the NHL is more interested in appearing to be concerned about headshots rather than actually changing behavior, we should expect them to get some mileage out of the draconian Cooke sentence and then return to business as usual in short order.