Nature of the Beast?
The aggressive nature of many sports, such as boxing, football, and ice hockey, leaves athletes on the brink of arousal, of losing control of their emotions, even of committing violence.
We have a very violent, emotional game and things are going to happen, said Brian O’Neill, former executive vice-president of the National Hockey League. The NHL had such a problem with fighting and bench clearing brawls (2.1 fights per game in the 1986-87 season), it had to change rules to clamp down on offenders. It seemed to work as the number of fights dropped to below one per game by 1996-97. The way I see it, fighting is not a big part of the game. It really is an incidental part, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. This is a sport where players are hitting and hitting is encouraged where players are moving 30 miles an hour with a stick in their hands. The game is played on edge with a lot of emotion and every now and then you’ll see a fight flare.
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Many coaches encourage their players to be pugilistic. In 1997, coach Mike Murphy of the Toronto Maple Leafs said he had been wrong to discourage fighting in the team’s preseason training camp. I should have made training camp a brawl fest, he said. Next year, I will. If I’m here next year, get your cameras because there’ll be a brawl every scrimmage. I said [the previous September] I didn’t want fighting. Next time, there’ll be fighting. I’ll get every goon out of the OHL (junior league). I’ll get every goon alive. And yet, in that same year, Murphy’s president and general manager, Ken Dryden, called for the NHL to discuss the possibility of banning fighting so that players who light would be tossed from the game. Dryden said the old argument that fighting is a release for players who would otherwise injure one another with their sticks doesn’t ring true. That’s not what the psychologists and anthropologists say, he said. They say violence breeds violence.
Said Tie Domi, one of Dryden’s players: When I started in the league, you fought to intimidate the other team. Now it’s a natural reaction to certain situations, but I don’t fight for self-satisfaction. I fight for my team I’m respected enough that I don’t have to drop the gloves all the time.
Ironically, in one of the most violent games of all, football, there aren’t as many fights as there are in hockey probably in part because players would injure their hands on another player’s protective equipment. Equipment is not an issue in professional basketball, where players sometimes come to fisticuffs. A 1997 team brawl between the New York Knicks and the Miami Heat, in which players came to the aid of fallen teammates, probably cost the Knicks a shot at the NBA championship because they subsequently had several key players suspended. Even in a more cerebral game like major league baseball, bench-clearing brawls are common. A report on baseball violence indicated there were 41 such brawls in the American League in the 1993 season and 38 in the National League. Many players and managers say they are often ignited when it’s believed a pitcher is throwing at a batter to keep him away from the plate.
It’s believed such incidents have been on the rise in recent years, perhaps a sign that players don’t have as much discipline, or respect, as they once did. In the 1940s, Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller hit 60 batters and not once did opponents charge his mound. And another former great player, Frank Robinson, was hit by pitches 198 times, but rather than fight, he’d dust himself off and make the pitcher pay for it with a base hit. Is it possible that many contemporary players have more respect for themselves than they do for the game?