Tuesday, August 11, 2009

On Personal Lives

Precipitating incident: Two days ago, Patrick Kane, 20 years old, star of the Chicago Blackhawks, pride of Buffalo, by all accounts professional, polished, and preternaturally career savvy, beat up a cab driver over twenty cents.

The summer that Michael Vick was caught killing dogs for entertainment, perhaps the most sensational sports scandal in recent memory, the Staal brothers were arrested. The details remain, to me, vague, but the outline is thus: the boys went to a resort in Minnesota, got so ragingly drunk that they were thrown out of said resort, after which they went down to the local highway to, as per police reports, ‘harass motorists’, which eventually got them charged with underage drinking and disturbing the peace. Cue mugshots, brief scandal.

Hockey fans don’t have many opportunities to be morally self-righteous about their sport, when comparing notes with fans of other games. So when we get them, we take them; and in the contemporary era, there is no shared aspect of professional sports in which hockey fans can be more self-righteous than that of players’ personal lives. More than one hockey commentator got a column or a blog post that summer out of the hilarious contrast between what constitutes bad behavior in the NFL vs. the NHL. NFL: puppy murder for profit. NHL: getting drunk and spitting on cars.

It’s so commonly asserted as to be cliché: hockey players are good guys. Good to a fault, good to the point of blandness. In a world where the stereotype of a professional athlete off the field or court is defined by excess- swagger, machismo, ostentation, snobbery, egotism- the image of the hockey player remains so pure it might come out of a 1950s Boy Scout magazine feature. He’s polite, modest, stoic, perhaps not too bright, more than a little naïve. Reserved. Dull. In the imagination of fans and non-fans alike, in spite of hockey’s increasingly multinational character, in spite of being a multibillion dollar business, the classic hockey player remains a small-town Canadian boy, an upright downright forthright square too awed by the bright lights of the big time to do anything intentionally immoral. He may, like an aspiring starlet in Hollywood, get sucked into illicit activities, but only by his desire to succeed and anxiousness to please. Due exactly to his very innocence.

Yet they get sucked in a lot, they always have. Every NHL season brings maybe three or four cases of confirmed (i.e. arrested, photographed) malfeasance; usually drugs or DUIs, theft or assault, or general disturbance of the peace. The rumors are a legion beyond, of addictions and abuses we are grateful not to know certainly. The media-silencing fear of lawsuits protects the players, in the absence of conclusive proof or a chargeable criminal offense, but it also protects the fans from having to face most of the ugliness. Most of us don’t have proof that so-and-so is a cokehead or that dude beats his wife or that such guy dopes or such other guy is a rapist, but we know full well that some of them have done such things. But until there’s an indictment, we can choose not to believe it.

The public reaction to these scandals, when they finally become undeniable, is divided against itself. On the one hand, no matter how many times roughly the same situation has come up, most people put a slight show of disapproval. Like the five stages of grieving, there are five stages of reaction to a personal life scandal in hockey… shock, outrage, activism, cynicism, willful ignorance. First, we pretend we’ve never imagined that a professional athlete might be capable of such idiocy/cruelty/weakness. This is generally followed by a period of handwringing over the honor of the team/shattered innocence of the children. Following close after that comes the flotilla of prescriptive articles, speaking of the degenerate culture of the sport and proposing preventative measures against the game’s further humiliation. This instantly provokes an army of counter-articles that resurrect, from the archives, all the times such a thing has happened before, reminding us of all the great athletes who’ve done horrible things. And there, it stops. We shrug and move onto the next story, and go back to our hero-worshipping ways, to those old comfy tropes about the sweet, salt-of-the-earth boys who play our game, having done our moral duty to censure wickedness without, in the end, actually doing anything.

Where, exactly, did we ever get the idea that athletes are particularly good people? For years, as a sports-hater, I could laugh at the way sports fans love players. There may indeed by many good things about athletic culture- gym teachers and athletic people I’ve known have rhapsodized to me about them. Training regimens teach self-discipline, teamwork teaches collaborative spirit and camaraderie, losing teaches psychological resilience, and generally all sports reward passion, commitment, and hard work. Doubtless there are a lot of things about any athletic endeavor that can improve a person, that’s why so many people are so idealistic about the value of sports for young children.

But it’s also easy to see that sports can also encourage many less desirable personality traits. Their hierarchical nature can foster arrogance, a sense of entitlement and superiority. Aggression cultivated on the court/field/ice can spill over into real life. Throw in the money and celebrity of professional-level sports, and these tendencies can rapidly escalate to pathological levels. Even if many athletes are basically good, responsible people who have learned ‘the right things’ from their sport, there are and always have been those who learn only the vaguely Objectivist doctrine that winning is everything and the powerful have the right to take whatsoever they can.

