The Family (Or most of them)

The Family (Or most of them)
The Family

December 1, 2007

Hockey Brawls and other Stupid Sports Silliness


This is a still shot from a video taken in Ontario in the past week or so of a hockey game INVOLVING EIGHT-YEAR-OLD KIDS that erupted into a brawl.

A brawl. Eight-year-old kids pushing each other to the ice and some pounding on one another, while at least one of the coaches was alleged to have spit on the other team's coach.

The game was stopped and never finished.

This has made national headlines across Canada and maybe even in other parts of the world.

When I heard about it and saw the video, I merely shook my head, grimaced and then yawned. This is outrageous, it's sad, it's many things. But it's not new.

Several years ago, I wrote a big series on violence in minor hockey for the newspaper I write sports for.

It was one of the most read, most contentious things I've ever penned, drawing hundreds of responses, both positive and negative, supportive and downright threatening to me.

You can say a lot of things about sport, but one of the things you can most certainly say is that it has its stupid moments, its dark side, its ugliness. And that includes all sports, not just hockey.

It extends from the youngest and most innocent and simply misguided to the oldest and most professional and elite who push all the envelopes of decency and what, at a grassroots level, should be merely games.

I've played hockey and almost every other sport and I've coached kids in hockey, baseball, basketball and football.

I've loved what sports has done for my life.

It's developed physical and mental agility, strength, determination and a healthy level of competitiveness that, when kept in context, can be a lifelong rewarding blessing. I think sports is a great thing that all kids should be exposed to.

The fact is, there are great athletes, great coaches, great parents, great sports administrators at all levels. But there are plenty of boneheads at all those levels too. And that's where the problems arise.

And our focus here is how a minor hockey league game involving eight-year-olds could erupt into a brawl. And this is what I've observed and this is what I think.

It starts with a culture that celebrates and idolizes those at the professional level who are stars earning millions but who do that by being what sport often wants them to be: Selfish, physically aggressive, overly competitive.

The fact they're sometimes people who shoot guns, who drive drunk, who beat and kill their spouses or their kids, who kill themselves because they're on steroids or other drugs to enhance their performance, is no coincidence.

It extends to their coaches, in my view the people most responsible for what their athletes do on the playing surface and what they think they can get away with in order to win.

But almost worst of all are the parents of the young kids who want their child to be the leading scorer, the toughest hitter, the best goaltender or whatever, for all the wrong reasons...

...So their kid can become a pro and make millions; so their child can get a free scholarship to college and live a charmed life; so the child can be the "winner" they aren't.

But in a more general way, because their child's success reflects on them and they live vicariously through their children, who become their little instruments or pawns on a pathway to parental success.

I've seen parents do things and say things to their kids you wouldn't believe. I've had to protect kids from their enraged parents during and after games, their children in tears after being yelled at or shaken or hit for "not performing."

As a parent, I've had to challenge coaches who did the same to my own kids or others as they took their need to win too far, benching some kids and refusing to allow them to play as they put their own son or daughter in instead.

But society at large is also responsible.

We support the same professional sports (themselves promoted and funded by huge corporations) that produce some of the worst role models of good behaviour any parent in their right mind could think of.

We go out and pay big money to watch them play even though we know that if they weren't athletically gifted, we'd consider them among the dregs of civilization and people we'd want to hide from our kids, not have them portrayed as role models.

In Canada, we tune into Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday night to watch the games but also to hear a buffoon named Don Cherry, who sounds like a thug and dresses like an idiot, defend all the tough guys in the game.

All across North America, we plop down on our couches to watch the NFL every Sunday, Monday night and now Thursday night, a league filled with some of the worst bad-ass criminals or miscreants you could see anywhere.

And we're cheering them on, apparently oblivious to the sad irony here that, in the same way we all want to watch Britney Spears and other misfit stars crash before our very eyes, we want to watch professional sports hoodlums win a football game.

It's like we're addicted to characters crashing and burning and doing it on a glorified artificial stage that blinds us like a frozen deer staring into headlights, unable to turn away.

It all comes down to winning rather than how to play the game. And everyone, of course, wants to win because all of their heroes win. And they want to be like their heroes, to emulate what they do.

And those kids want to play. They want to be accepted as part of the team and to be loved by their parents and to be praised by their coaches. So if the coach tells a kid to "go out and hit that kid who just scored," they're going to do it.

The enticements of success are too great, the price for refusing too daunting. Their parents are yelling at them from the stands; their coaches are focusing on winning and winning only.

So if you're an eight-year-old, what are you going to do?

The coaches of the two teams involved in this hockey brawl have been suspended indefinitely. Police considered laying charges but did not, saying it's a matter better left to the minor hockey associations of the two teams.

Several players have also been suspended. This, like all other such incidents of its kind -- which are happening every day in community club rinks around this country -- will be forgotten.

The coaches will be suspended, possibly for a long time. But it won't change things. There will always be overly-competitive people involved in young kids' sports, teaching kids how to be overly-competitive.

There will always be moms and dads who can't just tell their kids to go and have fun, do your best and then come home with us, we still love you regardless. They can't leave it at that.

There will be community clubs and general managers of kids' sports teams whose motivation will be winning and making their own children the stars of their teams, with a 1-in-10,000 chance of turning pro.

We are a competitive species by nature, programmed to win and to do as well as we can. Brutal sport has been part of our existence since ancient times. Those of us who can't compete want those that follow us to be able to compete.

And we offer so much to those who can become elite athletes, no matter what the cost. The motivations are so great, the rewards so lucrative, that cheating is proliferating at the highest of levels, the Olympics.

And in virtually every other sport, professional or not. We, or our society through adulation or money, gives those people those incentives to cheat, to fight or whatever, because we'll pay them to do it.

With so many motivations and with so many poor role models at the top, this type of brawl involving eight-year-olds shouldn't be a surprise.

It should be accepted more as the consequence of the values of our society. And it's going on much more than you will ever know.

*DISCLAIMER: I want you to know there are some GREAT professional athletes and coaches out there and that, in my experience, most of them are terrific people with stable lives, incredible talent and context in their existence.
Many of them don't understand or even seek out the adulation they get from fans. They're well adjusted individuals who simply are very good athletes or coaches, and they do deserve our admiration and the respect of our kids.
But there are some wacky ones who, with our help, become icons despite their flaws, many of whom end up becoming the most visible to our kids because of the trouble they get themselves into or the dumb things they do.
The main problem in this case is the wannabe coaches, parents and other hangers-on at the grassroots levels who are in sport not for their kids or for the sport, but for themselves. That's my rant (as requested by Homo Escapeons).