Hard Times

Being against this is easy. Figuring out how to prevent it is hard.

Now is a hard time to be a hockey fan. Granted, there have always been moral tensions surrounding the game.  The sport has been full of brutal violence and crass exploitation for nearly a hundred years, and neither of those things have ever been easy to stomach. But this season, a creeping understanding of the long-term dangers of brain injuries that had been brewing beneath the surface of hockey for half a decade finally exploded into the mass consciousness. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that a lot of hockey people, at every level of the game, have suffered a crisis of conscience this season about what it means to love this sport. And the playoffs? Oh, honey, if you’re feeling traumatized by this postseason, get in line.

Understandably, there has been a lot of outrage.  This is a good thing. It’s a necessary first step. The building outrage over the NHL’s inadequate concussion-prevention policies and concussion-treatment protocols has brought the issue to the forefront of hockey discourse. It’s forced a conversation that a lot of people in the League offices would prefer not to have. It’s shown that fan sentiment and media muckraking can indeed have an impact on the direction of the game.

But we have been outraged for a year now, many of us longer. Half the articles that are being written today about this brutal postseason have the same essential content as the articles written after the spate of possibly CTE-related deaths last summer, names and quotations changed. The argument is the same: something must be done, more must be done, this is intolerable, this is immoral, it is not enough, the NHL has blood on it’s hands, somebody is going to die, something must be done. The case-study varies but the reaction doesn’t. This year has been one long string of terrible incidents and one long howl of moral outrage.

The NHL needs to change, this is beyond questioning. But the response needs to change too. Because- and I am sorry to say this- outrage is cheap. Outrage is cheap and easy and, on some fundamental level, a little bit selfish. Outrage is a way of assuaging one’s own moral crisis at being a fan of something that is perhaps not ethically worthy of fanaticism. It’s a balm for the soul. It makes one feel better, to stand up on one’s soap box or milk crate or even just in the middle of the living room and delcare that I AM AGAINST HEAD HITS. It feels like taking a stand, doing the right thing. But in and of itself, being outraged is doing nothing.

Do not think this is something I am blaming others for. I’ve done it too. I’ve written those articles, I’ve screamed from my little milk crate about how something must be done. But then I had a dream, and in this dream Brendan Shanahan came to me and said, okay, yes, you are right, Ellen, you have the right of it. I will do what you want. What, tell me, exactly, should we do?

And I realized that I was not entirely sure.  More, yes, but how much more?  Exactly?  And how?  And why?

So long as we talk about nothing but how angry we are and how wrong the League is and what a joke/travesty/abomination all the decisions are, we can preserve an illusion of consensus and certainty, and we can pat each other on the back for having the right opinion. We create the illusion of a unified movement. But scratch the surface just a little, start asking questions about specifics, and the consensus evaporates instantly. People often blame the NHL’s character (too traditional) or greed (violence sells) for impairing the reformation of League justice, but if the League, today, agreed to completely and totally give ‘us’ change-minded people everything ‘we’ want, what exactly would that be? Take ten people who all think the League’s handling of supplementary discipline in these playoffs has been totally wrong, sit them down in a room and have them write out what they would do instead. No more vague calls for ‘more’ and ‘different’ and ‘change’. Specifics, written out in games and dollars, with a rationalizing logic for each.

You would get ten different plans, some of them so radically different they would provoke just as much anger as the NHL’s decisions. Perhaps even more.

We, the fans and media, have changed. Our tolerance for violence has shifted, our concern for player safety has grown, we are no longer comfortable with the NHL’s handling of the game’s violence. Good for us. Gold stars all around.

But all we had to do to change was to stop saying one thing and start saying another. It is very easy for a person to change their opinion. But the NHL is not a person. It is a vast institution comprised of a dozen different constituencies, each with many different concerns. The NHL is not just Shanahan, it’s not just Bettman. It’s players, managers, trainers, and doctors. It’s on-ice officials, off-ice officials, and administrators. It’s owners, sponsors, advertisers, and television networks. It’s developmental leagues and farm systems. It’s fans and media. And what this absolutely massive amalgamation of tens of thousands of people needs to change is nothing so simple as an opinion, but policy. To change the NHL is not simply a matter of will. It’s a matter of detailed, complex negotiation.

More suspensions? Okay, fine, great. How many more? For exactly what kind of contact? How many games per? Why? How many dollars in fines? To the players or the teams? Why? How much of punishment should be determined by intent? How much by injury? How much by repeat-offender status? Who should judge? How should they be appointed?  Should mandatory suspension lengths be written into the rules? Does the victim have some responsibility for his own safety? How much? Why? Should consequences for the franchise be taken into consideration? Should there be separate policies for the postseason? How much of the power to deter should lie with the officials on the ice? How much with the Department of Player Safety? Should fighting be prohibited? With what kind of punishments?

Do not say consistency. Calls for consistency are a red herring, another thing that creates the illusion of consensus where none exists. There is not a single outraged person anywhere on the internet who would be happy with ‘consistent’ discipline if it was consistent according to the wrong standard. Before one insists on consistency one has to define what is right, otherwise the best one can hope for is consistently wrong.

