Category Archives: Hockey

The Sports Ethicist Show: Boston Breakdown with Joe

A new episode of The Sports Ethicist Show is available!

 Joe Danker and Shawn Klein discuss things Boston sports in this episode of The Sports Ethicist. What defines a successful season? How important is it for the Bruins to get to and win the Stanley Cup this year? Are the Red Sox in a grace period after winning the World Series? Is it wrong for the Celtics to be tanking their season?

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Filed under baseball, basketball, Boston, Football, Hockey, podcast, RadioShow, soccer

The Sports Ethicist Show: Sochi Winter Olympics and Boycotts

The Sports Ethicist Show airs this Monday at 6 pm CDT on Rockford College Radio.

The XXII Winter Olympics start in Sochi, Russia in a few weeks. The Olympics can be exciting and inspirational, but they always seem to come with controversy. The Sochi Games are no different. One of the most disturbing controversies for these games is the increasing discrimination and legal persecution of gays and lesbians in Russia. This has prompted many to call for a boycott. But are Olympic boycotts effective or justified? Craig Carley, a philosopher at Phoenix College, Arizona, joins Shawn Klein in discussing these questions. They also discuss predictions for the Ice Hockey Gold, the Stanley Cup, and the Super Bowl.


A podcast of the show will be available after the show airs.

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Filed under Hockey, Olympics, podcast, RadioShow

Will Soccer over take the NHL and NBA?

Probably not anytime soon, but the attendance numbers are interesting.

A friend of mine posted a link to an article about how the NHL is selling out more markets than the NBA this year. This prompted me to look at average attendance numbers in the NHL and NBA. But I also thought I’d compare them to MLS numbers. I think the results are intriguing.

  • MLS: 18,807 (2012)
  • NHL: 17,721 (2011-12)
  • NBA: 17,274 (2011-12)

To really do anything with these numbers (or any statistic) would require digging into them more. For example, what happens if you take the Seattle Sounders out of the MLS average?  The Sounders drew an average of 43,144 in 2012 (that beats most MLB team averages). The next highest was the LA Galaxy, but they drew a much lower, but respectable 23,136. Take out the outlier Sounders and the MLS average falls to 17,455. There is obviously something weird going on in Seattle.

But even the adjusted average is interesting. MLS draws about the same, then, as the NHL and NBA. The latter have many more home games, so total attendance is higher. They also have TV contracts that give them a much wider audience (and much greater revenue).

I think these numbers support the growth of soccer the US, and the likely continuing growth (the ratings for EPL games on NBC also seem to support this). I am not sure we’ll see the MLS garner the kind of TV contract that the NHL and NBA have, but I think they are moving in that direction.

One counter to this is to claim that the NHL and NBA numbers only look similar to MLS now because most fans NHL/NBA fans watch on TV and so fewer fans go to games. Their respective attendance numbers would be much higher if watching them on TV wasn’t so easy. I am not sure this is true; that is, how many more fans would go to games if they weren’t on TV? In the bigger markets, these arenas are already sold out. In markets where there are not sellouts, it is not clear that attendance would increase. This would depend on the weak attendance being dependent on the broadcast availability instead of lack of a deeper interest in the team. If the teams aren’t selling out because the fan-base isn’t there, lack of TV coverage isn’t going to translate into increased attendance. I suspect it would actually decrease interest in the team and thus lead to decreased attendance. Carrying over this speculation to the MLS, more TV coverage would probably increase interest and thus translate into higher live attendance. This suggests a brighter and bigger future for soccer in the US.


Filed under basketball, Hockey, soccer

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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Filed under Boston, Hockey, Officiating, Reviews, violence

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:

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.


Filed under Hockey, rule-violations, violence

Podcast: Hockey Fights (The Sports Ethicist Show)

The podcast for episode 9 of The Sports Ethicist Show is available for download.

Most hockey fans have heard the joke: We went to a boxing match but a hockey game broke out. Hockey is unique in its tolerance of fighting on the ice. In nearly every other sport, fighting is prohibited and punished by ejections, suspensions, and fines. In the NHL, the rules do not actually prohibit fighting and it’s punished typically only by a five minute penalty. Can this acceptance be justified? Or should the NHL move to restrict and prohibit fighting? The Sports Ethicist discusses the ethics of fighting in hockey with long-time hockey fan and best friend, Joe Danker.

Original Air Date: June 3, 2013 on Rockford College Radio.


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Filed under Hockey, podcast, violence

The Sports Ethicist Show: Hockey Fights

The Sports Ethicist Show airs tonight at 6 pm (Central) on Rockford College Radio.

Most hockey fans have heard the joke: We went to a boxing match but a hockey game broke out. Hockey is unique in its tolerance of fighting on the ice. In nearly every other sport, fighting is prohibited and punished by ejections, suspensions, and fines. In the NHL, the rules do not actually prohibit fighting and it’s punished typically only by a five minute penalty. Can this acceptance be justified? Or should the NHL move to restrict and prohibit fighting? The Sports Ethicist discusses the ethics of fighting in hockey with long-time hockey fan and best friend, Joe Danker.

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Listen Here:


Filed under Hockey, RadioShow, violence