Understanding the True Costs of Hockey Violence: Why Anti-Fighting Activists Must Do Better

While I remain firmly entrenched in my anti-fighting stance, two recent events have forced me to examine how I, and others in the anti-fighting movement, communicate our viewpoints and engage with people who do not share our opinions. These moments have given me pause for reflection and led me to an important conclusion:

That the reliance on biomedical evidence to explain the harmful effects of hockey fighting obscures the social ramifications and contexts of this damaging practice.

Let me explain this further. Many people in the anti-fighting movement – myself included – articulate the consequences of fighting primarily through a biomedical understanding its consequences – for example, the prominent advocacy of Ken Dryden relies heavily on evidence about the physiological damage resulting from headshots and concussions. There is certainly an important place in this debate for biomedical knowledge, which has done much to explain the negative health consequences that arise from hockey violence. However, a predominant or exclusive reliance on biomedical understandings of fighting risks obscuring the very serious social implications of the activity.

I am as guilty as anyone in the anti-fighting camp of using medical evidence as a crutch in my attempts to defend my position. And I have come to realize that public intellectuals and sociologists must more frequently attempt the challenging task of translating sociological knowledge into accessible language and inserting these viewpoints into popular debates on hockey violence. After the jump, I explain how I arrived at this realization and offer some suggestions on how better to engage in this process.

The first incident that forced me to reconsider the value of the biomedical model for understanding hockey fighting occurred as a result of a recent study in The Annals of Emergency Medicine, which has thrown a curveball into the ongoing and heated debates on this topic. The study examined the medical impact of 710 fights from 1,239 NHL games, and determined that fighting on skates is a relatively low-risk activity in terms of brain injury:

There clearly appears to be a benefit from fighting on ice compared to fighting on solid ground in terms of injuries. The overall concussion rate from fighting is nearly non-existent compared to regular head shots from checking on ice. The brutality of fighting is clearly over-rated in terms of short and long term injuries.

Obviously we cannot translate one study into sweeping generalizations about an activity, however this study is fairly convincing in its rigour (including a sample size that spanned an entire NHL exhibition and regular season) and conclusions. It therefore strikes a major blow against members of the anti-fighting movement who use the risk of injury as a major pillar of their discourses, and seemingly confirms the view of pro-fighting advocates who, like Don Cherry, see view on fights can be summed up as: “Two guys going at it, nobody getting hurt, nothing wrong with that!” This study seems to suggest not only that we need to disentangle somewhat the issues of fighting and concussions in hockey, but also that fighting does not take nearly as major a physical toll on its participants as has been commonly assumed.

While I am willing to accept the conclusions of the study, I feel that it is somewhat of a red herring in the development of an understanding of the social costs of hockey violence. While biomedical discourses about injury dominate the anti-fighting movement, there is a large amount of empirical and theoretical sociological evidence to suggest that the damaging consequences of sport violence run far deeper than injury to an individual athlete. Examples of such social harm are not hard to find in hockey, and include: the glorification of inflicting physical harm on opponents; the normalization of a culture of misogyny and sexual violence; the extreme pressure exerted by minor hockey parents and coaches who push children to “do what it takes” to succeed in the sport; and the “win at all costs” mentality that condones dangerous physical play and normalizes it as a tactic of successful players. Clearly there is more damage caused in hockey by the acceptance of casual violence than simply concussions or physical injuries – and fighting is only one of many unpleasant outcomes of this culture, albeit a particularly prominent and popular one. Yet many people will key in on the physiological impact of fighting rather than exploring the broader social contexts which enable such violence to occur.

The second moment that forced me to reevaluate a reliance on biomedical knowledge was a recent discussion with a stranger at a bar. While conducting a late night discussion about hockey fighting and headshots with a friend at a downtown Toronto bar, I was joined in discussion by a middle-aged man who overheard our conversation and politely interjected. This gentleman was passionately for the hockey status quo of a few years ago, in which fighting and thundering bodychecks were still widely glorified and it was popularly accepted that hockey players could adequately police themselves by punishing transgressive behaviour through selective violence. He was entirely uncomfortable with the increased focus on player safety and the (limited) attempts by the NHL to regulate violence, fearing that these would reduce physicality and would tarnish the character and quality of the game. From his perspective – a perspective that I believe is shared by many hockey fans – hockey is an inherently physical, even violent, sport and attempts to regulate these characteristics out of the game will irreconcilably alter its fabric for the worse.

