Hockey, Violence, and Sportsmanship

I don’t like hockey. That’s because, of the popular sports, it’s the only one that discourages sportsmanship.

We all know what sportsmanship is, because it’s so bound up in the culture of sports. Play fair, don’t cheat, respect your opponents, and respect the game.

Hockey doesn’t encourage this sort of virtuous behavior. Instead, it encourages its players to stop the game and punch each other in the face.

Here hockey fans typically respond that, “Fighting’s part of the game.”

If “part of the game” means only that fighting’s something common to hockey games, then fighting surely is part of hockey. But this sense of “part of the game” doesn’t lead to the conclusion that fighting ought to be encouraged or even tolerated. So something can be part of the game even if we believe that the game would be better if it weren’t. Concussions are common to football, but football would be (unquestionably) a better game without them. Personal fouls are common to basketball, but nobody thinks basketball would be worse if everyone played a clean game.

The other way of looking at “part of the game” is to claim that fighting plays a key role in what it means for a game to be hockey. Remove fighting and you’re still playing something, but not ice hockey. Clearly this is the case for a sport like boxing. But hockey games get played all the time without fighting. We don’t cheer when elementary school kids pummel each other on the ice.

I think hockey fans generally use “part of the game” to mean both “something common to” and “something essential to” the game of hockey. It’s “common to” hockey when they’re telling people like me that it shouldn’t be a knock against the virtuousness of hockey as a sport. But when they think about fighting themselves, when they talk about it with other hockey fans, when they turn on the TV hoping to see a good fight, they mean “essential to.” Hockey fans want fighting, or else the NHL would suspend players — like every other major sport does — instead of merely telling them to sit out for a couple of minutes. And it’s difficult to reconcile that with sportsmanship.

We teach our kids this important virtue. We should demand the same of our professional athletes. Every sport struggles with this, but every sport holds it up as a worthy goal.

Except hockey.