Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Shanny and the Slippery Slope

Let it never be said that Brendan Shanahan, in his new role as head of player discipline, did not begin with the very best of intentions. NHL supplementary justice has, for generations (or generations of players at least) been renowned for its unfathomable workings. Colin Campbell, the previous occupant of the role, operated according to such inscrutable reasoning that his rulings were widely supposed to have no rationale whatsoever. Who could say, in the Campbell regime, what kind of offense was suspension-worthy? What was degree of aggression was permitted? Often, the judgments that came down seemed to be not judgments of the action but judgments of the people, a weighing of the role and value of the attacker versus those of the victim, a determination chosen according to the message it would send rather than the actual content of the play. The system was, if not literally corrupt, so inconstant that it might as well have been.

Shanahan’s regime, young though it is, has begun not only stricter than it’s predecessors but infinitely more transparent. Campbell used to throw cliché-stuffed press releases out of his high tower; Shanahan goes on the internet with video clips of the incident and the text of the law and lays out his reasoning process for everyone to see. He starts from the express presumption that law in the NHL can be clear, comprehensible, and predictable. Forthwith, he says, the hockey world will know what kind of offenses incur what kind of punishment, and if they disagree with the ruling, at least they can’t say they didn’t know it was coming.

From his first preseason suspension, there were those who thought Shanahan too strict for the conventions of the game, which is valid discussion to have but, for the moment, moot. If Campbell was allowed to persist as long as he did with his style of rulings, then Shanahan must be allotted the same privilege: so long as he is the judge, it is his prerogative to be of the hangin’ variety.

However, what is more curious is that only weeks in, with all his laudable efforts at clarity and transparency, Shanahan already finds himself accused not only of being overly rigid, but of being arbitrary. If Smith’s head shot and MacArthur’s head shot were forbidden, why is Malone’s head shot (semi-)permitted? They are not so very different. How can such slight inclinations of angle, such fractions of intent, be the difference between playing and suspension? It is exactly these sorts of debates that the video-explanation approach hopes to avoid. Is it a bad omen for the Shanahan regime that they have already appeared, before the season is even truly begun?

Before that question can be answered, though, one must consider one of the first principles of hockey, which is that its system of justice is fundamentally different from other sports, and indeed from other areas of life. Hockey is not governed by absolutes, it’s governed by proportions. Other sports seek to prohibit certain behaviors unconditionally- do this, and you will be ejected/suspended, because we wish that no one would ever do this. They follow a strict, Judeo-Christo-Islamic sort of law. Hockey, on the other hand, operates more like karma. It defines certain actions as undesirable, but it still allows players to choose them, if they are willing to pay the proportional price. Hockey is one of the few sports the world over that has the notion of ‘the good penalty’, the hook you should hook, power play be damned. There is no expectation in hockey that a player will never, ever commit a penalty because that would be Wrong. It’s more a sense that, as much as possible, players should try to avoid committing too many penalties too often. The game doesn’t expect virtue, it just expects an average of more good than bad.

Every penalty in hockey, depending on the intensity with which it is committed, could draw punishments of varying degrees of severity. According to the rule book, the officials can dish out everything from two-minute minors to game misconducts to supplementary discipline on any violation of the rules. Theoretically, in hockey, you could get a multi-game suspension for a really hideously awful trip. But, in general, the culture of hockey errs on the side of laxity. Some of the rules on the books are extremely vague and elastic, and if called to the letter of the text would become oppressive to the flow of the game. Most open-ice hits could, technically, be considered charging. Every scrum in front of the net might generate three or four possible roughing calls. Tradition dictates that, although the referees have a high degree of latitude to call penalties according to their individual judgment, most penalties go uncalled.

So the person who finds himself in charge of hockey discipline finds himself in a very difficult position indeed. He is the final authority in a maddeningly complex system. He must balance the text of the rule book against his own individual interpretation against the interpretations of his advisors and colleagues, and these must again be considered in light of the customs and traditions of the community. At some point, one begins to understand why Colin Campbell hid behind the mystique of autocratic privilege to the degree that he did: because once one begins to debate these principles, the debate could easily never end. In fact, it never has yet.

Shanahan is trying to do something even harder by doing the job transparently. In refusing to fall back on the Wheel of Justice, he has chosen to be the guy who stands on the slippery slope. He digs in his heels at a certain point and says, this far and no farther. That point will be tested. There will be things that happen just half an inch within the bounds of acceptability, and things that happen just half an inch beyond, and people will say, How can the one be permitted and the other forbidden when there is only an inch of difference between? And sometimes, Shanahan will not be able to answer with anything more substantial than because I said so. The exact boundary point between right and wrong in hockey will always be somewhat arbitrary, there will always be an argument that you could push it just a little more one way or another. Eventually, the man in charge has to stop listening to those arguments, because it’s not his job to join the philosophical debate about hockey’s Higher Moral Values. The core of his work is not the defining of the boundary but simply the holding of it. Shanahan deserves credit for trying to do that in good faith, and so long as he continues to deal with the hockey community in the upright, downright, forthright way he has so far, he deserves some latitude on the apparent arbitrariness of the point he’s chosen to stand on. It’s not his fault. It’s the nature of hockey.


Charlie said...

You are spot on Ellen. Just because Shanahan has chosen to be transparent doesn't mean he can't be arbitrary when that is required - he is the judge and gets to make the call. But notice in the videos that Shanahan doesn't say "I decided..."; it's always "We" (the Department of Player Safety). He is trying to make the point that all decisions are arrived at, if not by consensus, then by thorough discussion.

E said...

you know, i realize i'm not actually sure how the authority structure works in these situations. i assume shanahan himself has the final word because he's the face of the process, but i wonder if consensus plays a larger role than we generally assume...