Do not say whatever it takes. There is not one hockey fan who is willing to do whatever it takes in the name of player safety. If player safety is the most important thing and no other value matters, than call for the prohibition of all contact and ban anyone from the sport who violates that prohibition. Players would become dramatically safer immediately. But, of course, the game would be essentially different.  Nobody actually wants whatever it takes, it just sounds virtuous to say it.

And please, please, do not say nothing will ever change. Cynicism is even cheaper than outrage. Yes, the NHL is a large and unwieldy and conservative institution, but there was never any institution in the history of the world so great and solid that it could not be moved. The NHL has changed dramatically through its history, and there were many forms of violence- stick violence, notably- that it once merrily tolerated that have now been almost wholly eradicated. The forces in the NHL that support concussive violence can be shifted. They can evolve, they can be persuaded, coerced or co-opted. You know how I know this? Because fans and play-by-play announcers and television commentators used to be one of those pro-head-hit constituencies. We used to be the people cheering the high elbows and the jumping charges and chuckling at the guy stumbling to get up after. We’ve changed, in huge numbers, and every day more and more of us are coming around. And if we can change, than advertisers and sponsors can change, and if they can change, than owners can change, and if owners can change, the League can change. Throwing up your hands and crying impossible is just absolving yourself of having to contemplate the difficult work of negotiation, persuasion, and slow, piece-by-piece transformation that real change requires.

The process has already begun. It is all around us. Shanahan has set out to create a more transparent, more consistent, more articulate process of supplementary discipline than ever before. No, it is not completely transparent or consistent or articulate, because- again- he has to work within a system that still has powerful interests that do not yet support him. He has not, by himself, been able to change the entire disciplinary structure of the League in one season.  No one and nothing that actually exists could possibly have done so. But he has pushed in a direction no NHL disciplinarian has ever pushed before, and next year he will be able to push further.

Teams are beginning to take concussions seriously. They’re holding players with head injuries on the IR for longer stretches, opening up to the notion of ‘however long it takes’ for a guy to be ready. Their behavior reflects a far more accurate and compassionate understanding of brain trauma than hockey has ever had before. It’s not perfect- there are still teams who rush guys back, still coaches who talk about concussion symptoms like they’re psychosomatic excuses- but fewer than before, and now, rather than being blithely accepted, such decisions and assertions are widely challenged.

And players are beginning to understand the danger. More and more players are talking about hits to the head as something unnecessary and unacceptable, more and more are admitting to being scared and upset by the tales of CTE and the effects it can have on a man’s later life. Of course, some of them are still hiding concussions and playing when they should not be. Some of them are still defending obvious headhunting as good hockey plays. But now, playing through symptoms and shrugging off a shoulder to the skull are both controversial, not just in the papers but within dressing rooms.

Is it enough yet? No, of course not, absolutely not, but nothing at the beginning was ever the entirety of what it will be at the end, and this is no small transformation that we’re dealing with. Adapting hockey to reduce concussions and CTE is not some small, simple thing. It’s not just a matter of tossing out a few extra suspensions and be done with it. It will transform the game in a hundred interconnected ways that we cannot even yet begin to predict. It requires shifts not just in rules and punishments but in culture- the culture of on-ice officiating, the culture of playing, the culture of watching, the culture of coaching. It requires redefining fundamental values and archetypes- a new understanding of a clean hit, a new sensibility about the acceptable level of risk and danger, a new vision of the balance between on-ice punishments and off-ice ones. It will affect our understanding of what a hockey career is and how long it should last. It will affect the CBA. It will affect equipment. It will effect the outcomes of games and seasons and lifetimes.

Once, years ago, when I was young as a fan and the game was new, I sent up a prayer for a rule like a scalpel, that could “cut out all the ugly and terrifying moments but still leave all the rest of it, including the violence and the drama and the thrill, intact.” I am not the only hockey fan to send up that prayer. But despite all our wishing, that rule doesn’t exist- at least, not as one thing. If it can exist at all, it will be a series of changes, some very big and some very small, that only together, in the aggregate, will be able to create the new balance of safety and danger that we can live with. The process of finding these changes is going to be long, and it is going to be slow, and it is going to be frustrating, full of heated debates, mistakes, inconsistencies, and false starts. There are going to be bad decisions enthusiastically embraced and good decisions met with resistance. There’s going to be trouble, and sacrifice, and everyone who participates on any level is going to end up looking like an idiot or an asshole more than once.

So why do it at all? Because that’s how change happens, in the real world, in big institutions with lots of contending constituencies.

Keep your outrage, if it helps you commit to the process. Outrage that drives policy proposals, debate, concern, and interest in the mechanisms of transformation is a very good thing. Outrage that makes people follow the research and development camps, the CBA negotiations, that inspires active engagement with the League, is great and necessary and beautiful. But outrage that begins with self-righteousness and ends with despair? That’s useless. It doesn’t make players safer and it doesn’t make hockey better.

The game is trying to shift, lurching, from one consensus point to another, but the change can’t be completed until the new consensus is defined. And that can’t happen until the constituency that is pushing hardest for change- the fans and the media- stop using their outrage to feel good about themselves and start using it to push useful policy proposals. Getting angry is the easy part. But, like so many of Shanahan’s suspensions, it’s just not enough.