Post written by Neil Corbett

***

I probably don’t have to tell you about how controversial the idea of injuries in hockey has become in the last few years.  The growing concerns about the connection between fighting and depression have been caught up in this general concern about the violence of the game, and a wide variety of prominent hockey journalists have been either supporting or predicting a fighting ban and a ban on head shots. 

As with most popular sports there is a lot of resistance to the idea of change, especially when the change is perceived to affect a traditional, fundamental aspect of the game.  In the NHL, what often ruffles feathers is the idea of taking the ‘toughness’ out of hockey (or the ‘pansification’ of hockey, as the famous ex-GM Mike Milbury once opined).  Then you have people pointing out that hockey is the only major sport in the world where play stops for two guys to throw bare-knuckle haymakers at each other, and that the greatest hockey player in the world just missed a year in what is arguably his prime because he got hit in the head too much.

I want to avoid my own opinions on what ought to happen in the NHL and instead clarify the debate a little bit by isolating an important hurdle.  The fundamental issue is the need to make a subjective value judgement, but it gets lost in the attempts to present objective moral proclamations.  We have no choice but to enter the gray area and do our best. 

The elephant in the room is that the amount of violence included in any sport is based on a fairly arbitrary balance of social convention, entertainment value, and tradition.  There is no clear-cut, conclusive argument validating or invalidating any specific level of violence in any sport whose participants choose to play.  This basic point is often abused.  Yes, hockey will live on without head shots and fights.  So what?  Yes, it will lose some of its physicality.  So what?   

In this context, arguing that head shots should be banned because people are getting hurt is like arguing that no one should be allowed to climb Mount Everest because they might die.  It’s a lazy argument that ignores the critical issue of how to balance things like the rights of people to make their own choices, the level of danger involved, and the justification of social conventions.  Arguing that headshots will change the game too much is equally lazy, because the real argument must involve why the game ought to be a certain way (among other things).  The repetition of these half-built arguments gets us nowhere.

As a society, we presently accept the basic idea of athletes sacrificing their welfare for paycheques and our entertainment.  We’re okay with people dying on Mount Everest.  We also accept the frequency of certain injuries in other lines of work where the pay is kinda shitty, so I can forgive a man making a few million dollars a year in the NHL for wondering why everyone is so concerned about his safety.  Brooks Laich recently told the media: “We accept that there’s going to be dangers when we play this game. […] sometimes it feels like we’re being babysat a little too much” (from Puck Daddy, via Chuck Gormley of CSN Washington).

It’s a good question, isn’t it? Why are we so concerned about his safety?  It is not inherently inconsistent with social convention, moral standards, the tradition of the sport, or the principle of entertainment to accept that NHL hockey carries a risk of concussion, and that being a professional brawler in the NHL carries a risk of depression (assuming a causal link between these two things does in fact exist). I’m not saying it’s morally right or wrong: all I’m saying is that an argument based entirely on the premise that significant injuries are inherently unacceptable is not convincing.  If I can legally risk my life climbing Mount Everest for zero money, why can’t I risk my life playing hockey for $5 million a year?  Another valid and instructive question is, why should a sport’s policy on violence follow social conventions on violence in sports? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but it’s a conversation we need to have instead of accusing supporters of head shots and fighting of being bloodthirsty troglodytes. 

On the other side of the coin, there is nothing written in stone anywhere that says a sport has to be a particular way.  Sports are a fairly arbitrary collections of rules, designed largely to create an interesting activity to both play and watch.  The rules hopefully encourage skill, athleticism*, strategy, innovation*, and ingenuity*.  It is debatable whether a rule has any fundamental value other than the value people give it.  Hockey is not static and fixed: we can add and remove things from it and the only thing that really determines whether it is still ‘hockey’ is our own judgement.

So please, don’t argue that headshots and fighting need to be taken out because they are hurting people.  Instead, try to present an argument about why the damage of head shots and fighting ought to be avoided, while the damage of slap shots and high-sticking is an acceptable evil.  Walk into the gray area, draw a line, and explain why it is where it is.  Second, don’t argue that headshots and fighting ought to be kept because removing them will change the game.  Instead, try to demonstrate why it is acceptable to remove the redline, force guys to wear helmets, change where the goalies can play the puck, and adjust the hooking/obstruction rules, but not acceptable to change the ways guys can check and the punishments for fighting.

I’m not saying that no one has addressed these issues effectively: tons of people have.  For example, Steve Kouleas, back when he was doing the excellent Hardcore Hockey Talk show, did a good job of remaining relatively neutral on the subject of fighting and instead opting to point out the inconsistencies or inadequacies of the arguments he was hearing.  Pointing out the problems in arguments is progress because you hopefully get rid of the bad ideas and isolate the good ones.  I hear a lot of people willing to draw the line and support their choice, which is good, but then I hear a handful of furious people attack the position for being a contradiction of some objective principle that does not exist.  Let’s move past that and accept the reality of what the decision is going to entail.

 

 * Incidentally, this is why baseball sucks.