How many guys are there in the NHL? 23 players per roster times 30 teams, that’s a minimum of 690 guys, not even counting call-ups. Take any group of 690 guys, hell, forget the gender, 690 human beings, and you’re going to get a wide variety of depraved and disturbed individuals in the mix. Some will be bad in harmless, forgivable ways, some in disgusting and dangerous ways. Sure, professional hockey selects for some traits at a higher rate than in the general population, but personal virtue isn't one of them. They're mostly things like physical strength and competitive spirit, which are mostly the same traits favored by any serious sport, and do any of us who survived high school really believe that being muscular and competitive necessarily makes for a refined and developed moral sensibility? Because back then, if you were athletic, you thought teams were fantastic, but if you weren’t athletic, you know that a sports team in its off-hours can develop a predatory quality, and the better the team, the more predatory. They’re a pack, essentially, with a defined membership and their own internal status markers, and their actions- when together and sometimes when separate- are defined more by the values of the pack than by those of larger society. In order to gain status with each other or strengthen their own bonds, or just because they can, they’ll do anything to you so long as it seems necessary to them, and depending on the situation that might mean befriend you, fuck you, or beat you viciously. But they’re going to behave according to the pack’s logic and their own urges, which may or may not line up with the rules of polite society.



“They’ve brought back Bobby Hull.”

Dinner is finished, the plates are cleared, and over the crumb-strewn tablecloth we are talking hockey. My family hasn’t talked hockey in thirty years or more. It’s spring in Chicago, a year ago, before a big playoff run was imaginable, and earlier that day my father saw children playing inline hockey in the street, two of them in Hawks jerseys- Kane and some other. He hasn’t seen road hockey in God-knows-how-long, but things are different these days. People are talking about it, all over the place.

Dad mentions the overtures Rocky Wirtz is making to ex-Hawks stars, and my uncle says, “They’ve brought back Bobby Hull.” He says it disapprovingly, almost angrily.

“Mikita too,” Dad says.

“Mikita,” Uncle interjects, “was a good guy. I used to see him at Jim’s Butterhill Grill. He was a regular. He used to go behind the counter and pour his own coffee. Sometimes he’d pour for the other customers too. Nice guy, no one ever bothered him.”

“What’s wrong with Bobby Hull?” I ask, hesitant. I don’t really want to know the answer.

“He was a wife-beater. Beat his wife with a shoe or something, I don’t remember exactly.”

“Yeah,” Dad says, “but he was the biggest star of his time.”

“And he was a terrible person. You ever listen to [sports radio call-in show]? Guy on there’s got stories about Bobby Hull. Sometimes he tells them, and people call in to add their own. It’s all ‘Bobby Hull insulted my kid, Bobby Hull stole my pen, Bobby Hull pushed me down.’ I’ve never once heard anyone with a single good story about Bobby Hull.” Uncle shakes his head, jaw tense.

My uncle is not a hockey fan, so to him, the fact that Bobby Hull was an asshole is extremely relevant to the credibility of the Blackhawks as a franchise. I am a hockey fan, so ultimately I don’t give a fuck whether Bobby Hull feasted on live, squirming baby bunnies every morning. But still, somehow, these things are acutely painful to hear.

Hockey players aren’t necessarily more moral in their personal lives than players in other sports, but they are among the few players of team sports who are habitually more moral personally than they are professionally. The bad things that we hear players might be doing off the ice pale in comparison to some of the bad things we’ve all seen done on the ice, right in front of us, as ‘part of the game’. Hockey has the same problem as boxing- like boxing fans, we need to be reassured that our players are not doing what they do because they are psychopaths who like to inflict pain or masochists who enjoy receiving it. We do not want our sport laced with creepy psychosexual implications. Mike Tyson did more than anyone else to hurt the credibility of boxing as a sport by stripping away people’s ability to watch the sport as entertainment, suspended reality. When disturbing revelations came out about his personal life, it made it obvious to everyone that what one was really watching when he boxed was a criminally insane individual exercising his violent impulses. How the fuck do you sanction that? How do you watch that and feel good about yourself in the morning? No, in order to feel good about themselves, boxing fans need George Foreman, eccentric but loveable, with his big family and his useful cooking products, a guy who assures you that yeah, what you see in the ring is all an act. And so do hockey fans need their archetypal good-hearted Canadian small-town boy.

I cannot explain this to my relatives. I try. I mention the inherent, impersonal violence of the game, the run of dark blood from a broken nose, Richard Zednik’s spraying carotid. And I try to explain the fighting, and the Bertuzzi incident, and Chris Simon. And Chris Pronger. But it all comes out in a jumble, a mess of half-coherent rationalizations and background stories, and my father and my uncle and even my largely indifferent aunt look at me with a perfectly understandable blend of confusion and skepticism. The ethical arabesques of hockey discourse are indeed bizarre.

