HISTORY may view the mid-'80s as the period when professional sports began to face the music. However, it is unclear whether history will be satisfied that all sports participated. At least one has been conspicuous by its inaction: hockey. In the National Hockey League -- where major-league professional hockey is played in the United States and Canada -- fighting has been commonplace for years. Other contact sports eject players for fisticuffs, but hockey players are usually just made ineligible to play for a period of time shorter than one inning in baseball. Recently team brawling became so frequent that the NHL decided to eject any player who joins a fight in progress. Apparently the league was not upset by fighting, just brawling.
The impact of fighting in the NHL is deep and widespread. And none of it is good. The worst damage is being done to our youngsters.
Ask anyone who coaches boys' hockey about the hours he has spent trying to instill self-control in them. Then the boys see their NHL idols pummeling one another on television, and the school coach has to start all over again.
So why not abolish hockey fighting? Two reasons are commonly given. First, there is the potential of losing attendance among those fans who hunger for fisticuffs. Second, fighting is said to be simply part of the game, and devising a rule for its elimination would be unenforceable.
Neither reason holds up.
One reason hockey markets itself to a narrow cross section of people is that many folks don't care to see the fighting, or to have their kids watch it. By removing the combat, pro hockey would broaden its appeal. More than half of all NHL teams are in cities with pro baseball, the king of family spectator sports.
The way to enforce a rule that outlaws fighting is to devise one that gives players and coaches an incentive to be restrained. For instance: Eject any player who removes his gloves to strike an opposing player. In addition, give this player a multiple-game suspension if he takes advantage of an opponent who keeps his gloves on. How many players would fight with gloves on? How many coaches would let a player risk suspension by starting a fight with an opponent who backs off?
Professional hockey should not be forced to eliminate fighting. The NHL is a private enterprise: Within the law, it should have the right to present any entertainment it desires. But given its impact on youth, it has a moral obligation to face the public and present its case.
Either the NHL considers fighting an acceptable part of its product, or it doesn't. If, as the league often hints, fighting is distasteful but unavoidable, then it should convincingly show the public why a tough rule against fighting, like the one suggested here, is not workable.
Jeff Robertson is a free-lance writer.