The dangers of democracy in all-star voting

With the news that John Scott will be captaining an NHL all-star team, here’s his top 5 goals… okay actually they're his only 5 goals.

On paper, democracy is a great idea. There’s elegance to it: we’re all created equal, so we should be able to shape how we want to live with an equal voice. Our halting collective progress through history has been fuelled by the tension between balancing the rights of the individual compared with what is best for the community as a whole.

It’s a struggle played out in homes, schools, teams, cities, nations and globally. It is the human way. Democracy isn’t perfect, but as Winston Churchill pointed out, consider the alternatives.

But sometimes things go too far. The will of the people is a great thing, but it’s a slippery slope towards mob rule.

No, this is not a column about Donald Trump, America’s most dangerous punch line.

But is about the wisdom of crowds, or lack thereof. It’s about all-star games and technology and fan votes. And how John Scott — quite possibly the worst hockey player currently in the NHL — being voted into the NHL All-Star Game is less a proud moment for fan interaction than a plea for help.

Look, any system that makes an all-star out of a guy who is so clearly not an all-star that he has to have a deep soul search about whether he should recuse himself or not is a system that’s flawed to the point of being broken.

For those who have not been following along: this year — and it only seems like they do this every year — the NHL has altered their all-star game format. There is a reason for this.

You have to be 12 years old or younger or have a bonus in your contract to actually care about the all-star game, at least the NHL version of it. Cognizant that no one cares, the NHL tinkers with the recipe all the time. This is like trying to improve hot beer. The problem isn’t that people don’t like the flavour of the beer. They don’t like that it’s hot and no amount of fiddling will change that fact.

Oh, the skills competitions are pretty fun to watch. And debating who is having all-star calibre seasons makes for decent fodder on cold January mornings at a hockey rink near you, or at a barstool any given evening.

But the game? The game is dreck. The NHL has created a spectacle where they invite the whole hockey community to watch the most important players in the sport either get embarrassed or — more wisely — not even try.

And I’m only talking about the goalies. The average number of goals allowed in the past four all-star games has been 23.5. Last year Team Foligno (exactly) scored 12 goals and lost by five. This is because the best goalies in the world don’t want to hurt themselves making a save and the best defenders in the world don’t want to hurt themselves trying to stop anyone from having a scoring chance. In theory it’s a way to demonstrate skill, but in practice it’s like having a bunch of guys juggle pucks on their sticks. No one is suggesting what they’re doing is easy, it’s just completely irrelevant to the sport itself. Those who love hockey are abhorred. Those new to hockey can’t possibly be entertained. Those playing are probably too hungover to really care.

Anyway, in the name of fixing something that is irrevocably broken, the NHL decided to do away with two teams playing five-on-five and have four teams representing each division playing a three-on-three tournament. To up the ante, they are offering a competitive incentive in the form of a $1 million, winner-take-all prize for the winning team.

I have to admit, it sounds kind of fun. And then to get the fans involved — again this democracy thing — they created a system where fans could vote for the four captains of the four divisional teams.

Again, can’t fault anyone for that. The game is about fans, first and foremost. Except it’s not exactly one fan, one vote. Everyone was permitted to vote 10 times, everyday for a month.

It’s a loophole big enough to drive John Scott through. These issues have been brewing for years. In 2007, some fans figured out how to spam the NHL’s online voting system and nearly got fringe NHLer Rory Fitzpatrick elected an all-star game starter when he was routinely being scratched by the Vancouver Canucks. There was even an alleged cover-up by the league office to keep him out.

A similarly suspicious fan campaign saw Buffalo Sabres Latvian sensation (well, Latvian) Zemgus Girgensons become an all-star starter and leading vote-getter. He’s up to 24 career goals now. This year some enterprising fans with a sense of humour apparently thought the sight of Scott trying to keep up with the best players in the game in three-on-three would be fun, or funny.

The league, having not thought through any of this, ends up with a test for the old adage: there’s no such thing as bad publicity. And Scott ends up with a free trip to Nashville, where the lumbering six-foot-eight enforcer, with five goals in 285 career NHL games, will spend his weekend trying not to go into cardiac arrest as the rest of the league skates him into the ground.

The NHL isn’t alone in their all-star game snafus. One of the leading candidates to start at guard for the Eastern Conference at the 2016 NBA All-Star Game in Toronto next month is Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The only problem is that by the time the first round of voting had been announced, Irving, coming off a serious knee injury, had played only two of the Cavaliers’ 26 games. As a result, more worthy candidates such as, say, the Toronto Raptors star Kyle Lowry, were on the outside looking in.

Kobe Bryant will almost certainly be starting for the Western Conference even though he’s in the midst of one of the worst statistical seasons in NBA history as he completes his victory lap around the NBA.

And every year in MLB someone gets voted in as a third baseman even though they play second or they’re in the midst of rehabbing from shoulder surgery, and last summer all of Kansas City got in on the act and tried to get their entire starting lineup to start in the all-star game.

Because the all-star games in any league don’t matter that much, it’s hard to really get worked up about it. But if I had a vote, it would be for the leagues narrowing down the list of potential candidates for the fans to vote on to limit, rather than invite, electronic ballot stuffing. Other measures could be taken to make sure injured players don’t get voted in as starters.

I’d even cast a ballot in favour of doing away with fan voting all together.

In real life we’re stuck with democracy and all it’s imperfections. Sports are supposed to be an escape.

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