So I fall silent. I simply cannot explain it to them, why it’s so easy for the hockey world to avert it’s eyes from Bobby Hull’s domestic violence, the same way we avert our eyes from the drunk driving incidents, the bar fights, the drug use. The way we shrug and laugh off as much as we can, and wrap the rest in the soothing cocoon of youthful hijinks and boys-with-be-boys and well-what-else-are-you-going-to-do-in-winter-in-Medicine-Hat.

It’s because all of that pales in comparison to the things we really see, because our ethical dilemmas are not about what people might be doing in locker rooms and hotel rooms and basements, but right out there in front of us. We see the worst of our boys every night, the consequences of lost tempers and surging adrenaline and no time to think. And as much as we might hate to admit it to ourselves, once you’ve averted your eyes from or rationalized away enough sucker punches, sticks-to-the-head, the thousand little crippling or potentially crippling moves you’ve seen your guy try either deliberately or inadvertently, it’s downright easy to avert your eyes from some nebulous act of violence or decadence that he might have done somewhere out of sight. If you’ve seen him beat up enough guys on the ice, and defended it, how outraged are you really going to get if he beats up a guy in a cab- or, in the case of the only NHL player from my own personal hometown, a girl in a bar? In fact, if you read hockey fan responses to the Kane arrest, you see not a few fans apply on-ice ethical logic to this off-ice incident: the cab driver apparently trash-talked Kane, swore at him, ran his mouth. In hockey, we’re trained to recognize that as a pummeling-worthy offense. In real life, it isn’t, but you can see how we got to think that way. We’ve deliberately ignored or rationalized brutality to make heroes since the earliest days of the sport. It’s in our nature. It's not always a bad thing, to have thick skin and heavy skepticism, but sometimes it makes us stupid.


Few people live truly good lives. Goodness is often as ordinary as it is difficult, and those who manage it rarely have the ambition or arrogance required to attain social prominence or do great things. Even Gandhi, so widely idolized as an emblem of virtue, was also a tough, savvy politician who made more than his share of poor and even dangerous decisions. And though children might imagine athletes as perfect people, most adults know full well that sports heroes are flawed human beings whose lives are littered with troubles and predilections that make them poor role models, addictions and abuses as outsized as the figures themselves. In fact, to earn the veneration of adult fans, it’s generally good for an athlete to have a few bad-boy stories behind him: a couple of bizarre drunken pranks and a long line of hot, wounded puckbunnies in the background only adds to the mystique and the fantasy of the pro-sports life. I do not think that the outrage at misconduct in athletes’ personal lives is really based on shattered ideals. I do not believe that we are disturbed by these scandals because they destroy a previously pure belief that a man who can make a great play is necessarily also a great human being. Rather I think it’s because it exposes the poor foundations of our affection for them. Heroism is usually not a thorough lifelong quality, it’s generally something found in singular moments. But outside of athletics, those singular moments are usually life-and-death situations. War makes heroes. Floods and earthquakes make heroes. Although the elements of what an athlete does in a great moment may be similar- amazing physical acts, quick thinking, occasionally even self-sacrifice- the causes are simply not comparable. The fact that we sometimes think they are heroes, that we will occasionally feel that an unlikely goal in overtime is an act somehow describable in the same language as the rescue of a child from a burning building, is bizarre and a little revolting in itself. We talk about athletics with the ambitious metaphors of war and crisis, but in fact these contests are a staged and carefully regulated form of entertainment, and in the end athletes are performers more than anything else. So when we are reminded, by their personal lives, that they are no better in most ways than ordinary people, it forces a momentary recognition of cognitive dissonance. This is the dude whose name I wear around on my T-shirt? The guy I waited in line forty-five minutes to get a signature from? Who I once, in a fit of shootout-induced-ecstasy, swore to name my first born after? This addict/drunk/thug/thief/wife-beater/general-purpose-asshole? You realize, for a moment, that the game has made a fool of you.


Everything is forgotten and, sometime later, forgiven. It has to be. That’s what keeps the wheels turning, the Leagues functioning, the money flowing: short memories and soft hearts. We let it go, the crimes and misdemeanors, the legions of on-and-off-ice fuck-ups and disasters, because the price of memory would be too high. It would force difficult questions about the role of sports in society, the privileges of fame, and whether it’s such a good idea to let certain kinds of boys be certain kinds of boys with impunity. Confront such questions and you might be forced to renounce the spectacle, and after that the passion, and after that the myths. To the non-fans- to the gossips, the moralists, and the legal system- that’s no great sacrifice, but for fans… it’s not worth it, and it probably never will be. Although they may have to weather short-term embarrassments and an outraged editorial or two, hockey players have little to fear from the exposure of their personal misdeeds to public eyes, for the very profession that exposes them also protects them from devastating repercussions. Redemption, of a kind, is only as far away as the next game night.


