Pittsburgh Penguins v Colorado Avalanche

 

On March 5th, in a game between the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers, Rangers defenseman Marc Staal took a deflected shot to the eye.  This is old news- last month might as well be the 17th century in the information torrent of a hockey season- and, since it looks as though Staal will recover fully, is of little interest to anyone other than fantasy hockeyists and Rangers fans.  It did, however, add some color to the recent Board of Governors meeting, where the subject of a mandatory visor rule was again revisited.  Perhaps in light of Staal’s injury, certainly in light of all the other eye injuries that have befallen important visorless players over the years, the League came out with a strong statement in favor of mandating shields for all new players.

This statement received a wave of support from the hockey commentariat, among whom the mandatory visor rule has long been popular.  But, as always, there’s a catch- despite favoring the rule, the NHL also stated that they wanted to work with the Players’ Association on the issue.  The Players’ Association, as one would expect, promised only to put the matter to their membership for a vote.

Needless to say, the Association’s position was not popular among commentators. The PA has a history of supporting the principle of individual choice when it comes to equipment selection, and all previous votes on mandatory visors have reflected this.  If history is any guide, the PA won’t support the rule and the BOG will drop the issue.  Adam Proteau suggested, paradoxically, that giving players choice was evidence that the League doesn’t care about them.  The astute Ryan Lambert wondered why, immediately after a prolonged, nasty labor dispute, the governors are so willing to play nice with the PA on safety concerns.  If the owners are willing to f*&k the players for fun and profit, why not f*&k them for their own good and the good of the game as well?  Our own Glorious Leader Bourne noted that teams put all sorts of regulations on their employees, and contended that visors should be no different.  At the furthest extreme, Cam Cole waxed nostalgic for the good old days, when the NHL unilaterally imposed whatever rules it wanted without having to consult the players at all.  It would be so much easier, so much better, if the League would just command the players to protect their eyes.

Now, personally, I think all hockey players should wear visors.  More than that, I support a mandatory visor rule with a grandfather exception. If I were on the Board of Governors or in the PA or a member of any organization that mattered at all, I would vote for such a rule. I completely understand the frustration of safety-minded observers who would vote for such things, if they could, when players refuse to do so. However, the growing consensus that all players should wear visors seems to be transmuting into a demand that all players must wear visors, and from there into the belief that the NHL should enforce that “must”over the objections of the PA.  This transformation troubles me immensely.  For as much as it seems logical, intuitive, even necessary, the difference between telling players what they should do and legislating what they must do reflects a massive difference in how we conceptualize players as human beings and their relationship to the League that employs them.

I believe in mandatory visors, but I cannot support the idea of overriding the consent of the players’ representative body, especially in the case of health and safety issues- or, as we might call them when dealing with a regular union, “working conditions”.  We think of the Players’ Association as that thing that exists to fight the owners over salaries, but a major part of the reason it exists is to give players a voice on questions of how their employers use their bodies- the kind of training they might be subject to, the kind of medical care their entitled to, the sort of equipment they may or must wear.

Why should the players be allowed to choose against their own safety?  Because by the sheer fact of playing the game they have already decided to act against their own safety.  Hockey is dangerous.  It’s always been dangerous, it’s always going to be dangerous.  It’s twelve guys moving around a small, slippery space at very high speeds with knives on their feet and clubs in their hands; there is no way to make that activity safe.  There are always going to be acceptable risks and unacceptable risks and a fuzzy line between them, and the geometric proofs that locate that line will often need to be recalculated to account for evolutions in equipment technology, standards of safety, and style of play.  Unlike other areas of life, safety is not an absolute value in hockey.  It’s something that is routinely and even happily compromised in order to maintain the speed, physicality, and even sheer hockeyness of the sport.  Want safety? Play a game that doesn’t mandate clubs and knives.

That calculation, between protecting bodies and preserving the game, should be made largely by those who are most deeply invested in both: the players themselves.  As professionals, practicing a difficult discipline at an elite level, they are sensitive to the types of gear they must wear and the nuances of rules far more than spectators are, and that should be respected.  They’re also the ones whose bodies will have to endure the pain and whose psyches have to face the danger, and that should also be respected.  Both their own safety and the state of the game are matters of life and livelihood for them. They deserve, more than any of us, to determine where the lines should be drawn.

