Ethics of Hockey Fights

On the most recent Sports Ethicist Show, I spoke with my friend Joe, a die-hard hockey fan, about whether fighting in hockey is ethically justified. In this post, I will summarize and revisit some of the main points of the discussion.

Hockey is known for frequent in-game fights: so much so that there is a joke about going to a boxing match but a hockey game broke out. Fights, of course, happen in other sports: baseball, football, etc., but only in hockey is it seemingly accepted and even used strategically in the game. Other sports leagues (included European hockey leagues) eject, fine, and suspend players for fighting. In the NHL, a fight typically only results in a five minute penalty. NHL rules even stipulate the conditions around fighting.

Fighting in the NHL is controversial. Many traditional hockey fans and players see fighting as an inherent and important part of the sport. Other fans and critics regard fighting as unnecessary and barbaric.

My position is that fighting in hockey is for the most part unnecessary and wrong. It is a lack of sportsmanship and self-control, and overall does more harm to the sport than any purported benefits. Nevertheless, I do think there is a case to be made for the NHL status quo.

Those who defend hockey fighting offer several reasons. I think the following list is representative of these reasons.

  1. Intimidation: Fighting as a strategy gives the team a psychological edge over opponents.
  2. Momentum-Changer: Fighting can swing momentum in a team’s favor.
  3. Entertainment: Fans want to the see fighting.
  4. Offensive/Defensive Balance: Fighting helps to maintain the appropriate balance between offensive and defensive strategies. Prohibiting fighting would favor more finesse offense.
  5. Retaliation/ Self-Policing: Fighting is justified in retaliation for cheap shots and agitation.
  6. Deterrence Effect: By allowing fighting, the overall level of violence, instigation, or cheap play is reduced.
  7. Penalty Draw: Fighting or agitation by threatening fighting can be used strategically to induce the opposing team to commit a penalty.
  8. Outgrowth of Physical/Aggressive Play: Fighting is an occasional, though expected, consequence of the physical play that is necessary to hockey.

In what follows, I analyze the relative strengths and weaknesses of these arguments. For the most part, except for #8, these don’t measure up to justifying hockey fighting.

The first three arguments (Intimidation, Momentum, Entertainment) beg the question by assuming the justifiability of fighting in the first place. For an activity to be acceptable as a legitimate strategy for intimidation or momentum, it has to be a one that is already a justifiable strategy. For example, taking a player out by beating him over the head with a baseball might intimidate the opposition, but it is clearly not justified. But this justification is the very thing in question here. Moreover, there are plenty of alternative and legal strategies to gain a psychological edge or change the momentum of a game.

Similarly, the possible entertainment value of fighting is not sufficient to justify fighting. We still would need to show that it is something appropriate for entertainment. Where fighting as such regarded as benign or otherwise acceptable, then the fact that folks find it entertaining would be sufficient; but, since fighting is not something normally regarded as acceptable behavior(in regular life or most sports), it stands in need of justification beyond the spectacle.

I do not think the Offense/Defense balance argument justifies fighting. One, I am not sure fighting has a significant role in maintaining the balance. Though I have little direct experience of them, Olympic and European hockey leagues don’t seem too far out of balance in this regard and they do not allow fighting. Two, if there is an imbalance, the league ought to look to its rules to help restore the balance in a way that doesn’t require the violence of fighting. This argument, like the earlier ones, also seems to beg the question. Fighting could be used to maintain the balance, but only if we already accept that it is an acceptable activity. Its acceptability is, however, the thing in question.

The retaliation argument is a common one. The claim is that the in order to prevent agitation, cheap shots, and outright attacks on smaller or star players, the bigger, tougher players have to engage in the occasional fight. My friend Craig Carley suggests that the medieval concept of a fighting champion might be relevant here. The goalie or skilled, non-fighting player needs the fighters (“goons”) as a champion to protect them from and retaliate for violence done against them.

Nicholas Dixon, in “A Critique of Violent Retaliation in Sport,” argues against this view. He argues that by analogy to criminal law, we don’t allow self-defense to extend beyond the moment of danger. While one can justifiably defend themselves (or someone else) from an attack, one cannot hunt down and retaliate against the assailant later. That is the job for the justice system. By analogy, the referees and league officials are the ones that ought to police cheap shots and illegal violence in the game. Players can certainly defend themselves and teammates, but once the initial aggression is thwarted, it ought to be up to the officials to dispense justice.

I am sympathetic to this view. It is one thing for a fight to break out in the course of self/team defense. It is quite another thing for the coach to send out a player later in the game, or even a subsequent game, to fight someone on the opposing team in retaliation for some earlier improper action. This latter induces more violence rather than curbing it. The former might reduce violence by countering it at the point of attack and possibly deterring it in the first place. But to strike back later, after the fact, likely merely initiates a new round of violence.

