Taking Sides

Fun fact: when he thinks no one is looking, Gary Bettman likes to daydream about what it would be like to have a moustache.

It was somewhere between 2 and 3 AM when I met the NHLPA guy. It was June, mere days after the end of the playoffs, those first few days of summer when hot nights are still a welcome novelty and you’re actually a little bit grateful to have a Saturday night with no games to watch. He was a low-level PR guy, I was a low-level media girl, and we stood on the patio in the sweltering dark, watching streetcars rattle by and contemplating higher forces of hockey beyond our control.

“Everyone is going to side with the owners,” he said, taking a hard, bitter drag on his cigarette. “Just like last time. The fans always side with the owners.”

“Why?”

“They just do. Doesn’t matter what we say. The owners always win the PR battle”

He said it as if it was a certainty, with the I know the ways of this hard world better than you, little grasshopper weariness that hockey guys often seem to take with fans and bloggers and other naïve creatures. Three things I know: the world is round, the trees are green, and the NHL owners will always win fan sympathy. He could not have been more absolutely sure that the PA would be crucified in the media. And, as it turns out, he could not have been more absolutely wrong.

Among people who write hockey, whether from sleek glassy offices or dingy basements, sympathy for the Players’ Association has been nearly overwhelming. Some are impassioned and some are muted, some wear hearts on their sleeves and others pretend to have no hearts at all, but ever since the owners’ initial proposal, which amounted to little more than a demand for more money and that players save them from their terrible CBA-circumvention habit, fans and media have mostly come down on the side of the players.

However, as in anything in hockey, the second a majority of people take a given position, there is a backlash, and in this case, it goes something like this: there is no morality in CBA negotiations. It’s nothing but a cash grab on either side. The players are just as bad as the owners, just as greedy, just as wrong. There’s no reason to have any sympathy for either side, and in fact, it’s wrong to have sympathy. Sympathy is bias, sympathy is emotion, sympathy is bringing moral reasoning into a fundamentally amoral arena. Business deals should be talked about like business deals, in terms of leverage and percentages and bottom lines. Everything else is just useless sentiment. Everything else is just buying into the PA’s PR offensive.

This position has a lot of things going for it: it sounds pragmatic, objective, and mature. It captures the cold, hard, slightly righteous cynicism that is the natural counterpoint to the fuzzy love and howling rage that sports generally inspire. Anywhere time in the hockey season, in any subsection of the hockey world, show me an issue where people mostly speak from the heart- a beloved player, an unexpected streak of victories, a nostalgic reflection- and I will show you a half-dozen contrarian blog posts arguing that all this icky feeling is wrong wrong wrong. It is a constant push-pull in the way we think, talk, and write about games, between idealism and realism, our desires and our reason.

Mostly, these backlashes are good for the game, if only because an opinion without a counterpoint risks becoming a mindless cliché, but that doesn’t mean that they’re all equally valid. And, particularly in this case, I think the backlash against player sympathy in the media and among fans reflects both a misunderstanding of the role fans and media play in hockey and a high-handed contempt for the very notion of having feelings about business practices. It is one thing to have a different view from the mainstream and make an argument for it. It’s another to dismiss all opposing arguments as nothing but herdlike irrationality and ‘falling for Fehr’s PR campaign’ (I imagine the PR guy, somewhere, outside some bar, reading those comments on his iPhone and laughing uproariously at the odd vicissitudes of public opinion).

The problem with the backlash isn’t its contention that there is greed on both sides, or that business negotiations are amoral. Both of those are true, and if you’re going to be placing bets on the eventual settlement that will come to pass, you’d be well-advised to remember both things. No, the problem is with its contention that there is something illegitimate about fans or writers taking sides, or getting emotional, or caring. Is it just a money grab? Yeah, sure. Will the owners probably win, regardless of whether or not their proposal is right or just or good for the League? Yeah, probably. That may be the way of the world, and so it goes. But simply because that is how it is doesn’t mean fans and media have to simply accept it. And, in fact, to argue that we, as spectators to this little piece of business theater, need to just pragmatically make our peace with whatever bullshit goes down is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of spectators in hockey.

We- we who watch, whether professionally or privately- are the stakeholders in hockey who do not have to be motivated by bottom lines and the routines of business negotiations.  Since we don’t get paid, or get paid the same regardless of who wins, we are in the privileged position of being able to value other things.  Things like ethics, and feelings, and history, and, oh, I don’t know, having hockey.  Our role in this is to be the people who have ideals and try, in whatever small way we can, to push the game towards them.  If we were the sort to blithely accept that hockey is a business, we wouldn’t be spending hundreds of dollars to scream drunk from the rafter seats.  We’re here to care, no matter how impractical that caring may be.  It’s what we do.  It’s who we are.  And we should never, ever apologize for it.  Even when we bring that caring, and all those other things we care about, to bear on the business side of the game.

The reasons that people support the players this time around are many and varied, but they’re not bad. Some people support the players because of a philosophical belief that players have a more legitimate claim to that extra 14% of revenues than the owners do. That may not be the way the world works, but it is certainly a valid ethical position to hold with a very reasonable argument behind it. Some support the players because they have concerns about the NHL business model and its policies surrounding expansion and revenue sharing, and believe that the players’ proposal does more to address the financial concerns they have about the future of the League. They may not get what they want, but there are very practical, pragmatic reasons for wanting it. And probably many, many fans support the players because the players have not threatened to end hockey, while the owners have. That, my friends, is not ‘falling for PR’, that’s rational self-interest. That’s taking the side who, as far as things have gone to date, seems to want what you want. None of these positions may be reflected in the ultimate outcome. They’re all still valid positions, well worth the advocating.

Public opinion, in all matters of business or politics, is never a hard force. It can seldom compel anything from people who are profoundly isolated from the public by money and power. Those who say that fans have no influence in the outcome of the CBA talks are right: we cannot effect the changes we want directly. But nevertheless, it is essential that we continue to advocate for the principles we believe in, the ethics we share, and our interests in hockey. It may be a long time before we see those principles, ethics, and interests reflected in the game. It may never happen. But if we fatalistically resign ourselves to the idea that business is business and nothing will ever change, it will definitely never happen.