Consider the vast spectrum of risks in hockey and the many dire consequences when those risks come true.  You can list long list of players who’ve had their careers shortened or weakened due to eye injuries.  But you can, equally, generate a list of players who’ve suffered the same fate due to knee injuries, ankle injuries, shoulder injuries, hand injuries, back injuries, and on and on and on.  Eye injuries are bad, but they’re not so bad that the companies that insure NHL players- and presumably had done far more in-depth research on the severity of damage, cost of treatment, length of recovery time, and career-risk than any pundit- think of them as worse than any of the thousands of other potentially serious injuries that happen to players.  There is no doubt that a puck to the eye is gruesome and awful, but so is a puck to the jaw or a skate to the face- both of which happen occasionally and neither of which lead to calls for mandatory cages or kevlar balaclavas.  Make no mistake, every minute of every game, hockey is saying that it’s okay if somebody gets hurt in the name of putting a black disk inside a red rectangle; the only question is what kind of hurt.  The people who are getting hurt should have a say in that.

The fact is- and this is a hard fact to hear, but it’s true- that fans and commentators preferences regarding the rules and requirements of the game are ultimately aesthetic.  They’re feelings and arguments about the kind of hockey we want to see, the way in which we would like to be entertained.  This applies equally to the vicarious compassion of the safety-first crowd and the vicarious machismo of the safety-never crowd: they’re positions that cost us nothing to holdThe worst we suffer for being like VISORS ALWAYS or VISORS NEVER or LET’S PUT VISORS ON ALLIGATORS AND THROW THEM IN AN EMPTY SWIMMING POOL is the occasional nasty tweet or comment from someone who disagrees.  It’s not our quality of work on the line.  It’s not our eyes either. Ergo, it’s not our f*&king choice to make, no matter how much sweaty outrage we can work up.

Of course, as a society we routinely tell other people that they have to take certain safety precautions.  We mandate that motorists wear seatbelts and bicyclists wear helmets.  But these case studies are, if anything, further arguments for why the vote of the PA should carry the decision. In real life, these laws were passed by bodies who were elected by the people who will be subject to the law; the lawmakers will themselves be subject to the law.  It is, indirectly, legislation by the community, for the community, not legislation by a separate body over a community.  Therefore, if we are reasoning by analogy, since the NHLPA is the representative body for NHL players, the seatbelt argument implicitly supports getting its consent to any mandatory visor rule.

The PA is the body that represents players- not just for salaries, but for working conditions.  In general, most of us understand why this is necessary- the old ways that Cole so longs for were often hideously exploitative. The modern consensus, officially, is supportive of the idea that players should have a large voice in determining the policies and regulations to which they are subject.  Or, at least, that’s the consensus until we decide we don’t like their voice, which is apparently any time it doesn’t mesh with our paternalistic safety concerns.

The paternalism, in this case, is especially galling because wearing visors is such an easy case to make with persuasion.  You know, with words and arguments and stuff.  The same words and arguments that have convinced 73% percent of players to wear them.  The same words and arguments that players like Dale Weise are using even now to combat the perception that fighty players “choose” not to wear them. Even Don Cherry, oldest of the old school almost by definition, has reduced his anti-visor argument to: okay, wear them, just don’t turn into a dick when you do, a paper-thin position that’s half a step away from giving in completely.  The meaningful opposition to visors is small and getting smaller every year; it’s very likely that within a couple of years it will be small enough that a majority of players won’t feel the need to defer to it. This isn’t something that needs to be imposed by fiat.  We could do it the old-fashioned way- or, in hockey, the new-fashioned way. The- yeah, I’m gonna say it- democratic way.

By all means, hector, cajole, nag, caution, and warn every hockey player you see to wear a visor.  Present all the evidence.  Make all the safety arguments in the strongest possible terms.  But don’t prioritize men’s eyes over their viewpoints, nor their brains over their thoughts. Don’t belive that the strength of a position is in itself sufficient justification to impose it.