Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Illegal Hits and Head Injuries: Pushing for Suspension through Severity of Injury

I wrote this a few weeks ago, and given the discussion that just took place about McQuaid's dirty hit on Foligno and Foligno's immediate return to the bench inspired me to post this (although it was not written or read very thoroughly). Before I get to that, I want to express my thoughts on McQuaid's hit. It was dirty, but I don't believe there was malicious intent at all. I agree with what Bill Jaffe said with that it's reactionary, but it's a bad reaction so the punishment is correct. If McQuaid is suspended, I wouldn't be surprised. I'm glad Foligno is okay, and I think that what Jack Edwards said about why Foligno appeared extremely hurt but was fine a few minutes later is a compelling enough argument. I believe that Folgino wasn't truly trying to overreact to maximize the punishment, although, as I get into below, there is always that subconscious drive in all our actions. The original essay is under the read more below.

Discipline in the NHL in every year before this season was inconsistent and unclear in the way it dealt with illegal hits or other illegal infractions and whether or not to issue fines or suspensions on the guilty party. If a hit clearly crosses the line of legality, how is the length of suspension determined? Before Brendan Shanahan's comprehensive and helpful videos were implemented upon his new job status this year, a gray area seemed to exist within the perimeters of deciding whether or not injury sustained on an illegal play should factor into supplemental discipline, and if so, how much does it influence the outcome? Of course a play can be brutal and dangerous as well as illegal, but luckily the player on the receiving end comes out unscathed. Does the lack of injury mean the offending player has a lesser punishment, even if the degree of illegality of the hit is serious? What about plays that are borderline illegal that results in - due to a combination of the illegal check and unfortunate circumstances to the individual situation - serious injury? Past patterns were certainly unclear: in some instances, "borderline" hits that caused serious injury would have no suspension at times, whereas a similarly borderline action that caused no injury could also be slapped with a hefty suspension.

Brendan Shanahan has done a good job of making sure players understand what exactly is illegal and what is taken into account when contemplating supplemental discipline. One of several criteria that Shanahan and his team weigh heavily in determining their course is whether or not injury was sustained on the play. Although illegal hits that cause no injury or severe injury may still result in the same degree of punishment, the fact that an injury will definitely effect the outcome in someway. For the injured player and his team, the desire to see the harshest punishment possible under the guidelines of the disciplinarians may effect judgement and immediate reaction in response to the incident before the league rules on it. As a result, teams will speak the morning after a player sustains an injury in a press conference of public statement specifically for the purpose of sharing the diagnosis and severity of the injury. That way, the review of the hit by the league and their decisions made thereafter will take into account serious injury and rule different than they might have if no announcement had been made, or no indication of the severity of the injury was made.

The result is a rather interesting debate about the true nature of injury sustained in these situations versus injury claimed to be sustained in the immediate aftermath in order to have the biggest possible effect on potential suspension. This seems to be the most difficult to truly decipher in instances where a play is controversial, perhaps illegal, but not clear-cut suspension-worthy. If Player A on Team A injures Player B on Team B in a play that either warranted no penalty, only a minor penalty, or even a maximum penalty from the referee of the game, injured Player B and his team want the guilty player to pay for the hurt he caused, whether it be seriously harmful to his physical well-being or harmful to the ability of Team B to succeed without Player B. When taking both degrees of detriment to Team B and Player B, the perception that Player A acted further outside of the rules than Player A and his team believe he did, Team B may, in theory, attempt to influence the outcome of supplemental review by the league by making sure they are aware that Player A injured Player B very significantly, as is evident in examination and diagnosis by either team doctors or other physicians.

In this situation, one of two outcomes are likely to happen, and no matter what, one team is going to have their ethical integrity called into question. The first result is that Player B, who is said to have, for example, a "severe concussion" as a result of a hit from Player A that may or may not warrant suspension upon further review, sufficiently swayed opinions of the disciplinarians and incurred at least a small suspension. In this case, Team B is satisfied that Player A is punished for what they believe to be illegal action. However, if the "severe" part of the severe concussion played a highly prominent role in the influence of the suspension handed down, the injured player is not required to miss any number of time. In this instance, a "severe" concussion one day may subside to a mild or minor concussion within days, or even subside into another type of injury all together that had side effects on the head without concussing it. If that is the case, Player B returns to practice and play as soon as possible, but what if it is too soon? Team A and those who believed that Player A should not have been suspended are unhappy that he was indeed suspended become easily enraged and eager to call "fake" if they witness behavior from injured Player B that directly negates the so-called severity of the diagnosis that resulted in the suspension.

