I may know less about hockey than any hockey fan on the planet. Or maybe not. I know so little, I can’t tell. But sometimes I hear people talking about things that I don’t understand and instead of ignoring it, I open my mouth and chime in. So the musings that follow are just that: reactions to a bunch of stuff I found online, read willy-nilly, without keeping track of what I read or where I found it.
I found a lot of chatter about new rules in the NHL. One in particular addresses intentional, blind side head shots. Obviously, this should be a matter of genuine concern for all fans of the game, as it seems to be for the players. It follows then, that creating a special penalty for hitting someone in the head would stir up a lot of debate. And there are a lot of ideas about how to make a better rule, or why not, and a few discussions of why this is important now when it wasn’t important before… I don’t get that last one at all. Some say it is because only recently we have discovered that blows to the head cause brain damage. Um… I am pretty sure that from the first time someone was kicked in the head by a mule, folks were able to put 2 and 2 together to make, well, “bad”. So, again, why now?
One argument I have seen a bit of: “Why should the NHL need a special rule when dirty hits are already penalized? The fans can tell it’s dirty, why can’t the officials?” Aren’t dirty head shots already against the rules? Could some other rule simply be modified to do the same thing as a special rule against hitting someone in the head? Probably, but making a special rule works better for publicity and also for drawing everyone’s attention to it. New rules get noticed, well, sometimes. Rule modifications, not so much.
“It is too difficult to avoid hitting someone in the head”
Another problem I have seen mentioned: it is too difficult to avoid hitting someone in the head because players are not all the same size. Some heads are harder to miss than others, even if everyone is following the rules. Hm, it sounds like the rule would give an unfair advantage to teams with a lot of short players, if you take being hit in the head to be an advantage. But hey, there are not enough professional sports that reward shortness. So on a fairness scale, it balances out.
Also, some argue, it is too difficult period to avoid hitting someone in the head. It is my understanding that professional athletes and other physical performers (dancers, gymnasts, circus acrobats) are expected to be better than average at directing the movements of their limbs. Many other sports have developed ways of “stopping without maiming” participants. Steer-wrestlers, for example, stop a cow, pull it off its feet by the head, and, usually, don’t break its neck. Those steers are every bit as determined as any hockey player to not be stopped, and keeping them safe is not something many people worry about. Still, maiming the cow is considered, at the very least, bad form. Now, cattle are a lot tougher than people, and I would not suggest that a player in pursuit should attempt to flip his target end over end. The point is this: it is perfectly possible to stop someone’s progress while trying not to hurt them.
Additionally, the rule may well be a bad idea because is too difficult to avoid hitting someone in the head. Turn it around: it is too easy to let someone hit you in the head. Sure, a person would have to be pretty much suicidal to tip his head into an oncoming train. Suicidal, or, well, misguided. But since I believe in all sincerity that a rule to protect people from brain and neck injury is a good idea, I guess the only thing to say about this concern is: “don’t do that!” Or require anyone who gets hit in the head to immediately go get an MRI. That would protect them and also encourage the misguided to avoid being hit in the head.
Ban more, not less
Some argue you should ban all blind side hits. I must be misunderstanding this idea. Would a player have to give some sort of verbal cue to make his intentions known, or would a tap on the shoulder be good enough? In principle, it sounds good, but it also seems impractical, even if you are not trying to retain the NHL’s high-impact signature. For example, I couldn’t find a good enough definition of “blind side” online. There is something about not hitting a player when he is “vulnerable” in the blurbs I’ve seen on tv, but that hardly provides the kind of concrete definition officials need to make consistent calls. If I take “blind side” to mean “out of your field of vision,” a ban would almost have to lead to a no contact game. All a player has to do, to avoid being hit, is make sure he can’t see anyone. I wouldn’t blame him. While the possibility of a new, balletic variety of hockey is intriguing, I don’t think the NHL or its audience is ready for that. Still, it might be cool. Players could have blind side enhancing helmets, that could look something like this. Those would also work for players who don’t like mouth guards.
One of the better ideas I found repeated in many places is to ban all head shots. Sure, some players will unintentionally hit someone in the head, but probably they won’t do it as much as someone who is doing it intentionally. Where “intentional” and “blind side” are subjective, contact with the head is much easier to identify and avoid. It isn’t as if no one has tried it. It has been pretty well-tested outside the NHL. And hockey players all over the world still hit each other, hard.