This gentleman’s stance itself did not hugely affect me – there are countless hockey fans who share his opinions, and I have heard similar rationalizations before (and have likely made them myself in the past, before I gradually adopted my anti-fighting stance). Rather, it was my own attempts to convince my opponent of my position that forced me to seriously reflect upon how I engage with this topic. Rather than drawing on my own knowledge of the myriad social causes and damaging outcomes of hockey violence, I fell back on the biomedical model as my primary frame of argument. When he argued that the character of hockey would change if physical aggression is marginalized, I countered with a weak “yeah, but look at all the injuries” argument.

This is not to say that the devastating physical toll of hockey is not a legitimate point of concern or argument against certain behaviours in the sport – but it certainly represented a poor attempt on my part to engage respectfully with my opponent’s views and articulate my true beliefs on the matter. In short, by adopting a biomedical frame I created a zero sum debate in which there was no chance of reconciliation between our opposing positions. I all but guaranteed that our divergent viewpoints did not lead to a productive exchange of viewpoints, but rather ensured that our two rhetorical ships passed futilely in the night.

To be fair to myself, a 2:00 AM pub debate is not likely the ideal context for a discussion about complex sociological concepts of which I, even with two years of training in the sociology of sport, can claim only a superficial understanding. Nonetheless, most scholars who study sociocultural issues within sport do so in part because they believe that their research may contribute to redressing some of the many injustices within sport cultures – and making such a contribution invariably involves an engagement with committed athletes, administrators, and fans who are not trained in the language of sociology or cultural studies. In such situations, the would-be public intellectual faces three choices: cling to the impenetrable language of complex academic theory; abandon his or her principled stance and draw upon more easily understood discourses to defend his or her entrenched positions; or partake in a dialogical process of knowledge production and translation with individuals who have a vested interest in sport.

The first approach is usually highly ineffective, as retreating into the exclusive language of academia is unlikely to create conditions under which productive dialogue can occur. The third approach is far more profitable, as making a game attempt to translate important concepts into popularly accessible language will allow the terms of the debate to be expanded, and may lead to the opening of a middle-ground between people and groups who are otherwise at ideological loggerheads. The middle option is essentially a cop-out – unwilling either to take an elitist stance or to attempt to make sociological concepts relevant, the would-be public intellectual falls back upon more readily understood, yet still “scholarly” and “evidence based”, approaches that do not adequately represent the implications of the issue at hand. Sadly, this has too often been my approach to debating fighting in hockey.

By drawing selectively on biomedical research to strengthen their arguments, members of the anti-fighting movement (myself included) leave aside more complex sociological discussions about the ramifications of fighting and grasp at the concepts and theories that the feel most easily support their stance – namely, the risk of injury to individuals from sport violence. Therefore, when I draw exclusively on biomedical arguments, I fail to conduct an open and honest discussion of hockey violence because my terms of engagement are founded on a false pretense – though I am really concerned about the social implications of fighting, I try to leverage the more accessible biomedical arguments to defend my position, rather than advancing it by explaining the numerous social and ethical reasons I have for adopting an anti-fighting stance.

Such an approach takes no consideration of the social impacts of condoning or glorifying hockey pugilism. I believe that, for this debate to productively advance, members of the anti-fighting movement need to give greater attention to the articulation of a wide range of interdisciplinary understandings of hockey fighting. Too often, anti-fighting advocates lazily fall back upon biomedical reasoning for banning fighting. It is time for us to broaden the range of discourses from which we draw and to actively work to translate these in accessible and meaningful ways for those with a vested interest in hockey fighting. A failure to do so will merely reinforce the status quo and provide no incentive for fighting advocates to consider alternative viewpoints.

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4 thoughts on “Understanding the True Costs of Hockey Violence: Why Anti-Fighting Activists Must Do Better

  1. What if you made fighting permanent, but decided to work towards fighting as an extreme event to be used only after extreme offence. Then it would be mostly unneeded, and if needed what ever big guy, power forward or d-man you have, they throw down in defence of your team. So, if you get rid of the dirty checks and slashes and blind sides and to the head, then you’ll need a lot less fighting. This assumes that fighting is good if it’s tied to a code of honour, which the players would enforce, because they also don’t want to get hit in the head, or have their star hit in the head.

