By E. Martin Nolan
Do the NHL Playoffs Facilitate Catharsis?
Shea Weber knew he’d be hit, even though the game was over. Henrik Zetterberg went after it like it was midway through the period, like he’d actually be able to make a play. So Weber slams his head into the glass, twice. But let’s not dwell on that. Let’s dwell on the intensity of the play. Zetterberg was going after the puck with such hopeless vigour because, in Weber’s words, “it’s the playoffs,” and so you never, ever let up. Zetterberg had to fight for that puck in the corner to maintain playoff intensity going into the next game.
Likewise, the fans watch playoff games with increased intensity. It is logical to think of this sudden increase in fan attention and focus as in some way being cathartic. After all, we’ve followed our team through the whole, long season, and if we’re lucky, the playoffs emerge as a reward for our loyalty. Now, the games are so important that each goal, each play, takes on momentous importance, and the thrill of the game subsequently increases. It would seem to follow, then, that a playoff game offers us increased emotional relief, also known as catharsis. Because we care more, we pour more of ourselves into our watching, and the expected result is that such watching would exhaust our banked emotions, and in particular our pent-up aggression. Or so the common thinking goes.
The idea that sports allow the spectator to vent is old and widespread. In Sport Fans (2011), the authors cite statistics showing that two-thirds of North Americans “believe in some form of cathartic mechanism,” and that it is widely believed that spectator sports provide just such a mechanism (198). In The Social Psychology of Sport (1993), Gordon Russell (also a co-author of Sport Fans) provides further evidence of this belief, defining the “cathartic view” as holding that “all spectators will be less hostile following the observation of player aggression (224).” Russell usefully quotes a 1929 statement from psychiatrist A.A. Brill, which both describes the basic belief in sports as a cathartic tool and proves that attitudes in this regard are basically the same now as they were then. Brill claims the typical sport fan will, as a result of watching a game, “achieve exaltation, vicarious but real. He will be a better individual, a better citizen, a better husband and father.” That is a very nice and hopeful thought, and I must admit that it makes intuitive sense to me. I can clearly recall, something like seven years ago, reading Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents and thinking often of the use of sports in society. Freud was terrified of how natural it seemed for a society to vent its collective aggressive drive through war. Well, I thought, let us vent it through sports!
Alas, however much this seems to make sense, it has not been borne out by research. For instance, one study found that violence against women increased in conjunctions with wins by the local pro football team (Gordon, 226). Not exactly evidence that watching sports creates Brill’s imagined “better husbands.” Turning back to our topic, Gordon references a study that tested aggression levels in two sets of hockey spectators, one watching a particularly violent game, and the other watching one more marked by skill. “Fan hostility at the violent game increased from pre- to post-game levels; no change occurred at the peaceful game (Gordon, 225).” Later in the same chapter, Gordon cites further research indicating that “viewing fast-paced, competitive hockey action does not appear to increase viewer aggression,” while “the observation of aggression…increases rather than decreases viewer aggression (228).” Note that neither “fast-paced, competitive hockey” nor violent hockey generates catharsis (by decreasing viewer aggression). Given the inexact nature of this topic, Gordon does leave room for there being some useful cathartic effect from sports, at least in limited circumstances. I’ll touch on that possibility (including in relation to the narrative concept of “catharsis”) in a later post.
