Monday, April 23, 2012

A Social-Cultural Approach to Current State of NHL Aggression

I've done some reading because my college courses aren't starting till next week, and I have entirely too much free time. My mind is engulfed by hockey (as it usually is) to a crazy degree because it's the playoffs. I'm always particularly interested in the social and psychological aspects of any subject, so naturally I am always exploring the social-psychological influences at play in the crazy actions taking place in the NHL.

Does Shanahan understand what he is doing? He doesn't appear to have a grasp on the idea of the appropriate degree of punishment necessary to deter dangerous actions. Players don't usually make decisions beforehand to do something dirty, and that's why you need to be particularly harsh in deterring that behavior by embedding it every aspect of a player's subconscious so that when that split second comes where he may or may not do something stupid, he had become conditioned to avoid the dangerous play at all means necessary.

Players are conditioned to be violent, to accept fighting, and to accept hitting, and nothing will significantly change the head injury problem the league has until something gives with the culture of the NHL. I don't know if that can ever happen. The articles linked, quoted, and reviewed below provide some useful insight (for me, at least).

The Culture of Hitting, the NHLPA, and the Armstrong Paradox.

When a player gets hit with a clean, hard hit, often the player is considered at fault for having his head down. I remember very clearly back when Eric Lindros was gettig his 1st and 2nd concussions from Scott Stevens that they were similar hits - Lindros entering the offensive zone with his head down, puck on his stick, and Stevens coming out of nowhere like a freight train and demolishing Lindros. As we all know, Lindros struggled with concussions for his entire career. This article made a great point in why these hits may be considered clean, but perhaps shouldn't be encouraged so emphatically:
Back in the early days of my fanaticism, it used to be part of the standard response to a knock-out hit- too bad, but that’s what happens when you skate with your head down. What might have begun as a principle of self-protection- learn to keep your head up or some unscrupulous person will try to take it off- eventually evolved into a principle of aggression- if you see someone with his head down, you have a moral duty to try to take it off.
The belief that anyone with his heads down deserve to get destroyed has, historically, conditioned professional players to sympathize with the hitter rather than the hittee, which in turn drives the NHLPA’s historical tendency to lobby against intensive supplementary discipline measures.
This provides an interesting perspective I have never considered - the fact that the NHLPA has gone to great measures to minimize any potential punishment to players (things like maximum fines of $2,500) and the NHLPA has done so for a logical reason. Workers unions exist to protect the employees - in this case, the players of the NHL - and the employees have a very different take on things than I could ever understand as a fan. Consider this:
In the balance of work in the NHL, there are far more players whose job it is to stop the elite than there are elite, and many of these players- the checkers, energy guys, pests, shut-down lines, and enforcers- still see themselves as more likely to be the victims of supplementary discipline rather than the victims of concussive violence.
The "Armstrong Paradox" referred to in the title is the situation of a non-star player having to choose between watching out for his health (if he sustains a concussion) and sitting out even if it means maybe losing his job, or going on the offensive and continuing to play on the edge, even if it means suspension. Because, after all, that suspension will be minimal because the NHLPA is protecting the majority of the workforce.

The "keep your head up or else" mandate has been acceptable in the NHL and even promoted by it for as long as I can remember. I'm not saying those hits have to be illegal, but I agree with this article's proposition that we shouldn't condition players to be so predatory when they see the opportunity for a clean hit when a guy has his head down. How hard do you have to hit him to remove him from the puck? Physicality in hockey has multiple purposes, but one of them is to gain puck control from the opponent, and sometimes that gets lost in the mix when a guy gets hit so hard, puck control becomes lost in the mix.

Promoting these types of hits also allows for instances like Aaron Rome on Nathan Horton last year during the Stanley Cup Finals. The suspension was very controversial because the hit was supposedly "clean" except for the fact that it was so late. shit? A hit no longer is a "clean" hit when it is delivered so late that a player - head up or head down - is completely defenseless to the illegal check. The fine line between a clean hit and a "clean but late" hit is measured in frames per second or something like that, which is another futile attempt the NHL makes to take the gray area of violent hits and making it black and white.

