Thursday, 19 December 2013

Gladiators on Ice

A couple weeks ago in Boston, Shawn provoked a fight with another man, Brooks, after the latter offended Shawn’s colleague, Loui. Brooks refused to fight. A few minutes later, Shawn came back for the unsuspecting Brooks, pulling him onto the ground and punching him, all the while being cheered by screaming bystanders. Lucky for Brooks, security officials were close by, and they soon restrained Shawn, although not soon enough to spare Brooks from a concussion. While recognizing Shawn’s accountability, newscasters suggested that Brooks was a coward and should have just fought Shawn when he was confronted. Shawn was put on a one-month suspension from work and given a fine.

If this is your first time hearing about this real-life act of retribution, you may think that, regardless of Shawn’s reasons for wanting to fight Brooks, it is bizarre to suggest that Brooks should have complied. As the saying goes, violence begets violence. You may even believe that Shawn should be charged for assault and/or battery with a much harsher punishment, or question the moral character of people who cheered on during the attack.

So why do many think differently when fighting and vigilantism happen in organized sports? Hockey fans may recognize that the story above occurred in a recent Bruins-Penguins game, when Shawn Thornton retaliated against Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik for an earlier hit in the game by pulling him from behind onto the ice and then pounding him in the head.

The National Hockey League sent what some call a “strong message” when it delivered the 15-game suspension. The “pretty honest hockey player who made a mistake” is now appealing the suspension. Putting aside how similar assaults off ice would fare in a criminal case, most commentators have been discussing this incident as either an individual player making an isolated mistake or the League’s inadequacy in curbing violence on the ice.

But violence in sports, particularly in hockey, goes beyond individual actions. As one commentator notes, telecasts of contact sports often build up the “sport as war” metaphor and replay violent hits in slow motion and close-ups camera shots. These clips are often replayed in promotional segments for upcoming matches. The cheering crowd in that incident reminds us that hockey fights are an accepted and enjoyed part of the game. Fans salute their “heroes” who are not afraid to transform their bodies into weapons and cause severe injuries to other human beings. They enjoy the brutality in sports because violence allows them to escape “that drab and monotonous way of life they have or that job they truly dislike.”

I may be idealistic here. But I want to think that regular people have more civilized ways to escape boredom than to hit or watch others hit someone’s child, brother, father, uncle, or partner. Play with the kids in their lives and teach them the real art and skills of various sports. Volunteer or be involved in the community. Have real human contact – and I don’t mean punching another human being. Perhaps people think there can be a different moral code on ice because fans can contain their thirst for blood only in the stadium. But it is hypocritical to say that we don’t condone violence in other parts of life except in hockey. And the fact is, the license to retaliate and the corresponding acceptance of violence and brutality in hockey have spilled onto the street. Let us not forget how sports fans often engage in destructive violence after their teams lose – the riot in Vancouver after Canucks’ Stanley Cup loss in 2011 was just one example. Insisting that violence is simply part of the game neglects the fact that the game is purposefully designed by humans within a certain social context, and can be changed if the context were to shift. Roman gladiators engaged in violent confrontations as part of the game as well, but we no longer consider those games to be acceptable. But if professional hockey has become (or continues to be) physical brutality in disguise, have we socially evolved since the Roman times?

Organized sports are big businesses. Referees, franchise owners, general managers, coaches, broadcasters, and players all operate within this context. They do what is in their interests. If fans stop watching and courts impose hefty fines on teams or organizations for injuries, profit-driven stakeholders would likely change and strictly enforce the rules of the game. Thornton’s 15-game suspension was handed out in the context of a looming class-action concussion lawsuit. But fans – who are supposedly everyday people – continue to celebrate violence despite the public health concern of concussions and related mental health issues. If regular people have no problem tolerating or even cheering for people who act like gladiators, those who control the game would likely have even less reasons to change the game.

It is easy to simply punish a bad apple. It is a lot more difficult to admit that we may be partly responsible for growing a rotten tree. If we not only fine players who hit, but also spectators, I bet that even if this strategy may not stop us from being hypocrites about violence, we can get rid of hockey violence overnight.

Images: Crime and Punishment, Orpik Injured, Canada: Hockey and Iraq