V said...

Confront such questions and you might be forced to renounce the spectacle, and after that the passion, and after that the myths.

Exactly. In this day and age, fans need to let go of the myths. Once they let go of the myths, they can enjoy the spectacle and keep their passion.

Fans need to identify their principles, and not compomise on them.

My blood boiled during a Phoenix game for a cheap hit on Andrei Kostitsyn. That moment was one of the few times that I compromised on my stance of violence in the game. Of course, when I cooled down, I was of the opinion again that rules/systems of play need to be fixed in the NHL, and pointless violence doesn't resolve anything. And I'm happy to say that I feel as critical of Montreal players for dangerous stunts as other teams' players.

I enjoy the speed and grace of the game, but not the violence. Some of it is unavoidable, much of it is gratuitous. And I know that I don't want my kids of the professional hockey players.

Fans also need to be craftier, wiser, more aware of marketing tactics, subtle advertising, and need to actively analyse and choose what they support. (I'm not advocating bandwagon jumping - that's entirely another issue.)

I don't know if you watched many Canadiens games last year, but at some point, the incessant marketing of the team product really got on my nerves, and it may have affected team members as well. At first, I was happy for Centennial celebrations, even happy for the various retro sweaters as a symbol of the teams history. But it became apparent that the marketing was more important than the team's on-ice product, and and that part of the reason for the hype was to raise the team's sale value. Fair enough, but to me as a fan, the on-ice product (team play) is the most important thing, and I swore off elements of the Canadiens as the season progressed.

Great post.

BReynolds said...

Awesome post. Simply awesome.

Anonymous said...

I was forwarded your article by a friend and thoroughly enjoyed it. One aspect though of hockey that the other major sports don't have is the cost of entry. It does change the dynamic as it isn't something that you can go pick up a ball and play. Even at the lowest end a kid with a stick and a pair of skates can go down to a neighbourhood rink but doesn't have the exposure to the training required to reach a professional level.

As a hockey Dad now and a kid who grew up playing the difference is the sacrifice the families make for their child to participate and the time invested into the child around the sport. This year my older 2 children are playing, league fees will be $2400.00 here in Houston plus any equipment costs, gas, travel, hotels, tournaments. Hockey parents sacrifice for their kids to participate in the sport and the kids see this. We also get to spend time with our child going to and from the game. In my case in Houston this is between a 30 minute drive and an hour each way. It gives us time to talk, reflect on the game and life.

I feel that it brings in the majority of cases a different cultural dynamic, unfortunately in a low income environment children are exposed to other influences and challenges. Those that play hockey and grew up in a low income environment can appreciate their parents sacrifice more, if you look at Tim Thomas this year's vezina winner. His parents sold their wedding rings for him to play in a tournament.

Now hockey players are definitely not saints but there is something about them that other sports don't have. We do have issues with drinking, womanizing, drug abuse is there but there is something to us that is missing in other sports. I think it's a sense of mutual respect, for ourselves, the game and our families. Not everyone feels this way but that's also why guys like Avery, Heatley, Bertuzzi and Danton are considered such a disgrace.

Growing up in Calgary you heard all the rumours, that Vernon was at rehab not really injured. Fuhr's coke issue was started by the Moose, Suter was traded because someone was messing with someone's wife, Pronger and the weather girl. These are handled somewhat delicately in kind of an old boys club fashion because that is what it is.

A Concerned Citizen said...

You never flashed back forward ;-)

E said...

v: the inevitable problem with the centennial was that the canadiens do have a long and remarkable history, and it is customary in most western societies to honor round-number anniversaries and birthdays with disproportionate celebrations. it more or less had to be commemorated; we're not the kind of culture that can bypass a centennial. but the big year is in all other regards just a year, like any other. it would have insane luck for the stars to align in such a way that the year-in-reality corresponded with the year-as-symbol. but yes, another of those moments where you realize the absurd contradictions between the strength of the feeling and the unworthiness of its object.

buddha- xie xie ni!

anon.- honestly, i don't know if there's anyone out there with a deep enough experience of various sports cultures to compare at the level you're talking about. deep down, underneath the more superficial levels of bad behavior, there may very well be some profound and unique moral quality to hockey players. but for all i know, way deep down, there's something like that to football players too. i think the thing is that the respect you speak of, for the game and the sacrifices that brings one to it, is still being held in the tenuous grasp of youngish guys with wealth and a fairly hefty get-out-of-jail-free card. how much bearing does it have on their quotidian behavior, compared to the more immediate stimuli that seem to provoke antisocial behavior?

1993- i prefer to live in the past, thank you.