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Playoff Violence is Proving NHL Punishment Regime Ineffectual

The 2012 NHL playoffs have seen an excess of violence. Fights have been frequent. Cheap shots have been blatant. Clear attempts to injure have been barbaric. Not all of this can be pinned on Pittsburgh facing Philadelphia in the first round. Hockey is violent, fast-paced and hard to regulate, though it’s difficult to escape the conclusion the NHL’s punishment regime has been ineffectual.

Part of the reason is philosophical. The NHL has yet to embrace player safety seriously. Four out of four of the deceased NHL players who donated brains to the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, showed evidence of C.T.E. Three – Reggie “The Ruffian” Fleming, 45-year-old Bob Probert and 28-year-old Derek Boogaard – were noted enforcers.

When confronted with this, the NHL emphasized the inconclusiveness of the science. Commissioner Gary Bettman reiterated how NHL fans “like the level of physicality” and urged people “to take a deep breath and not overreact.” NHL discipline head Brendan Shanahan stressed “the difference between the myths and the facts.” This sentiment is misguided.

Science like Law is imperfect, often disputed and perpetually evolving. Scientists deal with probability far more often than absolutes. There is always “a gap in the science.” As with Global Warming, Evolution and other theories, pointing that out is not enough to dismiss the theories outright. The NHL is framing the question to get the answer it wants. Can scientists conclude head injuries suffered playing hockey cause C.T.E.? No. That’s not the same as asking whether scientists would recommend greater precautions against cerebral trauma.

There’s also a practical issue. The NHL creates problems by punishing the effect of a violent act rather than the act itself. Shanahan acknowledged this during these playoffs using a barfight analogy.

“It’s not all based on the injury, but the injury is a contributing factor,” Shanahan said in an interview on WFAN. “It is in society. There’s degrees and levels of punishment for any act — if you pop a guy in the bar, you might get kicked out of the bar, but if he lays back down you might go to jail.”

Punishing the effect of a violent act is a poor deterrent. Though raising the probability of causing an injury, players know that probability is still low. The benefits outweigh the costs almost every time. The violent act may be punished justly afterward, but it is still committed. If a player knows the punishment is coming for an act regardless of the outcome, he is far less likely to do it.

English soccer handled a similar situation with rough tackling. The English considered it an inherent part of the sport’s ethos. English leagues had perceptively higher rates of players suffering broken legs or ligament damage due to impact. Offenders were only punished when they caused injuries and even then the punishment was often mitigated as reckless rather malicious. The tackler, especially if English, was “a good lad” and “not that type of player.”

Recently, English referees have done a better job showing red cards for dangerous tackles regardless of effect. Players seem to have adjusted their games accordingly. Fans have whined about controversial sendings off, but what was a frequent sight – an English player hurtling recklessly through the air with their studs up – has become a comparatively rare one.

In the NHL Player (A) punches Player (B) in the back of the head. Instead of punishing Player (A) for punching another player in the back of the head, the league makes a bizarre calculation based on whether Player (B) was injured. Then they look at how long he’s out for and how important he was to his team. They then consider what “type of player” player (A) has been in the past, how important he is to his team and whether his punch fell within hockey’s amorphous and subjective informal code. This is process is convoluted and asinine and it’s no surprise resulting punishments are inconsistent and don’t serve as a deterrent.

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