Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Fighting in lacrosse

By Graeme Perrow

I don't like fighting in lacrosse. There, I said it. They say that admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery, though I really don't consider this a problem. (Yeah, I know. Denial.) Let me clarify my position here. I do not think fighting should be banned from the game entirely, i.e. one fight and you're out for the season, or anything like that. I think the current penalties are fine, though I wouldn't be opposed to an automatic game misconduct for a fight. I absolutely do not want to take the roughness away from the game. I simply don't like fighting. I think it's rarely necessary, and despite being "part of the game", I think the game would get along just fine if it were removed entirely.

I know that this is not a popular opinion. Whenever I'm at a Rock game and a fight breaks out, the crowd instantly stands to get a better view, and the cheering volume reaches levels not usually reached outside of overtime. I generally don't stand up, but I know I'm in the minority.

Note that a number of places in this article talk about hockey rather than lacrosse because there is a lot more talk about hockey than lacrosse out there, and the fighting pros and cons are very similar.

OK, fighting enthusiasts, start up your pro-fighting excuse machine – here, let me help you by listing the most often-heard ones:

This is lacrosse, not ballet dancing. It's a rough game, suck it up.

I know that lacrosse is a rough game – that's one of the things I love about it. I talk to a lot of people who know nothing about lacrosse and think it's basically people who hit each other with sticks, and occasionally toss a ball around if it happens to come near them. I try to convince people unfamiliar with the game that it's a rough game but not a violent one, certainly no more violent than hockey. And what happens to bring lacrosse to the forefront of the local sportscast? An amazing behind the back pass from Tracey Kelusky to Chad Culp who dives across the crease and scores a beautiful goal? No, a bench clearing brawl between Toronto and Buffalo in a meaningless game. (You want to know how much I don't like fighting in lacrosse? The video of this brawl is all over Youtube and features my favourite team but I have never watched it.) Just about the only time the NLL makes it onto SportsCentre is when there's a huge fight. Thanks for supporting my claim, guys. Now I'm a liar, and the unfair reputation of lacrosse players as thugs in uniforms is cemented in more and more people's minds.

And no, it's not ballet dancing. But that doesn't mean it needs to be the WWE either.

Lacrosse players are passionate and sometimes that passion for the game spills over and things get rough.

Hogwash. Not that lacrosse players aren't passionate about the game, absolutely they are. But where is it written that passionate people cannot control their emotions? Seems to me that football players are pretty passionate about their game, and football is a far rougher sport than lacrosse or hockey. (Note to international readers that I'm talking about American/Canadian football here, not what we would call soccer. In soccer, the players don't fight, the fans do.) In fact, one could argue that football is the most violent team sport there is – almost every play ends up with numerous people being tackled and thrown to the ground - but you rarely see fights in football games. In the Super Bowl a couple of months ago, I watched a play where a player was tackled (legally, as far as I could tell) and got up and gave the opposing player a swat in the head. Rather than retaliate, the guy that was hit immediately got ran off. Call him a pussy or whatever you like but because the tackled player was not able to control his emotions, he (and therefore his team) was penalized and they now had an extra five yards to make up. If the other player had retaliated, which would have been totally accepted (and expected) if this were hockey or lacrosse, both players would likely have been penalized and both teams would have been worse off.

Now, sometimes you do see this in lacrosse – one player attempts to drop the gloves but the opposing player opts not to. I don't think that anyone would question that Geoff Snider is one of the best fighters in the game. But in a recent game, I saw an opposing player (David Morgan of the Rush, I believe) give him the old "You wanna go? You wanna go?" and a few shoves. Snider basically ignored him, Morgan went to the box for roughing, and the Roughnecks went on the power play. I don't remember if Calgary scored, but I do remember thinking that that was a very smart play by Snider. He didn't let his emotions get the better of him, and helped his team in the process. He did more for his team by not fighting that he would have if he'd dropped the gloves.

Sometimes you need to fight to get your team fired up.

If this is true, then this is a sad statement on your sport. First off, your coach deserves to be fired because it's his job to motivate his players. Plus, what happened to this passion that lacrosse players have for the game? Why would such passionate people need a fight to get them going? These are the best lacrosse players in the world playing at the highest level of their sport – if they can't get motivated to play their best without watching a fight, then they don't deserve to be there.

Fighting is payback for dirty hits and is useful for protection of star players.

If this is your argument, I have two words for you: Todd Bertuzzi. Bertuzzi (and the entire Canucks team) said publicly that Steve Moore would have to pay for his hit against Markus Naslund in a previous game (a hit that was perfectly legal, by the way) and Bertuzzi ensured that he did pay – with his career. You could certainly argue that what Bertuzzi did was not a fight and was far cheaper and dirtier than what Moore did, and you'd be right. But Bertuzzi was trying to pick a fight, even if we went about it the wrong way. (If you're trying to pick a fight, you skate in front of him and challenge him. You don't skate up behind him and slam his head into the ice.) If fighting wasn't so embedded in the hockey culture, or if the punishment for fighting was a multi-game suspension, Bertuzzi wouldn't have thought the way he did and the incident never would have happened.

