"Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee"
These immortal words of Mohammed Ali invoke visions of goliaths standing toe to toe slugging it out in gladiator fashion. In many respects, hockey fights have been portrayed in this manner for years, because that’s what they were. They were a slug-fest between each team’s designated fighters or "goons".
Many basketball fans may not be aware that hockey has long policed its ranks from within. Opposing teams know that if they take "cheap shots" at the skilled players of their opponent, they will inevitably face the wrath of the opposing enforcer. The gloves will drop and dance will begin. That familiar circling of the combatants, the chanting of the crowd, the bench players banging sticks on dasher boards like deranged drummers, playing a demonic tune, sending their troops into battle, has been the code of conduct since the game was first played.
Recently, we have seen the NHL take steps to limit and / or eliminate fighting. They have added additional penalties for instigating the fight, effectively penalizing anyone that retaliates or jumps to the aid of their skilled players. The NHL has also imposed a penalty for anyone that takes their helmet off prior to a fight. Bare-fisted players are reluctant to swing at their counterpart when they are so fully padded and protected. The NHL is clearly trying to send the message that they don’t want fighting in hockey any longer.
Many people outside of hockey see the sport as barbaric. They don’t understand the intricacies of the game and why anyone would advocate for the use of violence in their sport. Those same people might be surprised to see that many of the sport’s most prominent names are advocating for the preservation of the old traditions. In fact, Boston Bruin player, Jerome Iginla, recently wrote the following in Sports Illustrated. "Does fighting still have a place in today's NHL? My answer is a qualified yes," Iginla wrote in this week's issue. "I temper my response because I don't know of any player who truly loves fighting. Ideally it would not be a part of the game.
The nature of our sport is such that fighting actually curtails many dirty plays that could result in injuries." Iginla is not the only player that feels this way. Bruins legend Bobby Orr recently spoke out in defense of fighting, citing the need for players to be held accountable for their on ice actions. Fighting is the great equalizer when it comes to dirty play.
This week saw an ugly incident occur on Wednesday between the OKC Thunder and the LA Clippers. Players fighting for a rebound quickly started fighting each other. Players were separated, ejected, and fined. The NBA is quick to respond after incidents like this, always fearing the shadows of the past resurfacing, fearful of the action spilling over into the stands like it did years ago in the Pacers / Pistons fight dubbed the "Malice at the Palace".
While this may not be feasible in today’s litigious society, I wonder if the NBA might be a better product if they allowed fighting. The NBA encourages a fast-paced, high-scoring, physical style of play. This aggressive play leads players to pushing boundaries and often playing outside the realm of what’s acceptable. When an opposing player takes "cheap shots" or plays dirty, what can you do to curb them?
The answer is simple: Nothing.
Dirty players are deterred by technical fouls. Taking a free throw is no substitution for losing a key player due to willful injury. A game or even a season can be lost when your opponent loses site of fair play. If the NBA adopted rules to govern controlled fighting, you would see players quickly begin to police themselves. Skilled players would not have to live in fear of flagrant fouls, purposely thrown elbows, or being thrown to the ground on an attempted slam dunk. They could simply focus on their role as a skill player and play basketball the way it was meant to be played. Heavy bodied, robust players would have the ability to protect their teammates without fear of reprisal from the NBA.
They could have their team’s back and do what they do best. Jackie Moon in Semi Pro may have said it best when he yelled, "Somebody hit somebody!" Basketball should take a long hard look at their brethren on ice. Allow your players to protect and police their ranks from within. All violence is not the same. Sometimes fear of retribution is the best deterrent for those that need to be held accountable.