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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

January 30, 2019: Great (Sports) Debates: Fighting in Hockey?

[Sunday, February 3rd is that national holiday known as Super Bowl Sunday. For this year’s Super Bowl series I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of great sports debates—add your opinion into the mix in comments, please!]
On the way not to argue for a sport’s violent tradition, and a possible way to do so.
First, in the interest of full disclosure: of the four major sports, I know by far the least about hockey. And that’s especially true of hockey history—other than a few big name players and the occasional interesting story (both of those hyperlinked pieces focus on Boston-related topics, which is likely why I know a bit more about them than I do other hockey histories), what I know about the history of hockey can be fit inside a box much smaller than the penalty one. So as always, and especially when it comes to topics like this one on which I am generally and admittedly ignorant, I’ll very much appreciate any responses and challenges and other ideas in comments (or by email). I don’t think I’m ever gonna get to full octopus-on-the-ice level hockey fandom, but there’s no topic about which I’m not excited to learn more, this one very much included.
So with all of that said, it’s my understanding that one of the most heated debates in the hockey world is over whether fighting is a central and beloved element of the sport that must be preserved or an outdated and dangerous aside that should be discarded to attract more widespread fan support. Obviously I don’t know enough to have a strong opinion (I’m opposed to fighting-based sports, but this is somewhat of a different story of course), but I will say this: from what I can tell, many of the arguments in favor of fighting seem to come from what we could call hockey traditionalists. And having had more than my share of experiences with baseball traditionalists, I’d say that “This is how we have always done things” is an incredibly ineffective way to argue for any aspect of a sport (or most anything else for that matter). For one thing, such an argument would by extension make any change impossible, and anything that is going to endure over time needs to evolve in at least some ways in order to do so. And for another thing, there are many cases where we learn things that require specific changes in the way we do things—and it seems to me that what we now know about head injuries, for example, just might make that the case when it comes to fighting in hockey.
I’m pretty serious about CTE (although I haven’t been able to give up football yet), so if I were to weigh in more fully on the fighting in hockey debate, I’d likely be in the opposition camp. But I try to be open to different perspectives of course, and in a debate like this what I’d be interested to hear is how pro-fighting perspectives might argue for its role in how the sport is played. That is, when it comes to fighting in baseball (something I know a lot more about), fights represent an entirely unsanctioned and illegal element, one that always leads to ejections and suspensions and fines and so on. Whereas fighting in hockey is more or less entirely sanctioned, with the two fighters surrounded by the referees and allowed to complete their fight before the regular gameplay resumes. So perhaps there are reasons beyond tradition alone, ways that fighting contributes to the play of hockey within games, within a season, as a sport. After all, all rules in sports are arbitrary and constructed, and don’t necessarily need changing as a result. This one features violence to be sure, but so for that matter does hockey overall—so I’m open to hearing (including here if you’d like!) for how this element of hockey might also feature other sides to this sport, past and present.
Next debate tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other great debates you’d highlight?

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