Hockey Fights and Violent Retaliation

The talk about fighting in hockey has heated up in the media. Even ESPN, which normally gives the silent treatment to hockey, has covered the issue a little. I’ve written on this blog about my views regarding possible ethical justifications for fighting in hockey. But with some recent events, I wanted to revisit this issue by discussing Nick Dixon’s paper on violent retaliation in sport.

One of the main justifications offered by proponents of the status quo is that fighting is necessary in the NHL because it allows the players to police the sport through retaliation for egregious play by opponents. For example, in a December 7th match between the Boston Bruins and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Bruins player Shawn Thornton attacked Penguins player Brooks Orpik. In this particularly brutal fight, Thornton knocked Orpik to the ground and continued to punch him. Orpik was taken off the ice in a stretcher and Thornton was ejected. He was subsequently suspended for 15 games. Though almost everyone agrees that Thornton went too far and should be suspended, many (especially my fellow Bruins fans) think the suspension was too hefty. Thornton, goes the argument on sports radio and local papers, was only protecting his teammates. The proximal cause seems to have been that Brad Marchand was kneed in the head while lying on the ice by Pittsburgh’s James Neal. Earlier in the game, Bruins Loui Eriksson left the game with a concussion after a hard hit by Orpik. The entire game to the Thornton-Orpik fight was chippy and in some ways getting out of control. Defenders of fighting in hockey claim that Thornton’s actions, though in the extreme, are part of the game and actually reduce overall violence in the game. The claim seems to be twofold. First, Thornton is justified (to a degree) in fighting Orpik here as a form of retaliation for the hits on Eriksson and Marchand. Second, allowing this kind of retaliation (within reason) reduces violence in the game by deterring illegal or cheap shots.

Though sympathetic to these claims, I don’t think they actually bear out. This is in large part due to Dixon’s argument in “A Critique of Violent Retaliation in Sport.”

Dixon starts out by distinguishing violence from aggressiveness or assertiveness. Violence involves “the intention to injure” (1). Aggressiveness, assertiveness, or hard physical play are different; these are part of how one achieves the goals of the game. The physical injury or harm to the opponent, though it might be a foreseeable consequence, is not the intent nor is it necessary for the achievement of the goals.

There are a lot of ways violence shows up in sport. Dixon leaves the violence of boxing, mma, and similar sports where the violence is (or seems to be) explicitly part of the rules of the game for a different discussion. In this paper, his concern is only with sports where violence is officially prohibited, but it is tacitly accepted in some cases of retaliation. His two prime examples are bean balls in baseball and fights in ice hockey.

To make his case, Dixon provides an outline of what would qualify as a justified retaliation. Then he applies this to the cases of baseball and hockey to see if they fit this theory. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t think they do.

Justified Violent Retaliation

The first condition for me to be justified in a violent retaliation is that a person has to act wrongly against me. This requires that the person be a responsible agent (that is, the person’s action is one for which the person can reasonable be held responsible) and that the action is one that is worthy of condemnation or sanction. It would be wrong to retaliate against a person’s striking you if, because of a neurological disorder, she has no control over her limbs. It would also be wrong to retaliate violently against a new competing coffee shop operating legally and morally near your own shop that draws away your customer base.

The second condition for justified violent retaliation is that there has to be an expectation of imminent death or harm from the attacker. In cases where the criminal justice system can be engaged to prevent, stop, and/or punish the wrongdoing, one would be wrong to retaliate. Dixon uses the example of rape. Certainly one is justified in using violence to prevent or stop a rape from occurring. But one is not justified in hunting down the rapist and killing him after any imminent threat is removed.

Although the first condition can often be met in a sporting context (Neal’s intentional knee to Marchand’s head fits the bill), the second condition, according to Dixon, is almost never met. The league has an analogue to the criminal justice system and that is the proper avenue for punishment of wrong doing: “The whole point of having referees, leagues, and disciplinary committees is to permit a dispassionate and fair assessment of what penalties are appropriate for wrongdoing on the playing field.” (3).

Surprisingly, this argument comes up in discussions of hockey fights, even in the Thornton case. Thornton supporters argue that in part he was justified in going after Orpik because the officials on the ice were not doing their job. The problem here is that Thornton is not in a position during the game to judge this adequately. He clearly took umbrage with Orpik’s hit on Eriksson though almost everyone agrees that hit was clean. The officials may (and by my lights often do) fail at their job of policing wrongdoing. But it is hard to know in the heat of a contest if this is in fact the case and what the appropriate response is. This is why it is best to leave it to a process that can objectively weigh the evidence. (But I will return to this point below.)

Retaliation as Deterrent

So if retaliation is not justified as retribution, maybe it is justified on the grounds that it will deter future acts of violence. Dixon argues that this fails on the grounds of lacking objectivity as well. First, just as in retribution, the officials are better positioned to determine objectively if there was a wrongdoing and how to penalize it to reduce future occurrences. Second, violent retaliation against the wrong doers by the league or athletic organization is not justified. The league will punish them with fines, suspensions, or bans. Dixon argues that this is analogous to the punishment of rapist, we take away the convicted rapist’s liberty, but don’t condone violent assaults by the victim (or the victim’s champion) or the state.

I think Dixon is on the right track here, however, I am not entirely convinced. My tentativeness here rests on two claims. First, the effectiveness of deterrence is something that is controversial. It is not clear that punishments of any kind are effective deterrents. While incentives matter, people have to expect that they will get caught, be found responsible, and be suitably punished. Potential wrongdoers might have very good reasons (and bad ones too) not to expect this conjunction to play out and so deterrence would be ineffective. So, it might be more effective for the end of deterrence that players fight (or have the threat of fighting) since they might have more reasonable expectations of getting punished by opposing players than the league. Then again, it might not work like this. We’d have to compare ice hockey with and without toleration of fighting to see which has less overall violence. Luckily, there are ice hockey leagues that are not tolerant of fighting: Olympic, NCAA,  and European hockey are much less tolerant of fighting. And the comparisons seem to point much more in the direction of not tolerating fighting as more effective in reducing overall violence while maintaining high-quality hockey.