Trying to measure an incident scientifically and dissect it in such detail the way Shanahan does is as erroneous as just going with gut instinct. Case in point, in the next article outlined, is the Shea Weber assault on Zetterberg. That should have been a suspension, and now people argue the non-suspension made the playoffs more violent as a result. I don't think that's necessarily true, and the writer below attempts to explain the violent behavior from players as a result of innate human aggression and the basic need to release it when it's too high (in basic Freud terms).

Blowing Off Steam with Shea Weber and the Vancouver Rioter: Do The NHL Playoffs Facilitate Catharsis?

The relationship between human aggression and sports - as a player or as a fan - is very intense. In the case of NHL players, the way the league is removed from the normal boundaries of social conduct, this overly aggressive nature - that only becomes more intense during playoff time - takes on a life of it's own. This article takes a quick look at the fans relationship to the sports team and their own personal aggression. Basically, being a sports fan is a potential route to dealing with overwhelming feelings.
...a playoff game offers us increased emotional relief, also known as catharsis. Because we care more, we pour more of ourselves into our watching, and the expected result is that such watching would exhaust our banked emotions, and in particular our pent-up aggression.
This certainly makes sense to me as a fan who has taken part in and witnessed the increased insanity of a playoff atmosphere. It's like the brain turns itself off and the emotions are on autopilot. Yet, as this article points out and makes a great argument for, if sports relieve this aggression, why does it normally result in more acts of aggression as a result? study found that violence against women increased in conjunctions with wins by the local pro football team (Gordon, 226)...
Gordon references a study that tested aggression levels in two sets of hockey spectators, one watching a particularly violent game, and the other watching one more marked by skill. “Fan hostility at the violent game increased from pre- to post-game levels; no change occurred at the peaceful game (Gordon, 225).” Later in the same chapter, Gordon cites further research indicating that “viewing fast-paced, competitive hockey action does not appear to increase viewer aggression,” while “the observation of aggression…increases rather than decreases viewer aggression (228).” Note that neither “fast-paced, competitive hockey” nor violent hockey  generates catharsis (by decreasing viewer aggression). 
It's a pretty basic psychological concept of monkey see, monkey do. While some may respond to high emotions of a playoff game without having to assault someone, the majority act more aggressively as a result. This goes for athletes even more so than it does for the spectators.
The game is necessarily aggressive, so how do you keep it from becoming too much so? Maybe one answer is in a statement above, the one about how your level of aggression doesn’t rise while watching a skill-based hockey game.  
As Gordon puts it, “aggression begets still more aggression (222).” 
Basically, watching a skilled, minimally violent game (and playing in one) may not make you less aggressive, but it certainly shouldn't make you more aggressive. But once the aggression is unleashed, a violent game quickly becomes out of control, as do the fans. And the fans love it.

Speaking of loving fighting, have you seen Goon yet? I wrote a little bit about it weeks ago after I saw it. I liked it, and although the below review does not shed positive light on the film, the author makes some great points.

Understanding Goon: Nice Guys Finish First.
Goon’s overarching message is that hockey’s unwritten code of an essential aspect of the game and should be celebrated as such.  This message is nothing new, of course.  But, importantly, this message relies entirely on the tired and unsubstantiated idea that hockey players are just ‘nice guys.’ 
By wittingly casting aside concerns over homophobia, concussions, and fighting, Goon does nothing more than reinforce the idea that goons are nice, honourable guys.  Nice guys like Doug, after all, are incapable of bad things.
This rings so true. Hockey players can preach all they want about the importance of The Code and the necessity of enforcers, but the fact is that many enforcers aren't necessarily just doing it as good guys protecting their teammates. They're just doing it to be assholes. How else do you explain actions of someone like Raffi Torres? Matt Cooke had the same problem - an underlying dysfunction that, after his major suspension last year, forced him to change himself profoundly.

I don't doubt that the majority of enforcers are, indeed, "good guys", but it's very rare for any person or player to be as overwhelmingly kind-hearted as Doug. So, while guys talk about The Code being a way for the good guys to watch out for teammates and protect them from the bad guys,

Hockey Violence, The "Code", and Don Cherry's Brilliantly Deceptive Apology.

