Burke’s support of fighting offers nothing

In her weekly roundup of sports columns, Shannon Proudfoot looks at Brian Burke’s arguments in support fighting in hockey, John Ferguson’s arrogance, and the “melodramatic sludge” of sports journalism (Jeff McIntosh/CP)
November 1, 2013, 2:39 PM

Brian Burke writes in defence of fighting, but—with due respect for his enormous hockey knowledge—all he does is trot out the same tired, unproven arguments these debates always rely on. “Reduced to its simplest truth, fighting is one of the mechanisms that regulates the level of violence in our game,” he writes. Except then he completely undercuts that by acknowledging the “scary” hits on Dan Boyle and Niklas Kronwall that happened in spite of the policing mechanism of fighting. He says that players are big boys who know the risks of the game and willingly consent. But it’s disingenuous to claim anyone is fully informed when the continued presence of fighting implicitly sends the message that it’s safe enough, and the extent of the devastation to players’ brains and lives is only now becoming clear.

Burke identifies the problem with the whole debate—including his position—in the first paragraph: “Certain arguments are virtually impossible to win when made against people who simply cannot or will not understand your viewpoint,” he writes. Let me try anyway: There are other ways to address the issues fighting supposedly solves—better officiating, smarter rules, a faster and more entertaining game that gives fans other reasons to stand and cheer. And, more importantly, there’s simply no way to justify the unravelling of a life like Derek Boogaard’s, no matter what marginal benefits you believe fighting offers. We would never tolerate racehorses being treated with that kind of wilfully blind inhumanity, but we’re still insisting blood on the ice is worth human life, just because that’s the way it’s always been?

Bucky Gleason, in addition to having the world’s most perfect name for a sports columnist from a blue-collar city, writes how lucky Lindy Ruff was to escape the embarrassing rodeo the Buffalo Sabres have become this season. The focus of his disgust is newish head coach Ron Rolston, whom he sees as so embarrassingly out of his depth in the NHL that the only explanation for his appointment is that he was installed as a co-dependent toady for GM Darcy Regier. “He’s what you get when you put Regier in the dryer,” Gleason writer. “He’s a shrunken version of the same, a Mini-Me, and he’s become another link on a long chain of incompetence.” The column has the viscerally angry feeling of giving voice to exactly what’s being shouted around coffee counters and bar stools in Buffalo—in which case the tattered Sabres had better brace for a vicious revolt from one of the most devoted fan bases in hockey.

Martin Samuel has a smart and furious takedown of FIFA’s tendency to treat fan bases that display racist behaviour like an awful, bullying punk you force your kid to invite to his birthday party, in the hopes that the little monster will learn to play nice if he feels included. “It is almost as if this is sending the wrong message. It is almost as if tolerating extremists does not make extremists more tolerant,” Samuel writes mocking FIFA’s thinking. “The nut jobs are winning; or at the very least they are carrying on regardless.” The examples Samuel trots out—a banana being offered to a black player by a fan; a ref ignoring a player actually wearing an armband in support of Football Against Racism in Europe Action Week pleading with him to deal with the monkey chants raining down from the stands—are jaw-dropping. And FIFA just smiles blandly and offers up more major international tournaments to the perpetrator nations, Samuel fumes. Of course, racist idiocy isn’t limited to soccer, and the weak-kneed tendency to award marquee sporting events to countries with repressive political systems or appalling human rights records (*cough* Beijing Olympics) is far from a FIFA-only sin. But if global sports fans and media are going to buy into these events, the very least we can do is own up to the fact that we’re conveniently ignoring the terrible reality of these countries, instead of looking the other way and whistling a cheery tune.