Another objection to the retaliation argument is that European hockey leagues as well as the Olympics explicitly prohibit fighting and punish it more severely. It is not clear that this diminishes the game, makes it any less exciting, or puts the smaller, star players in to more vulnerable positions. This undermines the claim that hockey wouldn’t be as good or safe without the fighting.

At the same time, the policy of self-policing in the NHL is an attractive aspect of the game. Unlike in football or basketball, I rarely think about the referees. In almost every NFL or NBA game, the officials seem to make bad calls that have significant effects on the game. In my experience, this is much rarer in the NHL. In part, this is due to allowing the players to police certain aspects of the game themselves. If the referee role was increased to root out fighting, we would see the referees having more of an effect on the game—and one fans and players won’t like.

The deterrence effect argument is another one that has some pull on me. It makes some intuitive sense that players would be less likely to instigate or agitate if they knew a “goon” was going to be coming after them. So it might be true that by the NHL being open to some minor fighting, it reduces the overall level of violence in the game. This is true even if fighting is rare. It can be just the goon-threat that prevents the initial instigation from occurring or getting out of hand.

A direct attempt to reduce fighting in the game might, then, have the unintended consequence of increasing violence and potential injuries. As we have seen in baseball, the introduction of the bench warning process for hit batsman has actually increased the number of hit batsman, not reduced it as intended. (See this article: http://www.bu.edu/law/central/jd/organizations/journals/bulr/documents/BUEHLERandCALANDRILLO.pdf)

The weaknesses of this argument are similar to the retaliation argument. The policing of inappropriate violence in the game is best left to the officials and it is not at all clear that the empirical claim that this reduces violence is true. One way to test this is to look at the leagues that do not allow fighting: do we see more or less violence and agitation? (And we don’t seem to see more.)

The use of fighting or, rather agitation by threatening fighting, can be used strategically to induce the opposing to team to commit a penalty. To the extent that the instigating player stays within the rules and draws a penalty by getting the other play to lose his composure, this doesn’t seem objectionable. If one is merely counting on not getting caught throwing the first punch, this strikes me as unsportsmanlike. It is one thing to harass, within the rules, the opposition; it is another thing to violate the rules while hoping you don’t get caught.

This argument, then, doesn’t support the justifiability of fighting. It supports the attempt to get the opposition to initiate a fight so that one’s team gets a power play. This presupposes that fighting deserves a penalty.

The last argument is the one I think is strongest for continuing the NHL status quo. This is the claim that fighting is an occasional, though expected, consequence of the physical play that is necessary to hockey. The players on the ice are constantly in a physical battle for establishing their position and claiming their space. This involves the jostling of bodies and hitting of opposition players. This is essential to the play of hockey. But it is also likely to sometimes erupt into fights just as an outgrowth of physical, aggressive play. Since this play is necessary to the game, the expected outcome of the occasional fight is also a part of the game. This fits into Robert Simon’s category of mixed fouls:

“Mixed strategic fouls occur when athletes play more aggressively at key points in the contest, knowingly taking on the increased risk of fouling because the price of fouling might be strategically worth paying.” (The Ethics of Strategic Fouling: A Reply to Fraleigh.)

This doesn’t celebrate the fighting as such (or condone strategic fighting), but it does recognize that the occasion fight is an expected outcome of the kind of play that is essential to the game, both in terms of playing it well and fan enjoyment. Attempts to reduce fighting in the game significantly would likely have the unintended consequence of reducing the physical, aggressive play of hockey and thereby, undermine a significant aspect of the game.

From this, I conclude that the strategic and intentional use of fighting in hockey is not justified. Moreover, that while fighting should not be encouraged or celebrated, the NHL should be wary of moving too strongly or too quickly to reduce or to eradicate fighting from its game.

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11 Comments

Filed under Hockey, rule-violations, violence

11 responses to “Ethics of Hockey Fights

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  2. It is an informative article. In there the author has seen the reasons of fighting. I agree with all the reason. Thanks for this.

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  8. Nama Hoo

    “Entertainment value” is a nice euphemism for “making more money”.

    • Well, that’s cynical! Nevertheless, it is of course true that professional sports is a form of entertainment and so part of the goal of professional leagues is to increase the entertainment value of its game. Entertainment is a human good (and so is making money) and pro sports are one avenue for experiencing that good. That said, pro sports are not merely entertainment. The game has its own norms and goods that are important and are themselves human goods. The entertainment value needs to be balanced and integrated with these other goods. That is part of why I argue that entertainment argument is insufficient for justifying fighting in hockey.

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