Fighting Tradition

By: Michael Abitabilo

It is not a question of if, but rather when and to what extent fighting will be banned in the National Hockey League.

The place of fighting in hockey is one of the most interesting debates in professional sports.  On one side, hockey purists believe that fighting serves several important purposes, from sparking a team and changing momentum, to policing headhunters and protecting the game’s stars, to providing fans with a unique and entertaining adrenaline rush.  At the same time, it is becoming increasingly clear that fighting is not only a barbaric display of aggression, but could lead to serious long-term consequences such as chronic traumatic brain disorders, substance abuse, and depression.

Unlike other sports debates, most interested parties don’t fall squarely to one side.  Until about two years ago, I firmly believed fighting to be “part of the game,” and that to remove it would be detrimental to the sport. Recently, though, I have come to the realization that just because something is good for a sport and/or entertaining for its fans, doesn’t mean it should be insulated from scrutiny.

The arguments in favor of fighting could be applied similarly to other sports.  Would Joakim Noah be less likely to level LeBron James with a hard foul if he had to answer to Joel Anthony after the fact? Of course. Would the Knicks’ players be fired up if Ray Felton pulled Deron Williams’s jersey over his head and wrestled him to the ground? Probably.

Beyond that, however, most arguments in support of fighting in hockey stem from the fact that fighting is part of the tradition and history of the sport. But if tradition were enough for an otherwise dangerous practice to survive, baseball players would be free to use performance enhancing drugs, and mixed martial artists would not have weight classes, and NFL players would be free to launch themselves helmet first directly into their opponents’ heads (more on the NFL in a moment).

For all the talk of a “code” among players, and the repeated demonstrations of respect before and after hockey fights, which seem to indicate that the players involved are not trying to seriously injure one another, there is mounting evidence that being punched in the face repeatedly over the course of several years is a dangerous way to make a living.

On May 30, 2011, former NHL enforcer Derek Boogard died of a drug overdose while recovering from a concussion.  An examination of his brain later revealed that he suffered from a brain disorder known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which is a degenerative disease found in individuals with a history of concussions or brain trauma. It is accompanied by symptoms such as depression, aggression, and paranoia, and can also lead to dementia.  Former NFL great Junior Seau was posthumously diagnosed with the same disorder after committing suicide in May of 2012.

On August 15, 2011, less than three months after Boogard died, Rick Rypien who during the 2008-2009 NHL season took a leave of absence to deal with his depression – committed suicide at the age of 27.

Finally, about two weeks later, with the hockey world still reeling, Wade Belak, who engaged in over 130 fights in his NHL career died of an apparent suicide.  After his death, it was reported that Belak also suffered from severe depression, having recently agreed to appear in a documentary about his condition.

The NFL is currently facing a potentially catastrophic class action lawsuit brought by approximately 4,000 of its former players.  In sum, the lawsuit alleges that the league knew of the link between concussions and brain diseases for decades, but that this information was withheld from the players, leading to severe and life-altering injuries and illnesses.  As a result, almost everything NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell does or says these days – from rule changes to Congressional testimony – is directly or indirectly related to this lawsuit.  The lawsuit is of such a size, and the allegations so devastating, that should the plaintiffs prevail, the NFL as we know it could cease to exist. For even though the league could likely absorb the exorbitant financial liability associated with an adverse ruling, the public relations disaster associated with this lawsuit, together with the inevitable rule changes to address player safety, would change the sport forever.

Other sports are undoubtedly watching this case closely, and the NHL is likely the most interested non-party. Professional hockey players similarly subject themselves to brutal physical collisions, and the NHL has seen as much if not more negative publicity associated with numerous star players suffering serious concussions, a problem which certainly is not new.

Should the NFL be found liable for failing to address the safety of its players despite mounting evidence of the significant risk of serious long-term effects, the impact on the NHL’s future could be devastating, as former players who have been harmed by the dangers inherent in the game will have legal precedent in their favor.  Furthermore, given both the permissive nature of fighting in the NHL, and the three alarmingly similar deaths in 2011, it would appear that the NHL plaintiffs would have just as strong, if not stronger, of a case than their NFL counterparts.

So the question becomes, will the NHL take steps to prevent fighting, and if so, when? One could argue that an outright ban on fighting – such as the one that exists in international hockey – could make the game more dangerous, insofar as players who repeatedly test the boundaries of legal play by hitting from behind or targeting their opponents’ heads, will be able to do so without fear of retribution.

Perhaps the solution lies in a ban on the preordained fights that often occur immediately after a faceoff, and sometimes even at the outset of a game.  In other words, spontaneous battles that occur within the course of the game would be penalized as they are now, by a five minute major penalty. The “by appointment” fights would be accompanied by a game misconduct.

Whether the fight was preordained would have to lie in the discretion of the referees – a scary proposition until one realizes that all penalties are called within such discretion. Would players try to fight find a way around this rule by simply waiting until a few seconds after the puck is dropped? Maybe, but the referees could still exercise their discretion based on the circumstances that led to the fight. Further, players who drop the gloves will do so knowing that they might be thrown out of the game for it (a risk some will be willing to take).

As far as the game as concerned, stars would still be protected, and the fans would still see the occasional brouhaha. From a legal standpoint, the NHL would (someday) be able to argue that it did take steps to reduce fighting in the interest of player safety.

One thing is clear: whether due to the NFL lawsuit, one or more serious injuries, or natural evolution, change is coming when it comes to fighting in the NHL.  The only question that remains is when and to what extent will it be curtailed.

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Mike Abitabilo is the Co-Founder of the Read Zone, and has been known to engage in a few scraps in mens’ league hockey — but only when protected by a full face shield and gloves.