Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Penalty Box

Intimidation is an unmistakable part of almost every sport. It is how it is legislated, and what is condoned as an integral element of the experience that separates hockey from its other professional counterparts.

In baseball, the pitcher acts as enforcer, responding to some perceived slight of his teammates with a well placed fastball often at upwards of 90 miles per hour that impacts with a sometimes  fearsome noise into the body of its victim. But, while recognized as a part of the game,  escalating bean-ball wars are not accepted. There is a warning, and thereafter an ejection, and often a lengthy suspension. As such, it appears more as an asterisk than an exclamation point.

In basketball, unlike baseball, contact is a constant element of the game. Pushing, shoving, flying elbows and shows of bravado, occur throughout the course of almost every contest. There could be a natural tendency, in these circumstances, to stake out your claim to territory with your fists. Yet, there is little tolerance in the NBA for settling scores in ways other than by twos and threes. Brawls are treated harshly, with large fines (by the economic standards of our world, if not theirs) and suspensions. And those who are on the bench when an altercation begins must stay rooted to their seats. One foot on the court, and a playoff series can be deeply impacted. Just ask the Knicks.

Football moves at dizzying speeds, with huge men intent on imposing their will on other huge men. Bodies fly through the air, helmets are no longer protective devices but potential weapons, and mayhem seems a given. But even in this arena, which sometimes seems only vaguely removed from a 3 hour brawl, there are limits. The league has legislated to protect those who are most vulnerable, whether it be a quarterback looking downfield, or a receiver in the middle of a crossing pattern. While there are hard to define lines between what is acceptable and what will not be tolerated, there are lines. And once crossed, the penalties are severe. Fighting, while it would seem a natural outgrowth of what is transpiring on the field,  is definitely on the wrong side of that line.

Hockey, as the heart wrenching tale of Derek Boogaard so painfully demonstrates, lives in a different universe. Violence is a necessity to be celebrated, not regulated. The game itself, and all the beauty that flows from it, stops the moment the gloves are taken off and the combatants circle one another. The speed, the grace, the athleticism is gone. What remains is most often not even a response to an event that has just taken place. Rather, it is a statement unto itself,  sometimes almost a comical dance, and at others something far worse and very ugly.

It diminishes the integrity of all those who play and all those oversee this sport.  And for those like Derek Boogaard, while it elevates them in the moment,  it commits them to a career that has little to do with goals and assists.

It is not noble and heroic, but sad and destructive. It speaks to our worst instincts and it makes hockey a game of lesser value. "Punched Out" is a compelling and horrifying look at the human results of the choices that hockey has made. And it is an indictment. With an exclamation point, not an asterisk.

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