    That code of honour then projects to the culture at large, formalizes some collective values. It also reflects the best of that culture, such as: don’t play dirty. Isn’t that what Occupy Wall Street is really all about? The tea party too. It’s about decency, the common kind. Isn’t that what we expect from these athletes? Isn’t it what we expect from each other? Shouldn’t it be? Mistakes are made, we let each other fail, and then give each other a chance to make it up. Lord knows it. But if someone breaks that code of honour, why should’t they be called out for it, in public? That’s my idea of what fighting should be: so rare that it’s really just a symbolic shaming of the offender and defence of the innocent team’s honour. That way, it’s not gratuitous violence, but adherence to a moral code.

    I guess what I’m missing from this post is what the social costs of fighting are, and if it is necessarily tied to other forms of violence, such as the social violences you mention above. I also suspect my code of honour talk might just be an attempt to justify a barbaric tradition whose time has past. Or is it possible for fighting to exist in a less violent game?

    -E Martin Nolan

  2. Thanks for the comment. I have a somewhat similar view to yours on how fighting should be treated – I believe that at a minimum it should result in a game misconduct, and probably a one game suspension as well. That way yes, “in the heat of the moment” fights can still occur, but it will very seriously deter the average hockey fight. I think it would also force players to be more creative about “firing up their team” – I’ve always thought that was a weak reason for fighting – by, say, trying to inspire them to victory through scoring a goal, having a good possession shift, or making a solid and clean hit.

    I also hate the argument that fighting is “needed” to keep dangerous hits and stick infractions out of the game. First of all, those happen far too frequently even with fighting in the game. Secondly, what would really eliminate those is if they were severely punished within and outside the game. What if slashing to the body was a 5-minute major penalty and a minimum three game suspension with loss of pay. Ditto for boarding and headshots. Wouldn’t that very quickly clean up the game and force players to play within the rules? If the NHL would show some courage (it is starting to under Brendan Shanahan, thankfully) and actually punish players who break the rules in a manner that significantly affects the individual and his team, I think you would start seeing some real changes in the sport. Fighting would be completely irrelevant in such a well-regulated environment.

    Finally, I guess the title is somewhat misleading because I didn’t really drill into the social costs of fighting, and kind of conflate fighting with other violent plays. I intend to write more about this, and to get into more depth about the research that has been done about how the culture of hockey, and its tolerance/encouragement of casual violence, has done significant damage in a number of different ways. This post is really about recognizing my own complicity in relying on medical research as a cop-out for actually getting into the broader social/cultural context. Which is definitely something I intend to address in the near future…

  3. Mark – I started a blog with the objective of presenting the anti-fighting argument. It can be found at http://itsnotpartofthegame.blogspot.com/.

    I have avoided the concussion issue as much as possible simply because I am against fighting due to it’s negative impact on the game. It interrupts exciting hockey and adds nothing in terms of strategy or image. My plan of attack was simply to take the standard pro-fighting supporting arguments (changing momentum, enforcement, importance to strategy, etc.) and expose as many people as possible to a counter-argument. The biggest obstacle is “the code” and the stance that players are held accountable by the threat of violence. I don’t believe that fighting ever succeeded in enforcing the game and I have made the point that the 70’s and 80’s were the most violent in NHL’s history, when every team had multiple enforcers.

    To that point I like the image that E Martin Nolan presented in his blog – who’s better at regulating the game; a referee or Bob Probert. When players enforce the game based on “the code” they rely on emotion and make personal decisions on what retaliation is required. Occasionally that gets out of control you end up with an incident like Bertuzzi jumping on the back of Moore. That’s not part of the game.

    • Hi Paul, thanks for the comment and for sharing your blog. Definitely looking forward to having a read through it. I agree that there is a strong argument to be made for removing fighting as having no function in the sport. Obviously from this post and others, I also think there are problematic aspects of it in terms of player safety. I also think fighting is a symptom of a broader culture of violence and aggression in hockey, which is very much tied up in how players are valued as men. That being said, I agree with you that regulation – changing and enforcing the rules – is a key part of eliminating this culture in hockey and subverting the dominance of The Code as a guiding principle for on-ice conduct.

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