Having said that, I can see the desire for revenge after a dirty hit, especially on a star player. In my opinion, however, a revenge fight needs to follow three rules:

  1. It must be done during the same game as the dirty hit. Once the game's over, that's it.
  2. This only applies to hits that are not penalized. If the player gets a penalty for the hit, that should be it. Though if Joe Superstar leaves the game with a possible concussion or broken leg and the player that hit him from behind gets nothing more than a two minute penalty, his teammates may feel that this was insufficient. I can't really blame them, so I'd be willing to waive this rule in some cases.
  3. You cannot get revenge for a legal hit. It always puzzled me why Dave Semenko would go after anyone who checked Wayne Gretzky with a legal check. Wayne's a big boy and a pro hockey player; he can handle being bodychecked.

Fighting builds team cohesion.

OK, this one I agree with. I remember a game back in early 2010 where Boston's Paul Dawson got into a fight with Toronto captain Colin Doyle. While both players were in the box, four different fights broke out at the same time and a bunch of people were tossed. As I wrote at the time: 'The unmistakeable message from the Rock was "You will not touch our captain."' Was it necessary? No. Was it over the top? Yes, four fights at once was too much. Did it handcuff the team for the rest of the game? Yes. But did it send a message? Yes – to Doyle. His teammates were telling Doyle that they were willing to fight for him, not because he couldn't do it himself (he actually held his own pretty well against Dawson, a seasoned fighter), not because he got pounded (he didn't), not because he's a superstar, and not even because he's the captain - just because he was their teammate. Again, it wasn't necessary, but that's the kind of team building that's just not the same as buying a round of beers after the game.

It's part of the game and always has been.

So what? Beheading the captain of the losing team was once part of the game too. Sports evolve over time. Rules change. Things that used to be part of the game are removed, and things that were never part of the game are added. Have you ever seen a lacrosse game without a fight? Sure you have. Did you walk away thinking "Wow, that game would have been much better if there had been a fight"? Probably not. If you are in any way familiar with lacrosse, I'm sure you would argue that it's certainly possible to have an intense, hard-hitting, and entertaining game with no fights whatsoever. So why again are they necessary?

For the most part, fights don't happen in Olympic or international hockey. Did you hear anyone complaining that the hockey during the Vancouver Olympics was boring? (Just mentioning hockey here because international lacrosse games are too few and far between and Olympic lacrosse is non-existent.) It's fairly well-documented that fights don't happen nearly as often in the playoffs as they do in the regular season. If fighting is so integral to the game, why does it disappear during the most critical games?

Hockey and lacrosse are the only North American team sports that allow fighting. If there are fights in a baseball game, multi-game suspensions are handed out. There was a fight in an NBA game a couple of months ago and while only a couple of punches were thrown, each player was suspended a game for the fight, and the instigator had to sit for an extra one. Note the penalty for instigating: not two minutes, an entire game. There was a fight in an NFL game back in November, and while neither player was suspended, each was fined $25,000. One of the fighters, Tennessee Titan Cortland Finnegan, had this to say after the fines were announced:

"This is the NFL, not the NHL, and it's a higher standard," Finnegan said. "That's the NHL. They fight. They get penalized for that. The NFL, it's not even heard of ... you do that, you're suspended. Hands down. That's what I've been taught."

"It's a higher standard." What does that mean? It means that pro football players look down on the NHL because of the fighting. Where are the people telling him that this is football, not ballet dancing?

Baseball and basketball get along just fine without fighting. Now neither is as full-contact as lacrosse or hockey, so perhaps that's an unfair comparison. But nothing is as violent as football, and even they get along fine without fighting. So why can't hockey or lacrosse players?

I almost made it through this entire article without even mentioning the injuries brought on by fighting. In December of 2009, an OHL hockey player named Don Sanderson died after falling and hitting his head on the ice during a fight. (To my knowledge, he is not related to the numerous Sandersons currently or formerly in the NLL.) This was, obviously, a huge story at the time and it seemed that rules may change because of it, but to my knowledge, nothing ever came of it. You could argue that it had nothing to do with the fight – his injury came because he fell. But if not for the fight, he would have been wearing a helmet. In early March, it was announced that the late hockey fighter extraordinaire Bob Probert had brain damage (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) because of his years of fighting. I'd be very surprised if the Troy Bonterres, Tim O'Briens, and Geoff Sniders of the NLL didn't pay serious attention to those findings.

Recently, the NHL has considered banning any hits to the head to try to avoid concussions and it's become a serious issue in the NLL as well – just ask Ken Montour or Merrick Thomson. Stephen Stamp wrote an excellent article about the problems that players face after experiencing a concussion – the article is quite long, but well worth the time.

With the proposed changes, if you hit someone in the head with your stick, even if it's accidental, you'll be suspended for at least a couple of games. But if players deliberately take their helmets off and pound each other in the head with their bare fists – five minutes.

Fans like fighting so it helps attract fans.

This thinking led to the old joke "I went to a fight the other day and a hockey game broke out". I can't disagree with the fact that many (if not most) fans enjoy fights. Does it actually bring people into the building that wouldn't otherwise come? Would fans stop coming to lacrosse games if they knew they would not see a fight? Personally, I'd say no to both of these questions, but I have no stats either way.

What a pansy.

Oh yeah? Ya think so? You wanna go? Huh? You wanna go? Actually, I can't right now. I have a quiche in the oven. It's almost ready.

He's never played lacrosse. He doesn't get it.

You're right. I haven't. And I don't.

3 comments:

  1. great post Graeme. I have no issue with fighting as much as headshots, but you bring up a great point.

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  2. Fighting is the only reason I play lacrosse

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  3. I think people just love to see the fighting. Fighting doesn't make any sport better in and of itself, in my opinion. It wastes time and redirects energy that would have been better using on moves that actually scored goals.

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