Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Paging Malcolm Gladwell

Take a few minutes, read "Tough guy loses out on internal battle," in the Calgary Herald.

Lots of talk about fighting in recent months. No problem there. Make it legal for two men (or sometimes more) to punch each other in the face in the context of a game, and it's going to be discussed widely. It should be. They are, after all, punching each other in the face.

I do not support eliminating fighting, although I do support the helmet-on proposition, and increased penalties for the nonsensical staged fights. I've seen those fights from about 10 feet away in the AHL, where the compensation doesn't match up with the commitment and the risk, and it is achingly uncomfortable. Without the proper emotional context, you hear fists thumping against skin and bone in a quiet arena. It feels sleazy.

With that out of the way, I think it's important to give the debate, which is (for the most part) pleasingly nuanced, appropriate context. This particular story in the Calgary Herald is an example of poor context and causal reasoning.

It's easy for journalists to take the inherent drama of a bare-knuckle fight and apply that drama to circumstances outside the rink, without understanding external factors. A guy fights, there must be some emotional toll, and here's the guy who proves it. The subject of this story, Brantt Myhres, was a fighter, and also a drug/booze addict for 15 years.

From the story: "They can sit there all they want and claim that's part of the game," Myhres says in a low voice, barely discernible above the noise of a Calgary coffee shop. "I understand that. I guess, (fighting) half-killed me though, being part of the game. I understand that I had a choice, too, not to play hockey. But when you grow up and you're five years old, and that's the only thing you ever want to do is play in the National Hockey League. It didn't matter what you had to do, you did it."

This is speech shaded by addiction. This is sensitive stuff, because this guy obviously has been through the ringer, but you can't simply draw a line from hockey fighting to addiction that clearly and that simply. A better journalist would tell you he's not drawing that line, that he's simply presenting facts, and you are making the causal link. That's a copout, and it's a fundamental pillar of the business. But Bruce Dowbiggin can't even do that, because he's loaded this story with his own reasoning.

Some samples

"The NHL culture of allowing gave Myhres a life in The Show from 1994 to 2003. Then it almost took his life through drugs and alcohol."

"The collateral damage is written all over Myhres' bio."

"To reinforce his point, Myhres lists the widely disproportionate number of 'knuckle' boys who've ended up with him in rehab or worse: Bob Probert, Chris Simon, Chris Nilan, Brian McGrattan, Darren McCarty and John Kordic are the more public of those who've sought refuge from their job in substance abuse."

And, this is the worst, "He's removed the trigger point for his addiction: hockey."

Bruce Dowbiggin does not know why Brantt Myhres is an addict. Brantt Myhres may never know why he is an addict. The line can't simply be drawn, "hockey fights made a drug/booze addict out of Brantt Myhres, and all of these other fighters." It seems logical being a fighter would add to life's stresses, but to imply any of these addicts would have been substance-free without hockey fighting - which is what is being done, make no mistake - is to make a giant leap in reasoning that can't be made without oodles more information. And even then, the science is so inexact it's difficult to even call it science.

Football lineman and running backs become addicts. Pool players. Lefty pitchers. Point guards. Nurses. Teachers. You know the drill.

I don't like staged fights. And yes, sometimes it really is two grown men pulling at each other's underwear. But there are bigger concerns in life, and a little circus-flavor in your hockey game is an acceptable indulgence. Is there collateral damage? There must be some. But there is collateral damage to everything in life. Where do we start drawing the lines? QB sacks? Hard fouls in basketball? Boxing? MMA? Beanballs? You do the best to control these things. Make them keep their helmets on. Keep the appointments out of the game.

Even Carl Sagan once wrote that we should be forgiven our Monday Night Football and our predilection toward violent sporting confrontations. It's ingrained.

And look, I hope the goon-only player disappears. But while we're sorting this out, and the debate continues, let's not start making shit up.

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