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Assault on Ice

Call it what you will, but staged, premeditated or planned fighting in the National Hockey League (NHL), where two big “enforcers” slug each other’s heads with their bare fists, has no place in the game of hockey. Such fighting is boxing and as such requires a boxing license under many state laws.

The NHL does not take out a license for the fighters. The concussion epidemic, the fatal overuse of pain-killing drugs player suicides—two NHL players last year—may soon evolve into a law enforcement matter by some state prosecutors.

On February 6, 2012, Ken Reed, our Sports Policy Director for the League of Fans, and I wrote an open letter to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman urging him to take “immediate steps to end fighting and outlaw all blows to the head.”

We continued: “Commissioner Bettman, it’s very possible that concussions and degenerative brain disease caused by blows to the head—such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)—will be the biggest issue in sports in the coming decade. Continuing to downplay what we know about sports-based brain injuries, while simultaneously supporting fighting as an elemental aspect of the NHL game, is simply irresponsible.”

It is astonishing what the bosses of professional sports will do to make more profits. They wine, dine and pressure politicians to make taxpayers pay for their stadiums and arenas. They installed dangerous artificial turf that years ago ended sterling careers like that of the great NFL running back, Gayle Sayers. For years the big time hockey bosses have fed red meat to some fans who seem to need barbaric fisticuffs to stay excited watching a game.

Who gets hurt? Not the bosses in their fancy boxes chewing on expensive cuisine. But players like Pat LaFontaine, Eric Lindros, and Keith Primeau have had their careers shortened from repeated head trauma. Currently concussions are threatening the careers of Pittsburgh Penguin’s superstar, the young Sidney Crosby and the Philadelphia Flyers’ Chris Pronger. Three enforcers, Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak, have died in the past year.

The NHL, under Mr. Bettman, has established a department of player safety. But he and his executives continue to allow, condone or even quietly encourage fighting, in which the primary target is the head of one’s opponent.

There is a disconnect between the public relations move and the reality on the ice.

The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) already bans fighting and all blows to the head. So do the NCAA and other hockey organizations. The Ontario Hockey League (OHL) bans “staged fighting.”

But the NHL refuses to set the example for the one million young hockey players in the United States and Canada. These youngsters are prone to imitation. They see their “heroes” play in games where an enforcer, with minimal hockey skills, is employed mainly to bash his counterpart’s head on pre-arranged signals, followed by removing their gloves and squaring off with their fists inside a circle made up of other players and accommodating referees.

According to an analysis of hockey-related concussions written by Dr. Syd Johnson of Dalhousie University, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal last year, one study found that up to 25% of all players in junior hockey leagues sustained concussions in any given season.

Dr. Johnson writes: “The way hockey is played by the professionals is imitated in junior hockey. This creates a vicious cycle in which young athletes learn to play in a way that inevitably causes injury and in turn influences the next generation of players. It’s time to break that cycle and teach youths to play in a way that emphasizes skill and protects their brains, so they’ll be prepared to do the same thing when they grow up.”

Studies, exhortations, examples of harm—all these may not be enough to reverse the cruel marketing motivations of the NHL’s bosses. What may get their attention is that they are aiding, abetting or managing fights in possible violations of state laws such as California’s Bus & Profs. Code Sections 18625, 18640 and 18870.

Staged or planned hockey fights meet the definition of a “match” or “contest” that would bring them under the jurisdiction of the boxing commission. Without the commission’s approval, all who participate, manage, facilitate or promote such fights, without a license, could be committing a misdemeanor. In California, the penalty for such a misdemeanor is up to one year in jail.

Former California Boxing Commission Chairman, law professor Robert Fellmeth, presently at the University of San Diego Law School, thinks that the lawyers for the NHL better start reading these state boxing laws.

(Interested readers may wish to visit our website leagueoffans.org for more information and opportunities to participate in strengthening the overall rights of sports fans and players as described in our posted Sports Manifesto.)

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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