Friday, March 13, 2009

Hockey Night in the NFL

Sport was the first topic of conversation on this site, so to mark the recent relaunch of Within Reason, I figured I would again turn to sports for what I hope will be an interesting topic.
The other day, I called into the local ESPN radio affiliate to lend my opinion to the discussion the hosts were having about fighting in the NHL. As is the norm on sports talk radio, there was a split in opinions between the hosts, one pro-fighting, and one against it. Personally, I am a staunch defender of this element of the game, and stated so - with marginal results - to the radio hosts. I shared my thoughts with fellow blogger Smack on a phone call later that day. This call spilled over into a series of emails over the course of two days. What follows is a transcript of those emails, which I think frame a great debate about not only the unique merits of an individual sport, but the merits of sport itself. Enjoy - and feel free to join the debate by posting a comment.

Smack: On my ride home yesterday I was thinking about your argument for fighting in hockey. I agree that tolerating fights serves a legitimate purpose. It gives the opposition something to think about before they knock out your star player or get too aggressive in the crease. It’s almost counter intuitive to think that fighting keeps the game clean, but it really does. Look at other sports that have similar elements which serve the same purpose. The NLL (box lacrosse) also tolerates fighting; it’s exactly like hockey. In baseball you’ve got a few options. There’s the popular high inside fastball, which sends a clear message. Still not getting it? How about a fastball to the kidney? If the officiating is a problem, the manager flips out and gets booted. Other options include sliding with the spikes up, charging the mound, or clearing the whole bench for a brawl. Ejections are dished out, but these are all ways of letting your opponent know about your zero tolerance policy.When it comes to basketball and football, though, I don’t see the equivalents. In football, quarterbacks are protected by yellow flags, not uniformed enforcers. Same with basketball: foul shots and ejections.What’s more effective? Or is the better question, what’s more entertaining? Could hockey ban fighting and serve the same purpose with bigger creases and more unnecessary roughness penalties?

Within Reason: Good points. This was one of the main aspects of the conversation I got in on with ESPN. See, I'm of the mind that there does not need to be a sport to sport equivalent for every element of a particular sport. What is basketball's version of the designated hitter, and in an argument about the DH, what other sports equivalents could you bring up (I know there are some, but none are really perfect)? Fighting is just a part of the NHL, just like pass interference - or better yet - illegal procedure (as opposed to the CFL) is part of the NFL. The point you bring up about QB protection, though, is a very good point. Special rules protect the QB in the NFL. Why? He's likely to be wearing more pads than anyone on the field - why can't you clean his clock like you would a WR coming across the middle on a slant? Even when trying to defend after throwing an INT, the QB is 'protected' - to a degree. It's just an accepted part of the game, and the reason is very similar. No one (save maybe Scott Pioli and the sad, sad residents of KC - and sick, twisted Patriot-haters) will agree that watching Matt Cassell last season was as entertaining as watching Tom Brady would have been. Same could be said for The Washington Capitols without Ovechkin, The Penguins without Crosby, or, going back, the Oilers without Gretzky. There is a specific function of the game, built into the rules of play (as opposed to outlawed) that regulates this.
Another main point gets at the second part of your statement. See, fighting is not "allowed" in many other sports (have to admit, not familiar with Lacrosse, so where you say "exactly" - I'll assume you get a major for instigation, or a game misconduct for a "brawl" situation, etc...) because you are ejected. It's not a penalty, or foul, to fight in other sports, it's the equivalent of bringing a foreign object on the field, or cheating - you're ejected.
As for the last point about entertainment - I absolutely agree. This again was a topic brought up in the ESPN conversation. When a marginal fan rails against an element of a sport, what does a league have to gain by appeasing to that fan? What major rule changes have ever broadened a sports base (again, I'm sure there are a few - but nothing Earth shattering comes to mind)? Marketing and on-field product - in that order - directly affect the size and scope of a fan base. Over expansion has slaughtered the level of play in the NHL - not to mention the fact that in order to fill out the rosters of these ridiculous franchises (Columbus, really?), teams have turned to a growing number of fight-hating European players. While this may cause some to think "Come on - Federov, Jagr, Ovechkin? These guys are great for the league - they're speedy scoring machines!" - none of them would score with dislocated shoulders and ruptured spleens. Even pride of Canada Sidney Crosby can't take the physical play of the NHL while being protected by fighting...imagine a "deregulated league" where each team in Crosby's division employs the equivalent of 3 4th lines to go out and "eliminate" Crosby every night. Team standings would read 1-5-35 - with the 35 ties being scoreless. Scoring is up because the game has opened up due to relaxed passing rules AND the continued presence of fighting. Both of these elements put people in seats. The NHL would be crazy to get rid of fighting. If there are 16,000 at the Garden tonight, how many die hards are back tomorrow if fighting is gone? And how many "new" fans of the friendlier, gentler WNHL would be waiting to fill those seats?
All in all, fighting GOOD.

