Banning fighting will alleviate a minor cause of head injuries – so why aren’t people more concerned about the major causes?
There is perhaps no more contentious issue in the game of hockey today than fighting. Well, let me rephrase that – usually there is no more contentious issue. Playoff formats and a complete lack of clarity on penalty calls is gaining a lot of traction this year. But in the age of evolving knowledge of head injuries and their long term impact on health, fighting is always in the spotlight.
I absolutely accept that fighting on ice is dangerous, but the fact is that playing the sport of hockey in a professional setting is incredibly dangerous, period – so why are people not talking more about the removal of the other causes of head trauma?
Deciphering the logic and posing a rebuttal
Arguments against fighting in hockey to me are simply a way of washing our hands of the consequences of the game – ignoring the major issues because we are afraid to admit that we want violence, we just don’t want people to get hurt. Paradoxical, isn’t it? Fighting is any easy target because it makes for a spectacle that stops the flow of play, and by banning it, we aren’t promoting “goonery”. But there’s a lot of “goonery” that takes place over the course of a hockey game that isn’t immediately obvious to us all.
People like to argue that banning fighting would instantly alleviate an unnecessary source of head injuries. But if that is your logic, wouldn’t banning hitting alleviate an unnecessary source of head injuries? The major source of head injuries…
For those unfamiliar with the numbers, are you surprised to know that fighting usually results in fewer concussions than getting hit by a puck over a regular season? Fighting also results in significantly fewer concussions than clean bodychecks. From 2009 to 2012, fighting caused less than 10% of all concussions (8% to be exact).
The desirable number of concussions via any means is of course zero, but how does it make any sense to be hell bent on banning fighting while defending physical hockey when you look at these numbers?
The “safety fallacy” in today’s game
I can already feel people rolling their eyes: “how is hitting unnecessary!?” It absolutely is unnecessary to the actual playing of the game of hockey – you don’t need to hit someone to take the puck from them. Many hockey leagues around the world play without it. It’s banned in female leagues, and children aren’t allowed to utilize hitting either.
Hitting (along with the game in general) is more dangerous than it has ever been. There is a concept in behavioral economics known as “risk compensation”. In a nutshell, it describes the idea that people generally alter their behavior in response to perceived changes in risk.
The economist Sam Peltzman concluded in the 90’s that seatbelt legislation in several US states didn’t do much to alleviate traffic fatalities – while they helped save lives in accidents, the fact that drivers felt safer led to more reckless driving, and thus significantly more accidents in the first place. As Steven Levitt once put it: if you really want to make drivers safer, install a sharp knife on every steering wheel aimed directly at the driver’s heart.
In the same fashion, the evolution of player equipment, nutrition and training is inherently making the game much more dangerous than ever before. Players are bigger, faster, and less risk averse. The equipment can now more accurately be described as armor – and as players start to feel safer, they will naturally become more reckless in their movements as they subconsciously respond to these perceived changes in risk. This, I believe, plays a significant factor in why even clean body checks can often result in head injuries today – because concussions are most often a result of whiplash, which statistically increases as collisions ramp up in speed. It would also help explain why women’s hockey (which doesn’t even allow hitting) reports more concussions a year than football, and why concussion rates actually increased (even as hits to the head decreased) after the introduction of Rule 48.
It’s incredibly easy to sustain a concussion even after simple, incidental contact in a hockey game when full-grown adults are skating in excess of 20km an hour. Let alone when hitting is encouraged, player equipment allows them to feel invincible, and over-regulation can subconsciously allow them to place less onus on protecting oneself.
It’s at this point that people usually rebut that hitting has tangible uses in the game, while fighting does nothing but promote violence. We don’t need to get in to the debate about whether fighting can really change momentum in a game – that’s been done to death. I’m simply going to make the point that if player safety is really your main concern, why would it matter whether hitting is a tangible difference maker? It certainly could be a difference maker in basketball, or soccer, but those sports thrive without it.
You might then say that hitting/physicality is tradition in hockey, while not so in other major sports. To which I would tell you that fighting took place in the very first NHL game – does that not count as a “traditional” game trait?
The fact is that hitting is no more necessary than fighting, and if you want fighting banned, it makes zero sense to avoid discussing the removal of hitting in today’s game. It’s skirting the issue – cherry-picking causes because you’re either ignorant of the facts or don’t want to see the game lose the physicality that has made it what it is today. With the realities of today’s game, however, you don’t then get to claim you’re an advocate of player safety.
How do we make the game safer?
In returning to the idea of risk compensation, there are several changes that could theoretically improve player safety. Increasing the rink size to reduce incidents of collision, reducing the size of player equipment to increase perceived risk, going back to wooden sticks to decrease shot velocity, reinstating the two-line pass rule…you could even get real creative and only allow backwards passes. This would force players to move up the ice more slowly and stop blindside hits where players are looking back for a pass while giving up their sight line to the defender in front of them. Or we could just remove hitting and begin a grassroots movement to avoid the fast-paced physicality that causes thousands of concussions a year all over the globe.
Now we’re getting crazy, huh?
No, I personally do not want to see fighting and hitting banned from professional hockey – but I’m more willing than some to admit that these aspects entertain me even if they hold risk. At some point, you have to realize that certain things are inherently dangerous, and that at least plays some small roll in drawing us to them as entertainment. As long as their governing bodies are being proactive in disseminating important information and providing adequate healthcare, the onus is on the participant to accept the risks or remove themselves from the proceedings. And no, that isn’t an excuse for the approach that professional sports leagues have taken to brain injuries in the past – I’m merely attempting to speak to the future.
So if you want to see fighting banned in hockey to make the game safer, take hitting with it. Banning an historically minor cause of concussions is not a tangible step towards making the game as safe as you pretend to want it to be – not even close.
Fight me on Twitter: @armstrongNHL