None of this 100 percent certain, based as it is largely on surveys measuring the slippery subject of the human psyche, which in this case is subject to a bunch of external circumstances that might complicate our measurements of sport’s relationship to aggression and catharsis. Yet, Russell’s argument is well supported, and common sense evidence of its validity is not hard to find. Exhibit A: the riots last year in Vancouver. If it were true that aggressive sports allow us to vent our own anger, why did all those people have so much pent up aggression left over? Using a sports-riot classification developed Leon Mann, Gordon would probably classify the Vancouver riot as “expressive,” meaning it occurred because of the “highly charged emotional state of fans;” this is in contrast to other sports riots that might be caused by pre-existing conflicts (like racial tension) that come to the surface partly due to the charged atmosphere created by a game (259). Gordon notes that in “expressive” sports riots, “it is the extreme emotional state of fans, irrespective of whether it arose from the joy of victory or the anguish of defeat, that can lead to uninhibited activities (259).” This would explain the confusion many people have over riots that occur after a victory. Wouldn’t you only riot if your team lost, because you were angry? Apparently, win or lose, the level of emotion is what matters. So riot cause you’re happy or riot cause your sad (actually, just don’t riot). It should be noted, though, that Mann also includes an “outlawry” category of sports riot, in which rioting for the sake of rioting occurs, with a sports event being the excuse to do so. I’m sure there was plenty of that in Vancouver last year, and, it would seem that Mann’s categories would often be expected to blur together.
In any case, Gordon admits that the root causes of sports riots are “only partially understood,” but it stands to reason that if sports fail to create catharsis for the individual, then they would fail to do so for the masses as well. The best we can hope for, then, is a sports watching experience that manages to keep us and our crowds from boiling over. The same might be said of the athlete as well, for whom, Gordon claims, catharsis through aggressive sports is equally elusive (222). Which brings us back to Shea Weber. Watching the replay of his head slam on Zetterberg, I was caught not only by his actions, but also by his reaction. Once the deed is done, and Zetterberg is on his knees gathering his wits, Weber appears extremely calm, as if he too is shocked by what he just did. You might be forgiven for thinking this evidence of Weber having achieved catharsis, as if he’d finally let it all out. But if Gordon is right, that’s not how our psychology works, at least not most of the time. Like the rioters in Vancouver, it seems likely that Weber is wired to build on the aggressive atmosphere around him. And as was the case in Vancouver last year, the result wasn’t dissipation, but combustion.
Then again, is that the end of the story? Maybe the catharsis comes after the explosion. If that’s true, catharsis might’ve arrived when the people of Vancouver came out in droves to clean up the streets others had destroyed. Was that the signal that “we’re all done with that now?” In the case of Weber, the hockey Code demanded retribution for his overly aggressive act, and in keeping with that, Todd Burtuzzi (who knows a bit about going overboard himself) picked a fight with Weber. So are we done with that now? Not sure. Henrik Zetterberg had a minor own headlock of his own for Weber later in the game, but the original incident did seem to be mostly forgotten. Still, you’ll never get aggression out of hockey without destroying the game completely.
That last truth puts the game in the difficult position of always tempting its own undoing. The game is necessarily aggressive, so how do you keep it from becoming too much so? Maybe one answer is in a statement above, the one about how your level of aggression doesn’t rise while watching a skill-based hockey game. Think of Zetterberg in that final play of game one: he’s playing hard. Weber claimed he hit him from behind, but really it was more like your average pin in that situation, with Weber protecting the puck. Zetterberg’s making a skilled physical play (he sprung the puck loose). But what is the difference between that play and a dirty one? Well, it’s there, but the distinction’s not always clear. What if Z really did dangerously stick his knee in there near Weber’s, and I just can’t see it on the replay? That possibility goes to the crux of hockey’s difficult relation to aggression, with aggression always threatening to create a slippery slope toward thuggery.
Unfortunately, it seems aggression’s overdoing does not it’s undoing make. As Gordon puts it, “aggression begets still more aggression (222).” The NHL should be doing it’s best to nip this aggression in the bud, while allowing the needed aggression (which Weber is usually an expert at exercising) to persist. I’ll give the league this: that’s not an easy balance to strike. But you have to do it, somehow.
Russell, Gordon W. The Social Psychology of Sport. Springer-Verlag, New York, NY: 1993.
Melnick, M.J; Pease, D.G, Russell, G.; and Wann, Daniel, L. Sport Fans: The Psychological and Social Impacts of Sports Fans. Routledge, New York, NY: 2001.