S: Of course every sport has its caveats so it’s tough to make sweeping statements. That being said, EVERY sport DOES have a system for regulating the athletes’ conduct. In the NHL they use time serving penalties, ejections, and a certain level of toleration for fighting. The system protects the players and entertains the fans. When the question is simply, “Should fighting be allowed in the NHL?” I think there are a few things to consider:
1. Can you get the same result with different means? You didn’t really address this point. I think that you can. Going back to the NFL example, quarterbacks are protected by the threat of 15 yard penalties and costly fines. Ask Jarvis why he let go of Eli. The NHL could protect its players with harsher penalties that would be the equivalent of 15 yards and an automatic first down.

W R: I think this encapsulates how you are (possibly) missing the point. I'll use an example to explain. In 1974, Major League Baseball's American League thought "gee, how can we score more runs, and put more fannies in the seats? Score more runs! Well, since pitchers stink at hitting - usually - let's 'designate' some one to hit for them." So, what if in 2013 there's another strike? Attendance is down, and without McGwire, Sosa and undetectable PEDs, no home run chase is going to bring people back... "Hmmm...I know! Let's have 'offensive' and 'defensive' line-ups! I mean, catchers can't really hit, most short stops can't, how about 9 DHs for offense, and 9 position players?" Why not? See my point? That's just not how the sport is played. If you are framing this conversation (not you personally) with "I just don't understand why there is fighting in hockey" - you can leave the "why there is fighting in" out of that statement. You PERFECTLY sum up what effect on the sport this would potentially have with your "Why did Jarvis let go of Eli?" question: Because when there is ambiguity about the rules, players let up for fear of hurting their teams. There is no ambiguity surrounding repeated uppercuts to your face, no matter how tough you are.

S: 2. How would this affect the league? You did address this. Moms would be happy, but as you point out, they’re not the ones buying tickets. Merchandising would also suffer. Sure, there are lots of people wearing the jerseys of the goal scorers, but then there’s a huge contingent of fans that latch on to their favorite goon and buy the PJ Stock jerseys. TV ratings would go down, etc.

W R: I agree. Nothing to add, except that I think the core base of fans diminishes, too.

S: 3. A new point: what about the kids? Fighting in the NHL sets a bad example for children. Next thing you know, little Johnnie is dropping the gloves in Pee Wee hockey. But who’s really to blame, the NHL or the parents?

W R: Fighting is not allowed in any league other than the NHL. Youth, High School, College, etc all disallow fighting. Every sport has it's on and off field (or ice) issues that parents and coaches need to address with children. There is no epidemic of beanballs is youth baseball, to go back to a prior point of yours. Frankly, and I'm not pointing this directly at you, I'm a little sick of the "What about the children?" element invading every aspect of our society. What about the parent's ability to explain to their children "Don't fight in hockey (couldn't come up with a great, moral position there - so that's enough)."

S: Whether or not you support fighting really comes down to how you prioritize these issues. For the people that make the rules, it’s almost exclusively a question of money. Fighting’s not going anywhere.
Just to be clear, I’m a fan of the fights. And I do see your point that fighting is a part of the game and if you change the policy on fighting, you effectively change the game.But I still think a different means could be utilized to get the same desired effect. Whether Jarvis lets up because he’s afraid of a penalty or because he knows he and Plaxico will have to drop buckets following the play… He still lets up.

W R: Unless he is worried that Plax is going to shoot him, I disagree. Both teams are penalized equally in a fight - you are not hurting the team; when you are penalized in football, you hurt the team.
I understand you are a fan, sorry to get carried away with some of the illustrations. By fan, I mean "of mine."

