Fresh off his wildly popular analysis of the Lee Evans non-catch on Sunday, Adrian the Canadian gives us an interesting comparison of the NFL’s and NHL’s approaches to violence:
It’s no secret that the NFL is the most popular sports league in North America. It’s also no secret that for those of you south of the 49th parallel the NHL sits somewhere between UFC and NASCAR on the sports hierarchy. This strikes many people up north as somewhat of a mystery – professional hockey is a fast, physical, skilled and unpredictable game and yet remains relatively unpopular in the US. Many of my countrymen wonder why.
One reason could be that the leagues have taken very different approaches when it comes to protecting their most valuable assets. In the NFL, its quarterbacks are its biggest stars and most valuable commodity. Ownership has been quick to recognize that the more passing there is in the game, the more successful the league is. Therefore, the NFL has aggressively modified and enforced Article 13 in its rulebook to protect the quarterback when he is most vulnerable: the moment after he has released the pass. While some players and commentators have opposed this shift — see Rod Woodson’s response to the “Brady Rule” — they have had little clout in this debate.
The NHL has taken a different approach. The NHL’s most valuable assets are its skill players — Sydney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Claude Giroux, Jeff Skinner, and others. But, while the NFL rule book makes Tom Brady harder to tackle than a greased hog, the NHL’s rules offer its elite players scant protection. Indeed, many of its top players, including three of the four mentioned above, have missed significant time due to concussions. Sydney Crosby, perhaps the greatest hockey player many of us will ever see play, may never play again. Part of this is due to the NHL’s failure to punish something called “finishing the check.” This happens when an offensive player passes the puck, leaving himself vulnerable in much the same way a quarterback who has just released the pass is vulnerable, and the defensive player continues his moment and hits the offensive player. The Score, a Canadian sports network, has a nice critique of the practice. Finishing the check doesn’t just result in injuries but a tighter, more physical, less offensive game.
The practice of finishing the check stems from two interesting parts of the NHL rule book. First, as The Score article suggests, the definition of “possession of the puck” includes the player who last touched the puck. Therefore, he is not “interfered” with if he is checked immediately after passing. Perhaps even more interesting is the penalty for “boarding,” the act of checking a defenseless player into the boards. Here is the whole penalty:
41.1 Boarding – A boarding penalty shall be imposed on any player or goalkeeper who checks or pushes a defenseless opponent in such a manner that causes the opponent to hit or impact the boards violently in the boards. The severity of the penalty, based upon the impact with the boards, shall be at the discretion of the Referee.
There is an enormous amount of judgment involved in the application of this rule by the Referees. The onus is on the player applying the check to ensure his opponent is not in a defenseless position and if so, he must avoid or minimize the contact. However, in determining whether such contact could have been avoided, the circumstances of the check, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the check or whether the check was unavoidable can be considered. This balance must be considered by the Referees when applying this rule.
The NHL in this rule asks referees to perform what lawyers call a “balancing test,” asking them to assess a variety of factors including whether the hit was violent, whether the hit was unavoidable (the NFL does this too, but in a more specific way) and whether the offensive player was partially at fault (!). Consider that for a moment: skilled offensive players, in their most vulnerable state, may sometimes be at fault when they are hit late! No wonder scoring is down and big, lumbering goons jam up the ice. While the NFL places the onus of avoiding the illegal hit solely on the defensive player, the NHL splits the burden. We know that the NHL does not have to do this. Rules are made by leagues and players have to follow those rules whether they like it or not (as we’ve seen, many players and coaches don’t like the NFL rules protecting the quarterback). So why would the league do something like this?
Let’s step back and think about traffic. Yes, traffic. Imagine you’re coming up to a busy traffic circle, what do you do? You sit and wait for a gap in traffic because the cars already in the circle have the right of way, right? But what if you’re in Paris, driving up the Champs-Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe? Well, the traffic coming into the circle has the right of way! Insane right? The French system slows traffic and the whole point of our traffic laws is to make traffic flow smoothly! If we go back even further, the right of way used to go to those who had a higher social rank. Instead of trying to facilitate the movement of people through the city, the purpose of traffic rules was to quickly get the aristocracy to their destination and, just maybe, to reinforce their privileged place in society.
So, when evaluating rules we have to think about what the purposes of the rules are. In the case above, if we think about the French system where oncoming traffic has to stop for every minor duke, in terms of helping traffic flow, we’re going to grade it poorly. But the system is, strangely, a success based on the idea that the point of traffic is to make minor dukes happy. When we think about why the NFL protects its vulnerable players and the NHL doesn’t, we should keep this example in mind and ask: what is the purpose of the rules the league makes?
It seems to me that there are two possible purposes for these rules. The first, the view the NFL takes, is “teleological” – football has a purpose and that purpose is based on some end. For the NFL, that end is selling tickets and television contracts and the means to that end is the entertainment of football fans. Thus, the NFL doesn’t concern itself much with the “integrity” of football; it is concerned with the things that make the game more entertaining and marketable. Football is simply the way the NFL makes money, not the end in and of itself.
The second view believes that there is a “natural” or “deontological” way sports like hockey and football should work. People who ascribe to this view think that each game has some intrinsic quality that rules should encourage. They tend to view sports as a blast furnace designed for players to test their metal and are unconcerned with the ultimate ends that result from these rules — fans and revenues be damned! Commentators, such as the world’s angriest dandy Don Cherry, Mike Milbury, many in the NHL’s front office, and even the article I linked above are concerned about preserving the NHL’s physicality as it is, even though it stifles fast, skilled play. When people suggest otherwise and argue that the NHL should develop a product that fans want to watch, they are called “namby-pambies” and “soccer moms.”
In settling who is right, we should think about fans as the lowly French proletariat, trying to get to the boulangerie before closing, held up in traffic because the duke wants to go for an afternoon carriage ride. The system may function well for the duke, much like the NHL’s system functions for the members of the hockey establishment that believe that the game should exist so that hard men can smash into each other on skates. The NFL disagrees with this viewpoint — it sees no utility in a game that no one wants to watch. So consider this my plea to the NHL: don’t let your game whither because some think that encouraging the type of play that fans want to watch is “baby proofing” the league. It’s not. It’s helping a potentially great game become a great game. And it will make most of us watch a heck of a lot more hockey.