There are subtler, darker reasons why interested parties, other than the players, would want a rule like this in the NHL. But however such a rule serves the legal and publicity interests of some, the end result is something that might protect the players from debilitating and permanent injury. In that light, I am surprised that anyone would begrudge them a rule, even if it seems redundant, difficult to enforce, or subject to potential abuse. Perhaps the rule does not go far enough, falls short of protecting anyone. Sometimes you should take what you can get. It might help.
This fish has been out too long
So, why is this coming up now? Intentional, blind side head shots. So specific, so narrow. Suddenly this rule does seem a lot subtler and darker to me, even sinister. Maybe I am paranoid and cynical about the law and everyone’s motives. But to me it looks like any rule that fails to actually protect the players from all head shots, and for that matter dirty shots, doesn’t protect them at all. It only protects people who profit from the player’s performance. If you don’t have a rule that says “causing brain damage is not something we approve of,” isn’t it sort of open season on you for liability suits? Sure, there have been lots of suits that hashed over such questions. But something happens when the public takes an interest: so do lawyers. Lawyers like a good cause, a fallen hero abused by the people he thought he could trust. And when that happens, precedent can go right out the window. From the volume of this debate, the public does seem to be taking notice.
The irony is that, even if you have a really dark view of the people who make money on professional hockey, it doesn’t make any sense to have such a narrow rule as a ban on intentional, blind side head shots. Such a rule doesn’t even do a very good job of defending against law suits. Because now you have singled out one kind of head shot and said that one is really very bad, it needs its own rule. You are almost saying that other head shots are less bad, which does not quite give players permission to use them, but almost. It would be much safer to ban all head shots, just in case someone gets badly injured by something that is not an intentional blind side. Oh, wait, that already happened.
Why now? I have an image of a football in the ice rink. Right, I remember seeing something about the NFL, players and/or lawyers making sounds about head injuries… which is just the sort of thing to feed paranoia and cynicism.
Obviously, the rules and the law distinguish between accidents and dirty hits. And so they should, and so should everyone. But we need to make that distinction count for more than a liability shield.
I came across a number of player comments on the subject. They mostly agreed that it would be just fine to stop hurting each other badly. Maybe there were some hold-outs. Rather, it is the other part of hockey “culture”, the fans, the management, and the ownership who disagree on how much restraint they can expect or want from their players. So, maybe it is those non-participants who need to be reassured that the game can still be very fast and rough and testosterone rich, even if players stop hitting each other in the head.
So here goes. In martial arts, the ability to disable without killing shows more skill than the ability to kill. Anyone can hit someone with a sledge hammer. But stop them hard and fast while not maiming them? That seems like a good and worthy goal, and nothing like ballet. A good clean body check makes a fine loud noise, and looks pretty painful too. I don’t think the audience or anyone else would miss blows to the head at all.
People talk about a radical rewriting of the hockey culture, how only that will make players stop trying to kill each other. Really? Is it really that radical? Not long ago people said you can’t make hockey players wear real helmets. While those helmets no doubt enlarge a player’s blind side, they are worn anyway. Players practice, right? Are they able to not kill their team mates during practice? Or maybe they only practice gentle, careful hits. I’m sure they do use more care in practice than the real deal. So maybe allow them, or encourage them, to refocus that practice.
Even if it takes a while to master the new, more restricted hit, I would bet that the mere attempt to stop hitting people in the head would result in an immediate reduction in head injuries. I wonder if anyone would be willing to do that experiment. More important, I wonder if anyone would be willing to create a rule that requires teams to sign up for it. A rule that is clean and simple and isn’t all cluttered with vagaries like blind side and intentional or vulnerable… simple, like “don’t hit people in the head.” Anything short of that is like saying “we need to put a rule out there so the players and their families can’t sue us, but really we don’t want to lose the risk factor that makes so much money for us.”
Enforcement must be swift, radical, undeniable, even if it costs someone a lot of money because they lose a few players to crazy, unheard of long suspensions, fines that make make them sweat, and banishment. Better to make examples of them than to have more examples of what brain trauma looks like. On a more Draconian note, such losses could probably be dwarfed by the kind of loss a few successful liability suits would result in.
In the mean time, it may be that no one can protect players but players, and I don’t mean with fist fights. Even players who really hate each other might find common ground in the possibility that someone is trying to bash their brains in, make a profit on it, and not share. I have faith that even under such constraints, these players can still play a good game and put on quite a show. That could help, at least until a good, unambiguous rule comes along.
Maybe some players are okay with the idea that someone wants them to risk being disabled. But when someone tells you they are trying to protect you and your loved ones from a horrible injury, and then they set you up for one anyway… isn’t that dirty? Isn’t that just another blind side hit?