S: Well then what purpose does fighting in the NHL serve other than fan entertainment? I thought you agreed that it’s a deterrent.

W R: You get punched in the face. It is a deterrent that people happen to like to watch.

S: So how do you reconcile “You get punched in the face. It is a deterrent that people happen to like to watch“ with “Unless he is worried that Plax is going to shoot him, I disagree”?
Either it’s deterrent (as is a penalty) or it’s not.

W R: You're splicing arguments. If that's how football worked, then fine. Sure, there would be a "goon" on the Giants who would clock Jarvis Green. Instead there is a penalty. So, yes, you could get rid of fighting and replace it with a penalty for "roughing the forward" - but you could also allow NBA centers to use butterfly nets in the Western Conference to keep scoring down, right?

S: "So, yes, you could get rid of fighting and replace it with a penalty for 'roughing the forward.'" That’s all I was looking for. Have a good evening.

W R: This is not over. You could get rid of the defensive line in football and replace it with a tennis net. You could get rid of the outfield in baseball and replace it with a dangerous, gator-infested swamp, but make the base baths a quarter mile long and shrink the game to three innings (that actually sounds awesome - I now officially "don't understand" these "short" base paths and "safe" outfields - they could be replaced).
Do you see what I mean? By saying "So, yes, you could get rid of fighting and replace it with a penalty for 'roughing the forward'" and following with "but you could also allow NBA centers to use butterfly nets in the Western Conference to keep scoring down, right?" I am implying that both are ridiculous (and deserve bonus points for the added analogy that driving down scoring in basketball would be a ratings downer just like eliminating fights from the NHL).

S: I don’t see how your basketball analogy is even relevant. If your goal is to drive down scoring and kill your ratings then yes, give them butterfly nets. But that’s not what I’m getting at.We agree that fighting in hockey results in more scoring. What I’m pointing out is that the NFL has accomplished this same result by different means. Fighting in hockey could be replaced by a rule change. I concede that removing the fighting element would hurt ratings and the integrity of the game.This is over. No bonus points.

W R: We are so close on this, yet so far away. We're saying the same things for different reasons. The basketball analogy is totally relevant, at least more relevant than your NFL analogy - and here's why: Protecting the quarterback in the NFL is strictly a marketing move, not a rule change to help scoring. Pass interference rule changes were put in place to drive up scoring. Same with the NHL easing up on icing and passing restrictions - it has driven up scoring. They've flirted with making the net bigger - fine. Eliminating fighting in the NHL would be an equivalent of butterfly nets in the NBA - 1. Makes no sense, 2. Drives down scoring 3. Upsets fan base.

S: There have been a slew of NFL rule changes that generate more offense. I’m not just talking about protecting the QB. And you’re just plain wrong that protecting the showcase QBs doesn’t help scoring. Look at the Patriots minus Brady. They went from setting records to winning games by clock management.Eliminating fighting would only drive down scoring if you didn’t replace it with rules that protect the offense. We don’t even have to get into the specifics of what those rules might be because it’s beyond the scope of my argument. I’m not in favor of it but it is an option, as demonstrated by the NFL.

W R: See, I still disagree. Protecting the QB has a lot less to do with scoring than I think you give it credit for. The problem with the Pats was that Cassell, despite his later successes, was not ready to handle the offense. If you remember, most folks thought Cassell was up to be cut in the preseason. Joe Flacco was a backup at the start of this season, and Baltimore's scoring was UP compared to years past once he took over (at the start of the season). I could make the case that the Steelers would have scored more with Leftwitch than Big Ben, and then strangely bolster that by pointing out that once Leftwitch was out of Jacksonville, the Jags fared better offensively with Gerrard (at least for one year). Quarterbacks are protected because they are named Brady, Manning, Aikman, Marino. I just don't think it's as apples to apples as you're asserting.

S: Well as far as apples to apples, the rule change would have to be unique to hockey since it’s a unique sport. I’m not saying that an NFL rule would directly translate, but I think the principle could be the same.You’re using exceptions to argue your point about QBs. Brady, Manning, Aikman and Marino are all Hall of Famers and when they are out of the game, scores are lower. Brady himself was an exception when he replaced an injured Bledsoe.

