Ace Bailey, Max Pacioretty, Kevin Ware, and Devon Walker all have something in common. Each one of them has been severely injured while playing a game in their professional sport. Ace Bailey played for Toronto from 1926 to 1933, when his hockey career was cut short by a check and a fall that left him with a fractured skull. (Pelletier, 2013) In March of this year, basketball’s Louisville guard Kevin Ware landed awkwardly after a defense attempt and broke his leg in two places. In 2012, Tulane’s football player Devon Walker broke his neck after smashing helmets with a player on the opposing team. (Farris, 2012) Montreal hockey player Max Pacioretty’s fractured vertebra, a result of a hit from behind that propelled him head first into a metal bar seems to be the straw that has broken the camel’s back for hockey fans and sponsors. (Gatehouse, 2011) The sanctions against Boston’s defensemen Zdeno Chara, the player who hit Pacioretty, has left both fans and sponsors of the sport calling for a rehaul of how violence within the sport is handled and called into question how violence is handled across all contact sports in general, including basketball and football. There is a feeling that the fights and violent hits are not necessary to the game and should be eliminated. Of course, evident from Bailey’s near death experience in 1933, this level of violence has a long history in contact sports. And the violence is not just limited to the players themselves, but extends to the fans and fan behavior. Fights often break out among rival fans at games and the instance of celebratory rioting after a tournament win is common enough to be expected. In order to remove excessive and intentional violence from sports, the culture surrounding how we think of athletes and the games themselves will need to be changed. Incidences of violence in hockey, football, and basketball are evidence of the need for change.
Many theories abound as to just why the high level of violence exists in sports. One is a link between violent acts and punishment of them. From high school level, talented athletes are often given a pass on grades and behavior. No one wants to suspend the star quarterback. Take the current Steubenville rape case where two high school football players raped an unresponsive 16-year-old girl while some team members and friends ignored the act, and others took pictures and videos, and then publicized it all through social media. While these two teenagers were found guilty of rape at the end of the trial, they were allowed to remain on the football team until arrested and their coach reportedly advised them to take all the posts and videos down in attempt to hide the evidence. (Wetzel, 2013) This is a major example and an event that built from a town’s football culture accustomed to giving their athletes passes on the rules. This same culture exists all over the country and from an early age athletes learn that they are special; they can get away with more than other non-athletes. A certain kind of arrogance is essentially cultivated in those that go on to become professional athletes and for some, that arrogance manifests itself as a disregard for other’s welfare and safety. The thinking is if they win they are special, they are untouchable. So they do whatever necessary to win, acting out on the field, the court, or the rink without thought to the safety of fellow teammates. Another theory deals with the level of violence each separate sport deems allowable as simply a part of the game. In a sport such as hockey, the players are expected to hit and check each other as hard as they can in a fight over the puck. It’s common for hockey teams to have one or two players whose real purpose is to defend the star shooter. Marty McSorley of the Boston Bruins is an example; someone who is essentially a paid bodyguard. His 2001 stick blow to the head of Canucks forward Donald Brashear took him outside the NHL’s jurisdiction and landed him an assault trial. McSorley was found guilty, a decision that earned criticism from the NHL, the organization at the time expressing it felt it did a good job of policing itself and that the incident was not major enough to deserve an assault charge and 18 months of probation. (CNN, 2000)
In the wake of Pascioretty’s injury to the spine the NHL appears to be adjusting its view on what is considered a major injury and unacceptable violence. Dissent from fans and sponsors over what was seen by many as too light of a punishment for Chara has the NHL scrambling to address the issue of violence with harsher sanctions. In the end Chara received no criminal charges for the hit, and only a game misconduct with no further suspension from the NHL. (Gatehouse, 2011)
U.S. football is an example of a sport experiencing a high level of violence from players both on and off the field. Two examples of NFL players charged with murder are Rae Carruth and Ray Lewis. In 1999, Carruth was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, shooting into an occupied vehicle, and using a gun to try to kill an unborn child after Cherica Adams refused to abort the child she carried, of which Carruth was the father. (The New York Times, 2001) In 2000, Lewis was charged with two counts of murder, but convicted of obstruction of justice after testifying against two companions. (Schrotenboer, 2013) Lewis received one year of probation and was fined $250,000 by the NFL. (Schrotenboer, 2013) In response to the outside violence, the NFL established a specific anti-crime policy. The first three players punished under the new policy were Matt O’Dwyer, Denard Walker, and Jumbo Elliot of the Cincinnati Bengals. The three pled guilty to charges of assault, disorderly conduct, and harassment. Walker and O’Dwyer both received a two game suspension. Elliott had recently retired.
