It's a truth that's impossible to deny as the bodies are carried off the NHL's battlegrounds: Violence may be denounced and disallowed in the rest of our lives, but in hockey it remains a primal pleasure.
Fans love the thundering hit, especially in the playoffs when the stakes are raised, the referees back off, and the emotional level of a high-energy game is constantly on the boil. TV ratings are up by 50 per cent on TSN and NBC, and it's hard not to see a connection with the bad-tempered side of the grinding Stanley Cup quest that has even the recently concussed Sidney Crosby throwing punches and trading insults.
“That's really playoff hockey, isn't it,” Philadelphia Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said after Crosby took on Philadelphia's star player, Claude Giroux.
Cross-checks to the throat, heads crushed into the glass, punches traded by guys who are usually content to let lesser teammates play the goon role: This is all part of the heightened emotion and physical drama that the NHL promises fans and advertisers in the postseason.
“It's adrenalin,” said Brian Burke, the Toronto Maple Leafs' general manager famous as a proponent of on-ice belligerence, truculence and intimidation. In the heat of the moment, players can't help themselves, or so the argument goes, and hockey fans are the beneficiaries: We watch with fascination to see what kind of carnage comes next.
Then a Marian Hossa is laid out flat by a professional NHL headhunter, and the blood lust takes a brief pause. Maybe the sight of highly paid gladiators savaging each other isn't such a pure pleasure after all?
Introspection about violence in contact sports is a fleeting thing, and not just because the games would disappear if we took away the basic element of aggression. The larger issue sports fanatics are trying to evade is this: Who knows what we'd learn about ourselves by confronting the fact that other people's suffering makes us happy?
“Moral outrage about sports violence comes and goes in fits and starts,” said Kevin Young, professor of sociology at the University of Calgary.
“We like to think we're living in a society where violence is increasingly an anathema. So it might seem inconsistent with where we're headed in a civilized culture for us to pay athletes to hurt other people and knock them out of the game. But that kind of reaction is just naive: This is what conventional, orthodox North American sport has always been about.”
The Hossa incident, in which the Phoenix Coyotes' Raffi Torres left his feet to hit the head of an unprepared opponent who no longer had the puck, became deplorable only because of its physical result. Otherwise it conformed to the game's fairly elastic value system, for how else could it have gone unpenalized by the on-ice officials?
“You can't map our social mores onto players in the NHL or NFL,” says Mitch Abrams, a New Jersey psychologist who counsels athletes on anger management. “These are violent sports with their own codes of conduct and they have to be judged from inside their culture rather than by what everyday life says is socially acceptable.”
Even sports fans who sentimentalize the violence in their favourite games as character-building may have their limits.
The most disturbing NHL act of retribution in recent years was Todd Bertuzzi's career-ending attack on Steve Moore, a premeditated payback for a hard, legal bodycheck on his star teammate, Markus Naslund.
Moore had his neck broken after refusing to be goaded into a fight with Bertuzzi, but as with the Hossa incident, fan disquiet was largely based on the extent of the damage, not the act itself.
The approach of the NHL discipline office to punishment is based on the same principle: We'll recognize it as bad behaviour when the victim can't stand up.
In the NFL, it took the revelations of a bounty program funded by the New Orleans Saints, in which rewards were offered for physically damaging hits, to generate concern about violence in a spectator sport that has been described as sanctioned savagery.
“Kill the head and the body will die,” Saints defensive co-ordinator Gregg Williams liked to tell his players.
To boost this team-building philosophy, one Saints player allegedly offered $10,000 to any teammate who could force Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2010 conference championship.
At a time when image-conscious leagues like the NHL and NFL are publicly vowing to improve player safety, this intent-to-injure approach lays bare sport's darker nature: What the outside world may see as immoral and brutal, players accept as normal and necessary.
Even the designated victims sometimes understand their role in the greater scheme of things.
“I'm not going to make a big deal out of it,” Favre told Peter King of Sports Illustrated. “In all honesty, there's a bounty of some kind on you on every play.”
That eyes-open approach doesn't make bounty programs any more legitimate. But from a fan's point of view, it helps clarify our reactions: Violence in contact sports is intentional and desirable. If that's a problem, look away, but don't complain after the fact.
“When one of your teammates wipes out an opponent with an explosive hit, everyone gets an emotional charge and the adrenalin starts flowing,” says Michael Oriard, a former offensive lineman with the Kansas City Chiefs and a historian at Oregon State University. “It's an essential part of the culture of the game. Within the boundaries of the unspoken code, you can slam the hell out of the other guy.”
Finding nobility in sports' head-on collisions is commonplace within the game – you're firing up your teammates, playing the game the way it's meant to be played, embodying a real-man instinct that's been lost in a meek society.
Oriard's study of sports history reveals a constant link between the love of physicality and the longing for an escape from regimented urban life.
“I really think sports violence has become an antidote to the boredom of work and the dullness of reality,” he says. “It's not so much violence itself that's attractive but violence as a larger-than-life physical, emotional and psychological experience. Big hits aren't just about the simple physical act of damaging another person. There's also the unfettered emotional release of things that have to be tightly controlled and contained in civilian life.”
But a certain anti-social aggression is also part of the job description – if you can't turn hostile on demand, you're unlikely to get far in professional contact sports.
As an anger-management counsellor, Abrams has to persuade hard-nosed coaches that he's not about to make their players soft. Instead he promises to increase the strength of athletes just by channelling their rage and raising the adrenalin level, an element that is recognized as a crucial motivator in professional sports where cool and rational calculation might persuade players to back away from violence.
But the easy availability of violent emotions is double-edged.
Some athletes get a physical boost from a system that motivates violence, but more cerebral players could find their skills compromised.
“We know very high levels of anger interfere with motor co-ordination, decision-making and problem-solving,” Abrams says. “The people who are most effective are the ones who can amp themselves up so anger fuels them when they need it. And they know when to turn it off so it doesn't go over the top.”
It's a fine line, as we keep saying when sports violence rears its ugly side. But as the NHL playoffs make clear, the line is indistinct and ever-shifting.
And as hockey's ratings prove, moral distinctions fade away at playoff time: In the end, fans will see only what they want to see.
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