I was recently contacted by a journalist from national daily newspaper in Portugal inviting me to comment about the start of the new NHL season. The theme of the telephone interview was a familiar one – violence in the sport and what’s to be done about it.
My credentials for offering an opinion on this are not especially impressive. I am a sociologist interested in sport, a parent of three sporting sons, and a former match official in another high-impact collision sport (rugby union). Not much, I know – but all of these influence my view. I also wrote a piece about violence in Canadian hockey a few years ago. I did so as a cultural outsider at the time, and am no better informed now than I was then.
But it doesn’t take a hockey aficionado to know that there’s something wrong with a sport in which players brawl unnecessarily and then get valorized on gratuitous websites; or more tragically, a player ends up paralyzed after being ‘cross checked’ from behind – the recent case of Ronny Keller in Switzerland.
When I wrote about violence in hockey in 2008, I tried to argue that much of it was symbolic and that there were very few incidents of real harm. That remains my view and I’m not alone in holding it. But there’s a danger that this idea is used as an excuse by the sport’s administrators for failing to take action. The acceptance of ritualized pseudo-violence sets a context in which actual violence is condoned and players do get seriously injured.
Like statistics that show flying to be one of safest ways to travel, I’m guessing that the incidence of career-threatening injury in hockey as a result of two players “going at it” toe-to-toe is very low. And like the airplane that crashes into the side of the mountain, the stats don’t help if you’re the player who ends up in hospital. So arguments about relative risk won’t do. Unlike combat sports, hockey has an entirely different purpose. Games are won by scoring more goals than the opposing team, not by counting casualties in the ER. The violence is a side-show and could be removed without adjusting the rules. But that would require a commitment from the sport’s brain trust to the essence of the sport – and this might be at odds with commercial imperatives from sponsors and media. It might also require some boldness and bravery – not characteristics that are often linked with sports administrators.
Popular team sports in the U.K. are constantly seeking ways to make their contests safer, and at the same time more appealing to youngsters and families. “Things ain’t what they used to be,” some say – and they’re right. Good thing too. With more leisure choices than ever before, and the moral panic about childhood obesity seldom out of the news, sports have to compete for the interest of young people in an increasingly competitive marketplace. The brutality and consequences of these two episodes are unlikely to make hockey an appealing prospect for children and their parents – and if they do, they are probably the wrong kinds of children and parents to be involved.
Apologists for the actual bodily harm that resulted from these episodes will dismiss my criticisms as a lack of appreciation of the muscular physicality of the game. They will say that I show a disregard for its history and conventions, and that I am ignorant of its unwritten rules. I plead guilty to all of these. But if those who do have a much more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of hockey don’t realize that the sport is damaged and the “brand” is tarnished, someone needs to tell them.
Scott Fleming is a professor of sport and leisure studies at Cardiff Metropolitan University