Sunday, 27 May 2012

Getting Into The Player’s Head

In two recent polls, one by Hockey Night In Canada and the other Sports Illustrated, NHL players anonymously gave their overwhelming support for fighting.  Both asked if fighting should be banned and “No” was answer by the majority; 98% and 99.5% for the respective polls.  Why does an NHL player believe with such conviction that dropping the gloves is an essential element to the game?

A major contribution to researching violence in sport, particularly in hockey, was provided by the late Professor Michael D. Smith, Director of the LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence and Conflict Resolution.   Professor Smith, who died in 1994, contributed to several studies and books in the area of sports violence.  Some of his important findings are summarized below.

Qualitative research on the relationship between masculinity and hockey violence has suggested that players endorsing traditional masculine behavior were more likely to engage in violence than players who held weaker masculine beliefs. Data was collected from hockey teams representing two different age groups (14.3 and 17.7 years respectively) and skill levels (Bantam and Junior A).   The study found that there was a direct relationship between players who exhibited more “macho” behavior and increased violence, particularly at the pre-professional Junior A level.  Players also had a greater perception of competence of teammates when they exhibited increased levels of violence (especially fist fights), placing more value on that attribute more than playing or skating skills.  This perception of competence because of violence was also found amongst Junior A coaches.  (From: Masculinity and Hockey Violence – 1995, published after his death)

Social learning theory states that aggressive behaviour may be learned from observing others and reinforced by rewards and punishments.  Where aggression is seen to be successful and/or met with approval from others, this learning is greatly enhanced. This reinforcement may come from various sources including the athlete’s immediate reference group (family, peers,coaches), the structure and rules of the game, and the attitude and behaviour of external influences such as professional athletes, spectators and media.  Much of violence in sport is socially rewarded behaviour where peers and coaches influence their perception about what is right or wrong within the game, despite what is set down in the rules or accepted social norms outside of the game.  Smith identifies this distinction - between observation and perception – through describing an experiment where viewers watch specific hockey plays on television and identified their enjoyment factor.  The plays which were very rough elicited substantially higher enjoyment marks - even plays which were not-so rough, but were described by the play-by-play broadcaster as rough - scored higher in the enjoyment factor. The experiment subjects were influenced by what they saw and perceived as enjoyment by virtue of the reaction of the crowd and the broadcasters. Similar results were found with situations which dealt with perceived hostility or hatred between opponent athletes.  (From: Significant Others’ Influence on the Assaultive Behaviour of Young Hockey Players – 1974)

Hockey is a game in which society suspends normal regulations and permits mutually consenting adults to subject each other to controlled violence in the name of sport. But when body contact assumes an importance out of proportion to that required to play the game – when inflicting pain and punishing opponents are systematized as strategy, and viciousness and ferocity are publicly glorified – a stage of brutality can be said to have been reached.  Similarly if you have penalties that are a mere slap on the wrist and players receive standing applause from the audience, and the coach thinks you’re a pretty solid guy, then you’re going to keep doing it.  (From: Violence and Sport – 1983)

Other experts can help us understand why the professional athlete has different perceptions about violence in sport.

The players’ views and attitudes depend on what is acceptable and what they can get away with. Players “know” what they are doing when aggression occurs - it’s just up to the players, coaches, officials, spectators - and in a general sense - the “history” of the game, to determine what’s acceptable. This logic, for the most part, is different than that they would use in their everyday life. The regular rules of everyday life do not apply to the  arena.  Once these “norms” are established, what would often be seen as unacceptable, and even illegal, in the regular social setting, is treated as a “normal” occurrence in sports.  Consequently, in order to reduce athletic aggression effectively, both external sport influences and internal reasoning mechanisms have to be addressed. That is, a player’s evaluation of what’s right or wrong can be greatly influenced from within by discussion and presentation of data as well as external reinforcements.  (Dr. Brenda Bredemeier of the University of California)

The subculture of junior hockey can breed anti-social behaviour through such things as overwhelming pressure from peers to participate in such acts (the mob mentality), taking young players away from home at early ages, the “idolization” of players (who are deemed to be above the law) and the attraction of playing in the National Hockey League.   The NHL and Canadian Hockey Association victimizes players because the appeal of getting to the next level outweighs any moral or ethical reasoning - unacceptable behaviour becomes acceptable behaviour where much is at stake. (Laura Robinson, from Crossing the Line – 1998)

Certain forms of violent behaviour and rule infractions are institutionalized among players in the minor hockey system - particularly through training and professionalism of the sport gradually turning youngsters into commodities.  Furthermore, the NHL largely determines the style and content of the hockey that is played throughout the country, despite the fact that entering professional hockey is not in the cards for more than 99% of minor hockey players.  The significance of winning is institutionalized at all levels of hockey, however, as the players advance to higher levels, the importance of team wins are diluted by personal gains. Players know what the scouts are looking for – individual aggressiveness or skill level - not the team’s ability to win games.

