Friday, February 6, 2015

Why Is Hockey the Only Major Sport That Allows Fighting?

A classmate from high school first posed this question to me when I was looking for new blog ideas a few months ago. This really stumped me because I didn't really have an adequate answer for it, so I've been letting it stew in the back of my mind since September. A few weeks ago, Daryle "The Guru" Johnson posed the same question on the radio show Zakariah and The Guru on 95.7 The Game. (By the way, they won Weekend Show of 2014, so give them a listen!) That tiny seed of thought continued to fester in my brain. It seems like a common enough question. When I took my best friend to her first hockey game (which was a pre-season game), she was shocked that fighting was allowed but totally enjoyed it. Of all the four major pro sports, why is it that hockey has fighting?

A caller on Zakariah and The Guru suggested that it is because the other sports are not really contact sports. He argued that in baseball and basketball there is no fighting since there is little physical contact among the players to incite a fight. This makes sense to a certain degree. If there is limited physical contact, there is not going to be a lot of tit for tat retaliation in terms of you hit/pushed/shoved me, so I'll do it back and as tempers flare a full-blown fight breaks loose. However, that argument only goes so far. Daryle challenged the caller by pointing out that football is a very physical sport, so why is fighting not allowed then? A very good point, and the caller, nor I, had any real idea how to counter that logic. 

Daryle and my classmate, Jonathan, both suggested that it may have something to do with race. Daryle seemed to imply that he believed that the difference lay between the dominant races of each sport, but he decided to leave his argument for another day. Jonathan also posed a similar thought, "Is it simply because viewers get don't get scared when they see white people exhibiting violent behavior against one another?" I think that this is a fair question to ask, and I think that there may be some racial issues behind it considering the historical context of this nation. However, I posit a much simpler reason why football does not allow fighting.

When I was watching this year's Super Bowl, a fight almost did break out between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks. A lot of the players were pushing and shoving, and a few players got in man-to-man tussles. However, nothing too serious came of it because the referees broke up the fights, as it is, of course, against the rules. This is when it hit me. They do not allow fighting in the NFL not because of race but because of safety. Think about it. There are twenty-two men on the field, plus the other eighty-four men on the sidelines who have no physical barrier to prevent them from rushing the field. And these are football players, so these guys are huge and exceptionally strong specimens of mankind. What I noticed was that if the referees had not stepped in, it looked like it could have turned into a huge, uncontrollable street brawl. In a sport like football when guys are basically trying to maul each other anyway, tempers can flare, and if the teams get involved, things can escalate and become very dangerous very quickly. This is why I believe that football does not allow fighting.

Similarly, basketball has made dramatic changes throughout its league after the Malice in the Palace incident. Again, safety is the key issue for these changes but targeted more at fans than at the players. Basketball is the one sport that offers an extremely intimate setting in that fans can actually sit right on the court with their favorite players. There is heavy security that serves as a barrier between fan and player but nothing like sitting in raised stands removed from the court. It also should be noted that the ticket prices for the on-court seats are extremely high and usually cater to celebrities. There are also rules that disallow players from coming off the bench in order to incite or join a fight on the court to limit the magnitude of a fight. For the most part, there is only some pushing and shoving and no full-on fisticuffs as in the NHL. Like football, these are rules aimed at safety rather than race.

There is not a lot of fighting in baseball, but there is charging the mound. When a batter feels that a pitcher intentionally hit or almost hit to him, the batter and/or his teammates will rush the field. Either the batter and pitcher will duke it out, or it could be a huge team brawl. This does not happen very often, and it is against the rules. There are often fines, suspensions, and ejections for unsportsmanlike conduct that are handed out. However, this does not happen very often and is not quite the throw down the gloves and fight as in hockey.

So what is it that makes hockey so different? Well, the NHL does not actually "allow" hockey in the sense that there are no repercussions. There are five minute penalties given to the players involved and more penalty minutes for other infractions related to the fight. Players may be ejected from the game for unsportsmanlike conduct, but this does not usually happen. However, hockey is different from the other sports in one very important way. Once two players decide to fight, the referees let the players to do so and wait until it is over to hand out the penalties. It is in this context that hockey "allows" for fighting. So why is that?

There are several reasons why hockey exists in hockey, and I'm not going to get into all that because it doesn't quite tie directly into why hockey is the only major sport that accommodates for fighting. I think Jonathan touches on this when he asks, "Why is fighting, like punching each other in the face repeatedly not only ok, but celebrated, in hockey, and so so so far away from OK in other sports, esp bball and fball?" The key word is "celebrate." That is exactly what hockey does. It celebrates the fighter.

There is a lot of controversy about whether or not fighting should or should not be in the NHL, but the truth is hockey celebrates the fighter. Hockey has two kinds of players: the skilled players who can dominate at a position and the player with heart who has to literally fight in order to be able to play in the league. For every Sidney Crosby, there is a John Scott. As hockey fans, we love to root for those guys who put it all on the line night after night and try to give their team the edge. There is a great respect for those players who may not be making the highlight reel every night but find other ways to contribute. They reach deep within themselves and play with such heart that it is hard not to love them. Hockey allows for this type of player to exist.

