Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The NHL and Disciplining Fight Culture

First, I should confess: I think that fighting in hockey is stupid. It's certainly a part of the culture of the game - and not, as its proponents would argue, a part of the game itself - but it is nonetheless stupid.

How stupid, you ask? After Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux - the former one of the leading scorers over the past 7 or so years, the latter the 3rd leading scorer of the past season - fought one another in a playoff game a couple days ago, Giroux's coach said “I thought it was great. A couple of the best players in the world dropping the gloves, going at it. In the end, that’s really playoff hockey, isn’t it?” Did I mention that both players have had concussion problems, and that Crosby's concussion issues have been so persistent and painful that there's been talk about whether he should just retire? And that fighters, in hockey, are notorious for collecting head injuries? And that the coaches already know this, and are encouraging their best players to engage in something that's incredibly risky and totally unnecessary? Yeah, that stupid.

Really, though, these guys already have about a half-dozen concussions between the two of them.

It gets stupider, though. Because the reasons that are generally given in support of fighting just don't stand up to scrutiny, and the people making these arguments should realize this, if they're paying any attention at all.

(So, if you're not on the same page as me after that, then you should probably stop reading right now. Okay? Good.)

We're told that fighting is a necessary, exciting part of the game, but it practically disappears once the playoffs start. (The present Penguins-Flyers series notwithstanding.) We're also told that it's simply an effect of the intensity with which the game is played, but it's all but absent from all elite hockey leagues outside North America and in international play. And we're told that it's a necessary policing tool to use in retaliation or as a deterrent to dirty play. That's probably the hardest argument to refute, but we can go ahead and do that anyway.

In a study by the pseudonymous advanced-stat gurus Hawerchuk and Tom Tango, the two found that most fights happen during blowouts, and that most fights are instigated not as a policing measure, but because the visiting team wants to take its frustrations out on the home team. (The home team also becomes increasingly likely to start a fight when they're losing badly, but nowhere near as frequently as the reverse.) Unsurprisingly, then, they find that "goons" (what they define as "the 'pure' enforcer... he has high fight totals but so lacks other talents that he is never used on special teams") see their ice-time increase late in the third period when the game is out of reach, and are effectively benched when it's late and close. The lesson here is that, regardless of the reasons that the pro-fighting lobby gives, fighting is still mostly a dumb exercise in beating people up because you need to assert the validity of your masculinity in the face of evidence (ie. the score) to the contrary.

So, what to do, given that fighting is the common sense solution to a non-existent problem? Well, I've been finding myself increasingly using the yellow/red card system from soccer and finding ways to apply it to the other major sports. This is admittedly a half-baked thought, but I'm going to roll with it, anyway.
  • Award red cards to players who fight. They're out, for this game and the next. (Not that goons play much to begin with, but that would certainly prevent the Crosbys and Girouxs from involving themselves. It might also dissuade players from involving themselves in brawls, where more than one player might earn an ejection and a red card.)
  • Do the same thing for egregious, intent-to-injure fouls - the kind that fighting is supposed to dissuade.
  • Introduce a yellow-card for dives and suspected dives. (Maybe there's a committee that votes on suspected dives?) Yellow cards can also cover fouls that don't fall under 'intent-to-injure' but are serious enough, for whatever reason, to require a mild punishment. Two yellow cards in a defined period of time and you earn a red.
  • The cards, except for fights, are given only after a post-game video-review.
  • Also, make the suspension aspect cumulative. If a player has already received a red card once this season, the next one earns a two game suspension.
  • I'm tempted to add another penalty to the red card, like refusing to allow the team to dress another player in that spot for the length of the suspension, but I can see how that might actually encourage fighting - a team with meaningless or relatively easy games might be tempted to start something with an opponent who has a tougher upcoming schedule.
  • And, of course, other suspensions will still exist, but make the infraction and punishment much clearer. Create a chart with Infraction on one axis and Context on the other - because the length of suspension should be affected by the timing/location of the foul. And then stick to that chart in all but the most exceptional cases. (I wouldn't link suspension length to injury, normally, but this would allow for some flexibility - as in, say, the Bertuzzi-Moore incident, because I can't imagine that punching someone in the face from behind, away from the play, would normally be much cause for concern.) Also, apply the appropriate cumulative red card penalty to these suspensions.
All told, I suspect that the yellow card is probably the most useful and necessary addition, here: something to dissuade undesirable behavior before it becomes necessary to take drastic action against it. That is, bringing discipline to the sport within overtly disciplining the players. That kind of subtlety might just be the sort of thing they can get behind, too.(?)

(This yellow/red card system could probably be useful in other sports, too. Something to revisit later?)

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