This is a follow-up on the first article discussed above. Here, the idea of "total institutions" can make us lose our grasp on what is realistically acceptable in society.
Sociologist Michael Atkinson has written about this self-policing characteristic of hockey in the context of “total institutions” – that is, subcultures that insulate themselves against the outside world in part by socializing members into their specific codes of conduct (think, for example, of the culture of the military). Atkinson suggests that The Code operates as both as a socializing force on hockey players and, through the framing of violence as a necessary and tolerable aspect of the game, a barrier against outside interference in the rules of the sport. 
This is all very true without a doubt. The NHL is insulated from the outside world because that's how we allow professional sports leagues to function, and the NHL has done a particularly good job of keeping the league very largely insulated from outside society. As a result, returning to barbaric methods of social conduct ("frontier justice", or "The Code") is not only allowed, but it is strongly promoted, and seen as a key survival factor.

We are socialized that if we are angry, we can't just drop our gloves. Hockey players are socialized in a completely different context; when they are angry, they should drop their gloves. This, as echoed above, just generates more violence, in my opinion.

And they are socialized under the pretext that in playoff situations, it is more acceptable to act with more extreme aggression. This has been going on for years, although it seems uniquely violent this year.

Hockey Violence and the 2012 Playoffs: Why a moral panic won't change the NHL's cultural tolerance of violence.

Again referring to the idea of a total institution, this article points out that the NHL will make no effort to change, at least not without serious pressure from influences like the media, fans, or the NHLPA. Currently, the NHL playoffs are thriving on TV.
At the same time, television ratings have soared in spite (or because) of the on-ice violence. 
Notably, this is the first time in history that every playoff game is available to viewers in the United States, so that explains some of it. But the press the NHL generates with violence is twisted into a positive - an incentive even, to continue down that road.

Sunday's Game 6 between the Bruins and Capitals broke records for US television ratings on NBC. Although the Bruins have a reputation as a violent team, this series has not been overly violent. There has been a lot of little dirty plays, like subtle punches to the back of a players head, but only one instance really stands out as dirty: Backstrom cross-checking Peverley in the face. Although this was the 3rd time a Capital cross-checked a Bruin in the face in the series at that point, the refs finally caught on and assessed Backstrom a match penalty. Backstrom is a very important star for the Capitals, behind only Ovechkin, and the fact that Shanahan followed through with the 1-game suspension sent a strong message to this series. A Dale Hunter-coached team will never be clean, and many may believe a Bruins team could never be fully clean either, but in comparison to the disasters in other series such as the Flyers and Penguins, the animosity is under control, the violence minimal, and the exciting skilled play at a premium. And that was the game that drew the biggest audience. But I digress...
While I sympathize with the crusaders at the vanguard of the moral panic, my optimism about their ability to fundamentally alter NHL hockey is limited...the NHL has a tightly controlled and insular culture that militates against outside interference. While some influential media members may hold some sway in the NHL boardrooms, it is hard not to see the league swatting away much of the outrage with minimal damage to its brand or popular integrity.
In short, the culture of a total institution is insular and internally regulated – think, for example, of the culture of the military in which outside criticism is ignored and discipline is enacted through internal mechanisms.
...Atkinson and Young describe how the NHL has acted over time to develop a self-regulated culture that has buy-in from its participants and to frame violence as a normal and non-threatening aspect of the sport. Furthermore, the researchers explain how outside intrusions into the self-regulated culture of hockey (such as court cases) typically reemphasize the NHL’s ability to police itself; and describe how fan consent to player violence legitimizes it as an aspect of the sport.
The institutions that need to press the NHL for change in it's violence toleration - fans, media, members of the board - are unlikely to do so anytime soon. Corporations are invested financially because violence sells, fans are invested because they have been conditioned as hockey fans to enjoy the violence, and the actual law traditionally does not interfere in the NHL's affairs. These entities "are probably the best-positioned outside interest to influence the culture of hockey’s total institution because of their ability to impact the NHL’s bottom-line". In other words, no changes will be forced from any of these groups.
Nonetheless, it seems that a growing number of player voices from within the culture of hockey’s total institution are starting to agitate for changes in the way the game is played and regulated.
This leads to another interesting question: can a player-led movement force the NHL to change how it defines, polices, and punishes violence?
The author mentions the weight with which the NHLPA carries headed into CBA negotiations when the current CBA expires this summer. If the players collectively want to ensure better protection of themselves, they could press for it. But they won't.

I personally remain worried about the long-term health of players that suffer head injuries and want to see measures taken to prevent it if possible. But, I also have some contradictory views, which I will discuss in my next post that talks about fan aggression in the playoffs and why we act like idiots.

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