These are just a few of the violent incidents off-field players in the NFL have been involved in and can be examined under the first theory of an overall lack of punishment for athletes while they were growing up. As in the NHL instances, these violent occurrences must be addressed not only criminally, but with severe consequences by the National Football League. The NFL’s creation of their anti-crime policy is a response and attempt to address punishment for violence off-field by their players. However, there are some who see the sanction of a two game punishment as still nothing but a tap on the wrist and a $250,000 fine not high enough to really hurt the players. Children coming into the games with professional aspirations in mind need to learn while they are still watching the games from home that this behavior has no part in sports and is entirely unacceptable. The NFL appears to be making an effort toward that, but is it enough to make a difference in the culture, or is it instead just enough to make the NFL appear hard on violence and crime to those outside the NFL?
The National Basketball Association has not escaped a large share of player violence either, both on the court and off it. In one of the most remembered examples, Golden State Warriors player Latrell Sprewell choked and threatened to kill his coach, P.J. Carlesimo. Sprewell’s contract was cancelled and he was banned from the NBA for one year. (Taylor, 1997) Now Sprewell plays for the NY Knicks. Dennis Rodman, infamous for his bad attitude on the court and assaults on referees, was long accepted back into the NBA after numerous sanctions. Rodman is an example of repeated violence being tolerated within the NBA. Initially, he was a showboat that brought in fans who loved his reckless attitude and with them money. Rodman’s example also delves into the culture of fan violence, seen in fights in the stands and celebratory rioting such as the 1992 Chicago riot after the Bulls won their first NBA title championship that caused $10 million worth of damage. But Rodman’s popularity with the fans faded long before his contract with the NBA did, and yet they kept him in the league despite continued violence to other players and referees.
It seems clear that the NHL, NFL, and NBA need to make a more defined effort to take control of the players and assert that violent criminal acts off the fields, rinks, and courts and intentional violence during games is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. A change from within the professional sports leagues will lead the way to changing the acceptance of violence in sports culture, at the professional, college, and perhaps most importantly, high school levels. These changes mean no special passes for young athletes. Making sure high school athletes serve the correct consequence for failing grades, bullying, criminal behavior, etc. will go a long way to helping change the culture of permissible violence in sports. This needs to carry over into the collegiate level. At the professional level, consequences for violence need to be addressed harshly. More game bans would be a deterrent for some players. Addressing the issue at the outset by writing a violence clause into a player’s contract might put the issue at the forefront of players’ minds.
CNN. (2000, October 7). Very major penalty. Retrieved from CNN Sports Illustrated: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/hockey/nhl/news/2000/10/06/mcsorley_assault_ap/
Farris, M. (2012, September 10). Severly injured Tulane football player awaiting fate. Retrieved from wwltv.com: http://www.wwltv.com/news/health/Tulane-football-player-awaiting-fate-169237986.html
Gatehouse, J. (2011). It’s time to draw the line. Maclean’s, 124(11), 20-23. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=60469277&site=ehost-live
Pelletier, J. (2013). Ace Bailey. Retrieved from Joe Pelletier’s Greatest Hockey Legends.com The Hockey History Blog: http://mapleleafslegends.blogspot.com/2006/07/ace-bailey.html
Schrotenboer, B. (2013, January 12). Slayings not forgotten, Ray Lewis not forgiven. Retrieved from USA Today: http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/2013/01/10/ray-lewis-baltimore-ravens-atlanta-murder-2000/1566198/
Standen, Jeffrey. (2009). The Manly Sports: The Problematic Use of Criminal Law to Regulate Sports Violence. The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 99(3), 619-642.
Taylor, P. (1997, December 15). Centre of the Storm. Retrieved from SI Vault: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1011658/
The New York Times. (2001, April 6). Plus: Court News; Gunman Sentenced in Carruth Case. Retrieved from The New York Times Sports: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/06/sports/plus-court-news-gunman-sentenced-in-carruth-case.html?ref=raecarruth
Wetzel, D. (2013, March 17). Steubenville High School football players found guilty of raping 16-year-old girl. Retrieved from Yahoo! Sports: http://sports.yahoo.com/news/highschool–steubenville-high-school-football-players-found-guilty-of-raping-16-year-old-girl-164129528.html