Observations during the study also indicated that coaches are quite casual about rule obedience - they are not as much concerned about illegitimate acts by their players, but are concerned about the impact the penalties may have on the game. Penalties are regarded as inevitable costs of the game - a good penalty is the successful effort to save a goal being scored; a bad penalty is one that achieves nothing.  The study also found that the longer a player remains in hockey,  the less interested he is in playing the game according to the rules. As he moves through the system, a player soon recognizes that rule violations are considered skills to be used judiciously under specific conditions.  This instrumental aggression - aggression that serves as a means to achieve a particular goal - is often distinguished from hostile aggression, that is, actions intended to harm another who has angered or otherwise provoked an individual. Hostile aggression - fighting, deliberate attempts to injure - is seldom the sudden outburst of aggression that it appears to be in hockey.  Fighting and bench-brawling incidents are not the product of uncontrollable players; these players have undergone years of training and their conduct on the ice is disciplined and controlled.

They know what they are doing. Fights, brawls and affiliated acts are accepted to the players under specific conditions. But to admit it is justifiable behaviour does not mean that we ought to consider it “natural” to the sport. It is learned behaviour and is functional for both players and the team. To understand anything less is to fail to comprehend both the formal and the informal rules that governs players’ behaviour on the ice.  Hockey culture is infused with long-established notions of how the game ought to be played - and since belligerence and aggressiveness are considered essential to the game and illegitimate tactics and deviant skills are included among the necessary criteria for player evaluation and selection - infraction of the rules and violence are unavoidable.  (Edmund W. Vaz, from The Professionalism of Young Hockey Players – 1982)

It would appear, based on the expert’s opinions and studies noted above, that player's perceptions about fighting have been ingrained at a young age, particularly if they have come through the junior hockey system in Canada.   A fight should be socially unacceptable and the player knows that it is against the rules but coaches will praise their toughness once they return to the bench, team mates bang their sticks on the boards and fans stand and cheer.  Even those players who do not engage in fighting are conditioned by peer pressure to look at fighting as something positive in the game.  If they disagree they are likely criticized as not tough enough to play hockey.  For those players who have been drafted out of the NCAA or Europe I would hazard a guess that they are indoctrinated with the same attitudes if they spend any time in the minors.  Based on fights per game stats it would appear that AHL and ECHL coaches have much the same attitudes as the NHL.  It would be difficult for any player who has come up in this culture to openly disagree with fighting.  And if they did they would be subject to criticism from most of their team mates and targeted by others in the league.

There is inconsistency in the player’s support of fighting when compared to their support of eliminating head shots.  The NHL and NHLPA are firmly behind ridding the game of head shots and potential resulting concussions.   You hear that support in press releases and player interviews after every incident where a player has taken a vicious hit, “that’s the kind of hit that we need to take out of the game."

However when Bettman was questioned about the death of Boogaard and the fact that it was proven that his brain showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, he stated that he is not convinced that there is a link between fighting and CTE.  In the award winning series published by the New York Times on Boogaard, Punched Out, The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer, Bettman had this to say:

“There isn’t a lot of data, and the experts who we talked to, who consult with us, think that it’s way premature to be drawing any conclusions at this point.  Because we’re not sure that any link, based on the data we have available, is valid.”

But here is a quote from Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher, a neurologist who heads the University of Michigan NeuroSport program and is an NHLPA consultant to the concussion working group.  In an article published in the New York Times, Hockey Medical Experts Weigh In, he had this to say:

“I can see the inconsistency that you’re outlining there.   In essence, I would say there’s no more evidence that fighting is bad for the brain than there is that hits to the head are bad for the brain. The amount of evidence is the same — essentially, very little. Yet the decision was made on a policy level: let’s take head shots out of the game. There’s no more evidence, or less, for head shots than there is for fighting.”

So advised by experts in the field and using the same studies the NHL and NHLPA have decided that hockey hits are very dangerous to the head, but fighting is not.  Two large physically fit athletes punching each other in the head, in an activity that is against the rules, is not dangerous?   The league and the players need to set aside the emotional support for fighting and let fact and logic dictate their actions.

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