Saturday, November 11, 2006

On Ethics

One of the problems in hockey has to do with the number and severity of injuries. This is not my problem per se, in fact, I didn’t even realize this situation was problematic independently. Indeed, I couldn’t have, because the problem is in part defined by a comparison of play this year and last year vs. play in earlier eras, which is a topic I know nothing about. In other words, this is a ‘New NHL’ kind of debate, and I’m still not even clear on what the New NHL is. Or more accurately, I’m not clear on what the Old NHL was.

Anyway, the problem as I hear it expressed is that people see a general trend towards unacceptably serious injuries occurring more and more often. One commentator- I don’t know their names so we’ll just think of him as ‘Bob’- after the whole Torres-Williams incident said that there have been 5 or 6 similar cases (meaning, I assume, serious concussions) thus far in this season, which is evidently much higher than Bob would have expected, and therefore cause for concern.

Most of the proposed solutions have to do with changing the rules, either by further restricting what kind of hits qualify as legal, or by changing the equipment (primarily shoulder pads, as I understand it) such that collisions would be less potentially coma-inducing. A lot of hockey fans seem to not like this, and grumble that these kinds of changes will suck all the excitement out of the game and turn hockey into a glorified version of ice dancing. As much as I’m disturbed by the number of fans who openly admit that their enjoyment of hockey is based on its pain and blood aspects, I do have a lot of sympathy for the argument that some of the suggested rule changes will take too much out of the game. Hockey will never be without violence, because a bunch of large objects moving over ice at high speed are going to run into each other sooner or later, but the thing is that the deliberate violence is not only part of the strategy of the game, but also part of the beauty of it.

Moreover, I’m suspicious of the idea that rule changes are the solution to every problem. Hockey fans and analysts are too quick to link the rule book with moral principles. I said this before, but it bears repeating: The point of the rules is not to define what is morally acceptable. It’s just like laws in real life. Not everything that is wrong is illegal, and not everything that is illegal is wrong. Lying is generally agreed to be ‘wrong’, but you can lie to everybody about everything throughout most of your life and never come within spitting distance of violating any law. Moreover, there’s nothing immoral about jaywalking, but the law can still punish you for doing it.

I hate to say it, but the one thing that hockey as a sport seems to be missing is a sense of responsibility, or to put it another way, ethical principles. And I’m not specifically talking about players here, but the entire complex of people involved with the game on all levels. No one seems willing to acknowledge that there is an entire category of things that are not explicitly prohibited by the rules, but which one nevertheless still shouldn’t do. We all rush to defend obviously nasty plays when they benefit our team, because they didn’t break any rules.

Why are we so anti-ethics? Why can’t we say: sure, it would be legal to smash that dude in the face as hard as you possibly can, but you still shouldn’t do it, and if you do, and especially if you make a habit of it, you are an asshole who doesn’t deserve to be playing this game. And of course, player in question can still keep playing and smashing as long as he possibly can, meaning until everybody gets sick of him and someone bigger and smash-ier decides to try an old-testament sort of solution. But the point being, if we (meaning, again, everybody) actually took the idea that head checks are a bad thing seriously, there would be significantly less incentive for people to do it. Ugly, vicious, brutal play happens because it is tolerated and even encouraged. We act as though legendarily thuggish players can’t possibly be expected to exercise self-restraint on their own, like they’re just ids on skates, and the only way to possibly control such behavior is by making a rule about it. Well, obviously it is indeed possible to exercise self-restraint, because most players do. Perhaps I’m naïve, but it looks to me like most hockey players- even big, aggressive ones- are capable of habitually checking in a fashion that doesn’t cripple the victim.

“Yes, E,” you say, “But these cripplings are not intentional. Torres doesn’t want to hurt anybody. He said it himself. It’s just because the game is so fast now, and they have to play aggressively, and they’re so big, and their shoulder pads are so hard. This game moves too fast and hard for players to be thinking about restraint and ethics on the ice.” Good point, hypothetical you. But I’m not talking about ethics in the Enlightenment sense of a system of principles in the mind that one rationally applies to life after a thoughtful analysis of the specifics of a given situation. Let’s for a moment run with the whole (Aristotle/Foucault) suggestion that ethics are not ideals, but practices which are formative of character. In other words, one does not choose one’s ethics as rational principles which one then applies to actions, but rather one learns that certain actions are ethical and others are not, and by consistently disciplining oneself to perform ethical actions, one eventually develops an inner character which makes these actions natural to the self. In other words, one eventually learns everything- including virtue- by doing, not intending.

This idea, that the actions we take are not the result of the inner self, but actually the thing which forms the inner self, is entirely natural for hockey. It’s a physical game, and the entire practice of it is based on structures of discipline and training of the body to behave in particular ways without intervening thought. You don’t develop any of the skills necessary to hockey by sitting around thinking about them, but rather by doing them over and over and over again until, ideally, they become part of your nature. Basically, what I’m saying is that in the case of hockey players, we’re dealing with people who already pass their existences- many of them since nearly infancy it seems- under one of the strictest regimes of physical discipline and conditioning in society. So if unacceptably violent behavior (for example, head checks) is a problem, it’s not because these guys are somehow incapable of regulating their play, but because the system of ethical discipline they’ve been trained in either encourages or allows for such behavior. Most players develop an additional ethical disposition to control their violence in particular ways, but some don’t, and that is not considered a deficiency of their game. Maybe it should be.

If the incidence of severe injuries from ‘clean’ checks (as opposed to completely accidental collisions) is escalating dramatically, it’s because some persons in the hockey world want these kinds of injuries to happen- and I doubt that these persons are primarily the actual players. My guess is, with the culture of hockey being as it is now, even a rule penalizing head checks wouldn’t solve the problem. There’d be more penalties, but not necessarily fewer concussions.

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