Second, I am not convinced that the officials are always in the best position to know about a wrongdoing and how to punish it. In the case of the Thornton fight, I think they are. But there are lots of other inappropriate actions in a game, or over the course of a season or career, that the league office or referees are going to miss. For example, cheap shots that are on the borderline of legal and go uncalled or other chippy play that doesn’t quite rise to the level of a major penalty or league punishment. These go, by definition, unpunished (or under-punished). Proponents of hockey fight argue that only player policing can deter these. Using something similar to Dixon’s rape analogy, domestic violence is a hard problem in our society. Police cannot be in everyone’s home to prevent it. It is notoriously difficult to prosecute. Restraining orders and the like are by most accounts ineffective. Increasing criminal penalties for abusers who don’t think, with good reason, that they will ever get caught or prosecuted isn’t going to deter future abuse. The danger in any one instance might not be severe enough to allow for the justifiability of violent retribution as Dixon has defined it. In such cases, it might be that some measure of vigilantism is justified. If this is appropriately analogous to the cheap shots that go unnoticed and unpunished through a game, season, or career, then maybe some measure of athletic vigilantism would be justified to deter such activity.

Dixon also addresses the objection to his account that institutions might consistently fail to punish wrongdoers appropriately and so vigilantism could be justified in those cases. He argues that much like with the criminal justice system, one ought to operate within the system to reform the system or replace the officials. In the worst cases, civil disobedience or emigration might be the appropriate response. (And I would add that violent revolution against a regime might be justified in the very worst cases). Returning to athletic organizations, if the league was consistently failing to do its job, either players ought to work to reform the organization or they should leave it. Moreover, one would have to establish, borrowing from Jefferson and Locke, a long train of abuse, for such a concern to even kick in. But this is not what is usually the case in any given hockey fight (or bean ball in baseball). Players are usually responding to a particular perceived failure of a game official, not an established pattern of official abdication of punishment.  

Team Unity

The last substantial part of Dixon’s paper treats the argument that violent retaliation in sport helps to promote team unity and other values in the sport. In the Thornton case, I have heard some defend his actions on the basis of his sticking up for Marchand and Eriksson thereby building team unity. Moreover, we have seen examples were a team comes together after a fight. Some mark the A-Rod/Varitek fight in 2004 as a turning point in the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry that provided the Red Sox with a unity and attitude that helped them defeat the Yankees in the ALCS.

Dixon rejects this argument whole-heartedly. The mere fact of building team unity is not sufficient for justification. It begs the question of the justification of the act itself. Team unity is a worthy goal. But the means to the goal have to be justified on their own terms, not merely that they can be a part of achieving a worthy goal. Dixon suggests the counter example of a batter hitting the catcher in the leg with his bat as retaliation (7). This would seem to serve the same end that a bean ball does, but is not regarded as acceptable. Nor would any retaliation that takes place out of the bounds of the game be justified, even though such an attack might also serve all the same ends. These actions lack their own justification (or stronger: are unjustified), so the fact that they serve a worthy goal doesn’t do the work of justification.

Dixon closes with an admonishment not to treat the sporting world as an exceptional place where morality is suspended. We ought, he argues, to expect athletes to behave with the same moral character and according to the same moral principles that one would outside of the sporting sphere. “To expect the best of athletes, instead of immunizing them from moral criticism, is actually the highest form of respect” (9).

I think Dixon’s arguments in this article are sufficient to show that actions like Thornton’s (and Neal’s) are not justifiable. Fighting might erupt at times in hockey from aggressive and assertive play. And, as I argue elsewhere, that doesn’t seem problematic. But where the fighting is treated as retaliation for actions by the opponents, it is not justified.

Dixon, Nicholas, “A Critique of Violent Retaliation in Sport” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 37:1, 1-10, (2010).

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1 Comment

Filed under Boston, Hockey, Officiating, Reviews, violence

One response to “Hockey Fights and Violent Retaliation

  1. Joe Diaz

    I don’t mind when two players “drop the gloves” and have it out to settle whatever perceived slight is in question. However, when you venture into “goon” territory as Mr. Thornton surely did, that is problematic. From my perspective, as an NHL season ticket holder in Phoenix, the modern day crop of NHL players have transcended the geometry of the rink in which they play. You’ve got athletes that are dramatically larger in size, speed and strength playing in what essentially amounts to a telephone booth. The rink is a vortex where enormously physically gifted, testosterone-driven males are coming and going at breakneck speed in a very small space where it is virtually impossible to create space, set up plays and execute an offensive strategy. People are going to fight when they are perpetually frustrated with their inability to execute any sort of a plan because they are constantly slamming into one another and having to have their “head on a swivel” to avoid a career ending injury. You want to cut down on the fights? Expand the rink by 20% – 25% which will put a premium on the ability to skate and produce a more wide open game. You will then see more Sidney Crosbys and Patrick Kanes on the ice and a lot less Todd Bertuzzis and “Broad Street Bullies” gooning it up.

    I think that ethically, you are spot-on as it relates to fighting in hockey. Unfortunately, logic doesn’t always win the day. I would dare say that it’ll be a lot easier to expand the rinks than it will be to purge the goon mentality from the players, officials, owners and fans.

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