This poses several questions. First of all, will a team or player go as far as to "fake" injury for the purpose of incurring a suspension? Would a player overreact about his injury consciously or subconsciously to achieve that goal? Would his team, and even his doctors, go along with the over exaggeration and even play it up more for the same goal? (Also, would a team over exaggerate an injury even if the player didn't?, could be asked) If a player is injured, but the severity isn't readily measurable within the time it is sustained and the next morning when the team makes the announcement, will the team and/or player "assume" or err on the side of caution by asserting that it is indeed "severe", when it is too soon to tell the true damage? The inexact science of concussions and the seriousness of head injuries as well as the environment of the current NHL and it's aggressive stance in protecting player safety by enacting extensive policy to eliminate concussion-causing patterns, are all elements that can be manipulated somewhere along the line. Perhaps Team B has the purest of intentions in announcing Player B has suffered a severe head injury only to realize that their diagnosis had been wrong or that Player B had a type of concussion or reacted to the concussion in it's own unique way that left no severe symptoms long-term, or even in the distant short-term. Certainly the health of the player is the main concern, and any speedy recovery is positive, but the nature of sports and the aforementioned nature of these situations result in accusations of previously described sinister behavior to purposely shape the outcome falling on to Player B's shoulders.

Whether Player B recovers speedily due to favorable health outcomes or as a result of an inaccurate diagnosis of severity, the suspension served by Player A could add up to more games missed by Player A than games missed by Player B due to injury. Should a mandatory sit-out period exist for players diagnosed with severe concussions in a similar manner to the 15-minute quiet room remedy for in-game situations? It seems extreme and unnecessary, especially if an injured player acted completely innocently despite accusations. How else can the league curb the tendency of a team to immediately decree the injury sustained in the most extreme manner for the given player in a clear attempt to persuade the NHL?

Perhaps no resolution is needed if the Shanahan and the NHL continue to analyze illegal behavior and punish the players accordingly with the same systematic and critical eye they have employed thus far. Another negative outcome may arise in Shanahan's rulings in the same situation as described above. In some instances, Team B may feel the hit was illegal and harmful enough to warrant suspension, but it is determined that Player A did not act in a manner that warrants supplemental discipline at all. In this instance, Player B will miss time and deal with serious injury as a result of what he may believe was an illegal attack on himself while Player A, who maintains his innocence despite whatever his true intentions or actions may have been, walks free. The game of hockey is violent and despite the best efforts of all involved, injuries will occur in instances where no true wrong-doing was present. However, the despair of losing a player to injury at the hands of another player who will miss no game time at all is the very reason the first situation (in which the injury may be over exaggerated) comes to exist at all.

The play in question may indeed be a gray area; no true right or wrong answer may exist; and the so-called line between legal and illegal may be too skewed to result in suspension. However, the perception of the incident by Team B's fans will no doubt rule that Player A was out of line whereas Team A's fans will insist that Player A did nothing wrong and a suspension would be ridiculous and unfair as well as legally ambiguous. The reaction from both teams and their fans is intensified to the umpteenth degree if the teams involved are considered to be rivals, and if the players involved has a past history of questionable or violent behavior paired, and/or is involved with an opponent deemed to be a "diver".

The most emotionally volatile reactions are, of course, aroused when the two teams involved are in a high-stakes situation (such as battling for a playoff spot, or engaged in a playoff series) and the players involved are pivotal to their respective teams. In this case, if Player A is not considered to be as integral a player to his team as Player B is, Team B will feel loss nonetheless because even if Player A is suspended, Team A can fare without him while Team B, in exchange, lost a valuable player to injury for a number of games. Conversely, if Player A is one of his team's most important members, and Player B is less relied on by his team, the suspension of Player A seems (and can be argued that in the past, has played out this way) far less-likely. In this circumstance, one can't help but wonder what the values attached to players in relation to the league and to their team's success can do to influence decision-makers. If Player A's actions are border-line in terms of breaking the rules, and Player B's injury sustained is disproportionately severe due to the illegality paired with unfortunate circumstances at any given moment, the desire to punish Player A and make him miss the time that Player B is missing seems to be less reasonable. In this instance, Team B is losing a player and injury is unfortunate, but the player is replaceable in terms of players ready to take his place from the press box. To punish Player A would mean that, although healthy, Player A is forced to sit out games and as a result, his team will suffer the losses of his contributions and it may even be as serious as the league suffers the loss of an elite entertainer, revenue-generator, and skillset, even if for just a few games. This thought process may be as unconscious and unintentionally biased as the previously mentioned "over exaggeration" of an injury, but it is the conclusion reached nonetheless. In this case, Team B may be even more inclined to ignite empathy from disciplinarians by being overzealous in diagnosis and perhaps over dramatic in the way in which the team reactions emotionally to the injury. If Player A is an elite player while Player B is replaceable, the urge to make Player A suffer punishment nonetheless can drive - again, knowingly or unknowingly in the psyche - a player or team to make the tragedy of Player B's injury more valuable than the contributions of Player A.

Perceptions of what a player means to the team, the situation the team is in at the time, and the relationship to the player and team that causes the injury are all highly variable according to allegiance or previously conceived notions about a rule, an attitude, or some other existing prejudice or bias. Such factors will always largely influence perceptions of the plays in question as well as other sequences in the game. While the variables are highly volatile, the promise of Shanahan's new diligent process in identifying illegal behavior and punishing it as well as his clear messages and goals to the players about how to maintain their safety within the rules and even changes of attitude and style of play, give a sense of relief to those involved if they believe that all their best interest is in mind. Disagreements will always arise with Shanahan and his decisions, but it is the same dynamic a moody, rebellious teenager has against their over-bearing parents: they will never be happy, but if they can learn to live together, hopefully they will achieve the overall goal of increasing player safety.

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