Should Fighting be Allowed in Hockey?

As we begin to learn more about the damage concussions have on athletes, society is questioning what needs to be done to help avoid head injuries. Concussions have been linked to depression, dementia, seizures and numerous other troubling health effects. The debate about fighting becomes even more intensified when an event like the death of Don Sanderson happens. It also brings up Jim Parry’s idea of illegitimate violence which is “the attempt to harm by the use of illegitimate force” (1998). Does fighting fall under this definition or is fighting really necessary? Despite the criticism of fighting, it is still allowed minus the five minute penalty. So why is it still around and what will it take for it to be eliminated?

Don Sanderson who died at age 21 from a fight

Fighting is debated in Canada more than any country. Proof of this came about a week ago when the potential first overall pick in next year’s NHL draft, Connor McDavid fractured a bone in his hand while fighting which left the Canadian media to debate fighting again (Zwolinski, 2014). McDavid plays in the OHL; a league which allows players as young as sixteen to fight players as old as twenty. Fortunately there has not been a fighting death on live television but many agree that if that ever occurs, fighting will become extinct. The question is, why wait for that to happen?

There are three main arguments that support fighting and they are: entertainment, consent and to help avoid “cheap shots.” For most individuals, fighting in hockey is entertaining mostly because of its resemblance to gladiatorial combat. Fighting in the streets is illegal but seeing it in a hockey game is acceptable which helps avoid the guilt of watching it. One of Canada’s favourite hockey personalities, Don Cherry is a vocal supporter of fighting. He even profits off it by selling his videos Don Cherry’s Rock’em Sock’em Hockey which includes clips of the best NHL fights of the past season. Many fans fear that hockey’s popularity would decrease if they eliminated fighting from the sport.

The entertainment argument is a weak attempt at encouraging violence. I would be lying if I said I did not enjoy watching a fight but they are not an important aspect of hockey. International hockey does not allow fighting and there is no significant backlash because fighting is not important enough to impact the ultimate essence of the sport. Quite often fighting is a form of reactive aggression and therefore should be considered illegitimate violence. We should be reminded as fans that the players’ livelihood is more important than a fans’ enjoyment of a thirty second fight. If people want to see a legal fight they should go watch boxing or the UFC.

Consent is a central argument for why fighting is supported. “People retain the right to pursue potentially dangerous activities, as long as it’s their own informed choice and they are not endangering ancillary others who have chosen otherwise” (Klosterman, 2014). The knowledge that hockey players have gained about fighting can help them make an informed decision on if they want to fight or not. Some argue that if a player chooses to fight despite the negative consequences associated with fighting, then they have the ability to exercise that right.

Having consent to fight does not fix the problems of fighting though. Just because there is consent does not mean it is ethical. For example, gladiatorial combat could have two people consent to participate but it would still be unethical in our society.

NHL players have often argued that fighting actually makes the sport safer. While there is irony in this view I can understand the thought process. Hockey is a high speed game where there are plenty of opportunities to hurt an unsuspecting player with an elbow, stick or knee. Fighting can potentially avoid devastating injuries because players will consciously avoid creating a “cheap shot” so that they can escape the consequence of having to fight another team’s tough enforcer.

The idea that fights help prevent injuries is interesting but they lack statistical evidence. There is no proof behind this claim and international hockey (where fighting results in a suspension) does not have a large history of “dirty hits” or “cheap shots.” Until there is evidence that fighting helps prevent more injuries than it causes, there is no legitimacy to that claim.

From a philosophical viewpoint, fighting appears to be gratuitous violence since it is violence that “exceeds what is necessary for its success, whether used instrumentally or not” (Parry, 1998). Fighting is not necessary to win unless you believe that it can help change momentum of a game. This is debatable and even if it does, it does not have great importance. Making the body check illegal would be significant since it is part of the game and can impact who wins. That is why body checking is almost never debated, while fighting is a growing discussion. Philosophically, the debate is not about fighting but it is about what type of violence should be allowed in sports culture.

Whether you like fighting or not it appears that fighting is slowly fading away. Canadian Hockey League president David Branch has stated that he has an “appetite” to abolish fighting which would have an enormous impact on the future of fighting (Sager, 2012). Statistically, fighting has gone down ever since the 1980’s. Fans are supporting the end of fighting as a 2013 survey found that two-thirds of Canadian hockey fans supported banning fighting (Whyno, 2013).

With more pressure on leagues like the NHL and CHL to abolish fighting, it would not be surprising to see the end of fighting in the next few years. I can state with confidence that this rule change will be a positive for hockey. The game is better off when players like Sydney Crosby grab the headlines and not the player who was stretchered off the ice because he was in a pointless fight. Don Sanderson was the first person to be killed from fighting; hopefully he will be the last.

Here’s a good debate on fighting

Author: Alex Lamond

References:

CBC Sports. (2009, January 2). Senior hockey league player dies from fight-related injury. Retrieved November 12, 2014, from http://www.cbc.ca/sports/hockey/senior-hockey-league-player-dies-from-fight-related-injury-1.793185

CDC. (n.d.). Retrieved November 14, 2014, from http://www.cdc.gov/concussion/headsup/clinicians/resource_center/complications_of_concussion.html

Klosterman, C. (2014, September 6). Is It Wrong to Watch Football? Retrieved November 12, 2014, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/07/magazine/is-it-wrong-to-watch-football.html?_r=1

McKenzie, B. (2009, January 2). McKenzie: Don Sanderson to be honoured. Retrieved November 12, 2014, from http://www2.tsn.ca/columnists/bob_mckenzie/?id=261642

Parry, J. (1998). Ethics and Sport. London and New York: E & FN Spon.

Sager, N. (2012, February 28). ‘Appetite’ to abolish fighting in junior exists, say Branch, Nicholson. Retrieved November 12, 2014, from https://ca.sports.yahoo.com/juniorhockey/blog/buzzing_the_net/post/appetite-to-abolish-fighting-in-junior-exists-say-branch-nicholson?urn=juniorhockey,wp7702

Whyno, S. (2013, November 7). NHL: Fighting survey shows Canadian hockey fans want ban, players don’t | Toronto Star. Retrieved November 12, 2014, from http://www.thestar.com/sports/hockey/2013/11/07/nhl_fighting_survey_shows_canadian_hockey_fans_want_ban_players_dont.html

Zimmerman, P. (2013, January 1). The Myth of Old Time Hockey: The Rise and Fall of Fighting and Mayhem in the NHL (Part I: Numbers). Retrieved November 12, 2014, from http://sidelinesmag.com/fighting-nhl-numbers/

Zwolinski, M. (2014, November 12). Connor McDavid out five to six weeks with broken hand | Toronto Star. Retrieved November 15, 2014, from http://www.thestar.com/sports/hockey/2014/11/12/connor_mcdavid_pulls_out_of_super_series_because_of_hand_injury.html

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