I read an article about Bobby Farnham that discusses this idea. Nate Scott interviewed NHL hopeful Bobby Farnham who plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins and explores the role of the fighter in hockey. Scott puts forward the idea that "[i]t isn't just about protecting the stars really, but more so about allowing non-stars to stay in the game." Back in the day, for every Wayne Gretzky there was a Marty McSorley who would act as his bodyguard to allow the Great One to do what he did best. The game has changed since then, and the role of enforcer is not quite as brutal. There is still an enforcer, but he is more of a pesky player rather than bodyguard. Case in point is Bobby Farnham. Right now he is struggling to make it into the NHL and is being shuttled back and forth between the Penguins and its minor league affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. He does not possess enough talent to be a goal scorer, but he is quick and knows how to get under the skin of his opponents in an effort to draw a penalty, which can give his the team the opportunity to win. He will not run from a fight despite the fact he is only 5'10" and roughly 188 pounds. Right now, he has not earned a roster spot to stay in the NHL, but he is trying to make an impression to stay. What is even more impressive is that his family owns a grocery-store chain, and he received a degree from Brown University. He does not have to try to fight every night to justify a roster spot. In the AHL (the minor league), there is no team plane, luxury hotels, and fancy meals. There are buses, motels, and pizza. Not exactly the high life. Farnham chooses this life because he has a passion for the sport and knows that this is his only way in. Hockey celebrates the Bobby Farnhams.

Another example of hockey celebrating the fighters, the non-stars, is the documentary The Chiefs. The Laval Chiefs take their name from the infamous hockey movie Slapshot. The documentary illustrates the life of the semi-pro. These are the real fighters. These leagues are made up of players who do not possess the talent to play in the NHL, AHL, nor ECHL (the league below the minor league), but they still have the desire to make it into the NHL. They do not make much money from the team and find revenue from other places. Those who cannot afford their own place live in a converted apartment inside the arena where they play. It is most definitely not the glitz of even the AHL, but these players are trying to live their dreams. In games, fights seem to break out quite often, and these teams have loyal, diehard fans just like any other sports team. The fans support their teams and are proud of them. I don't think that these types of leagues would exist if it weren't for the fact that hockey celebrates the fighter.

This post would not be complete without explaining that there is a talent to fighting. Brandon Prust of the Montreal Canadiens recently contributed to Derek Jeter's The Players' Tribune on his experiences in his article "Why We Fight." He describes his realization that he needed to make a choice in order to fulfill his dream of being in the NHL. He remembers, "I had a big problem. I was a walk-on for the London Knights and I wasn't as good as the skill players, but I also wasn't much of a fighter. I realized that I had to add something to my game in order to stand out." Like Farnham, Prust decided to learn how to fight. This may sound weird, but there is an art to the hockey fight. He explains, "[T]his isn't a normal street fight. We're on skates and we have big baggy jerseys that can be pulled over our heads. A ton of physics that goes into it...the balance and leverage and grips." Hockey celebrates the fighter because he is not just a goon throwing out punches. These guys have to really learn how to fight, much like a boxer, but they also have to factor in the ice. Most of the time there is a veteran on the team or an alumnus associated with the team who is willing to teach a younger player how to fight. When George Parros was coming up through the Los Angeles Kings organization, Marty McSorley who was an analyst for the team at the time showed him the ropes. So just as Sidney Crosby took that summer to perfect his face-off, fighters like Parros and Prust take the time to learn how to fight in order to best serve their team.

While all the major sports do not allow fighting, it is only hockey that celebrates the fighter. Hockey allows the non-star to fulfill a dream. Fans love the scrappy player because what he may lack in skill he makes up for with heart and passion. I celebrate the fighter because what they do demands respect. They are willing to put it all on the line for the team. As long as there are players who are willing to throw down the gloves to give their team an opportunity to win night after night, hockey will always celebrate the fighter.


  1. My original sentiment was that, perhaps, mainstream audiences are ok with seeing white people fight, but they get scared when they see black people fight. And after reading Jennifer's post, I still feel that that is part of the explanation of why fighting still exists in hockey.
    I think also the fact that they're fighting on ice means the punches don't land as hard.

    But, yes, the biggest reason is that fighting is just integral to the sport, and it never really was in baseball, football, basketball and soccer (Jennifer never mentioned soccer! but yeah, would not have made a difference in her analysis). It might have been part of the "code" in baseball, but they're clearly trying to remove that from the game by pre-empting the motivation to retaliate.

  2. You're absolutely right. Hockey definitely created the role of the enforcer, and that does make it unique in comparison to baseball, football, basketball and soccer. I think that is only part of the reason though. I think that hockey fans also love to root for those fighters, and I think the passionate semi-pro fans probably prove that the most. Why else would these leagues exist except to celebrate all the non-stars?