Over the last week or two, a handful or British columnists have made a cheap lunch of running “news stories” every day that are really just recast tidbits from whatever chapter of Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography they read. With a figure as big as Ferguson and a book as filled with yank-back-the-curtain-on the-national-sporting-obsession vitriol as this one apparently is, I suppose that’s a natural journalistic urge. But it started to look really lazy, like each column should have just been a link to the Amazon page for the book. Robert Hardman sees the whole book as one last, extended exercise in control-freakery by the recently retired Manchester United manager. And, like any “dictator,” Ferguson opines on what he pleases and simply ignores any inconvenient or embarrassing issues, all while flinging disdainful bile at the many players he came to dislike over his career. “It’s always a tell-tale sign of a monster ego when someone talks about himself in the third person,” Hardman writes. “The entire saga is brilliantly encapsulated in a single Ferguson sentence: ‘David [Beckham] thought he was bigger than Alex Ferguson.’”

After yet another terrible story about a young girl being sexually assaulted at a party and a community that closed ranks around the popular athletes accused, Dave Zirin takes on what almost no one else has: the potential link between jock culture and rape culture. The column is uncomfortable and important for the exact same reason: Zirin goes angrily where few others have. “No, I am not arguing that a majority of young men who play sports become people who engage in sexual assault,” he writes. “But hell, yes, I am arguing that in most male team sports, athletes are conditioned to look the other way if they see an assault about to take place.” His bluntest statement—“Jock culture left to its own devices is rape culture”—is too broad and inflammatory to really serve his point, but he’s shining a spotlight on the largely unspoken backdrop to travesties like Steubenville and Maryville. What Zirin doesn’t do is look more deeply at exactly why it might be—if it’s accurate—that there’s something in the high school jock ecosystem that makes these things possible. This might not be about sports at all, really, but rather about the social power of teenagers and the fact that small-town football, basketball or hockey is the best way to get it. But it’s also entirely possible that this is about sports in some way that calls for serious soul-searching—there simply aren’t any stories floating around about film clubs or engineering competition teams destroying other teenagers and filming it.

Then there’s Bill Plaschke with a poorly supported, drive-by concern trolling about David Ortiz and PEDs. Plaschke is doing that thing columnists sometimes slip into, lazily citing “questions” hovering around a player or event, purely so the writer can trot out his own suspicions in the guise of a public service. Here he offers zero new information or interpretation, and the facts he cites—in a cheap “I’m not saying this is what’s going on, but don’t you think it’s a little strange?” sort of way—are flimsy. As Bill Simmons (admittedly not your best source for objectivity on Boston sports franchises) points out, Ortiz’s performance this post-season is not so out of whack with the rest of his career trajectory that it automatically points to PED use, and very little is known about that decade-ago positive test. Yet Plaschke writes, “If one can’t imagine Ortiz leading a team to a big series win while playing dirty, well, it wouldn’t even be the first time in the last three years.”

Obviously, Oritz’s fantastic showing at the age of 37 may invoke doubts, and baseball is not a squeaky-clean enterprise. But the point is that Plaschke’s column does nothing to advance that story or tackle it with any fairness. Because “Everything is great!” does not make for a very interesting news story or column, there’s sometimes a knee-jerk instinct in journalism to go digging for the dark underbelly of absolutely everything. I suspect what happened here is that Plaschke wanted to find a fly in the World Series/Boston Strong feel-good ointment so he could write something different from the gushing crowd, but he should have picked a better fly to chase.

The Onion is funniest when it cuts closest to the bone, and this week, they take aim (mild language warning) at sports writers who put athletes to shame in the cliché derby. A faux-Los Angeles Times editor instructs a writer to barf up some “melodramatic sludge” about Boston rallying behind the Red Sox and healing from the marathon bombings. “Then maybe round off the whole sentimental garbage heap with something about how no matter what, the day will never be forgotten,” the editor says. “Oh, and something where you use the phrase ‘the wounded heart of a proud city.’ Just throw it all in the trough; they’ll eat it up.” I didn’t see much excessive flogging of that particular horse carcass this October. (This was not the case with the beards, however. For the love of God, we all like and/or are disgusted by the Boston beards—now stop mentioning them!). But still, cue us sports writers cackling hysterically while tugging our collars and sweating lightly.

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