W R: If I can make this many cases, how can they be exceptions?

S: Well you made 2 cases and speculated another. Are you seriously arguing that more QB injuries wouldn’t affect scoring? You think that in the majority of NFL franchises there’s no drop off in offensive production from the starter to the backup?

W R: Not a substantial one. If you have an elite QB, sure - but how many elite QBs are there that are THAT much better than their backups? And here are some more "exceptions" Kurt Warner this year, Tony Romo 2 years ago, Derek Anderson 2 years ago, NY Giants in 1989 (Hostetler replacing Simms), the only undefeated team in NFL history, we could really go on and on...
The rule is in place because of interest in the actual QBs - pink Patriots hats, if you will. Not to protect scoring.

S: Agree to disagree. I think that the direction the NFL has been heading speaks for itself. Most teams don’t have Kurt Warners or Tony Romos as backups. They have Scott Zolaks.

W R: Most teams don't have elite QBs
AFC East, opening day, 2008: Trent Edwards (backed up by JP Lossman). Chad Pennington (backed up by John Beck) Brett Favre (backed up by Kellen Clemens) Tom Brady (backed up by Matt Cassell). One elite QB, and maybe one other case where there's a decent drop (Miami, though Chad Pennington will never be accused of lighting the scoreboard on fire).
AFC South opening day, 2008: Vince Young (backed up by Kerry Collins) David Garrard (backed up by Cleo Lemon) Peyton Manning (backed up by Jim Sorgi) Matt Schaub (backed up by Sage Rosenfels). One elite QB, one case that might be the biggest "miss" of my prior email (Kerry Collins) and 2 other very strong cases. I randomly picked this division, by the way - and won't go through the rest, but I think my point is clear. In very few cases is there an "Well, we just went from 13-3 to 7--9" when a QB goes down. In fact, you can argue that it HELPS as often as it hurts.

S: I think there are some cases where there is significant drop off:

NE Brady/Cassel. 2007 12 games 30+ pts compared with 2008 6 games 30+ pts.

CIN Palmer/Fitzpatrick

NYG Manning/CarrPHI McNabb/Kolb

IND Manning/Sorgi

NYJ Favre/Clemens or Ratliff

JAX Garrard/Lemon
Then the majority of teams fall in the middle where there is some drop off. I’m talking noticeable score differences and a few W’s become L’s.
Then there are a FEW teams where there would be a negligible drop off or an unexpected (or fluke) gain. WSH Collins/Campbell, TB Griese/Garcia, TN Collins/Young, CLE Quinn/Anderson, MIA Henne/Pennington (this is my potential unexpected gain scenario). I think I hit all of them.
I don’t buy that a starter going down helps as often as it hurts. I think any W’s that a backup can get are accentuated because of lowered expectations and would have been W’s with the original starter. Most New Englanders were very pleased with Cassel’s performance this year, but do you think they would be pleased if Brady hadn’t been injured and the Pats had missed the playoffs? No way.

W R: Right off the bat I disagree with Favre (stunk last year - gone now, in favor of Clemens), Palmer (never going to be what he was pre-knee injury) and Garrard (unless he has another "magical" season like '07 - read "best rushing game in the division" - he won't finish the year as the JAX QB). I only marginally agree about Manning (NYG), who has never really shown me he's anything more than a solid running game and a great defensive line...
Your point about NE is moot: Brady is an elite QB. No one says "You know, I really would like to have seen what Bledsoe could have done with the 2001 Pats." Even better - you can make the argument that the Pats don't beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs that year without BACKUP Drew Bledsoe.
You are totally over rating the SCORING importance of a QB. Vick was more of a scoring threat than Matt Ryan, right? In fantasy land, if Vick came back to ATL, who would back up who?

S: There’s no running game without a passing threat (and vice versa).
You are under rating the importance of QBs. Any scoring aside from pick-6’s is orchestrated by the QB. He throws the ball, opens up the running game, gets within field goal range, and/or runs for the TD himself. In some instances you see the QB in a position to actually catch a TD pass as well.
Vick is more of a scoring threat as a scrambler. Who starts comes down to who produces more, because he’s the bigger threat.

W R: You know - I was going to blast you with more statistics about QBs, but let's end this here. It's hard to quantify my point, because for every example I give of successful backups, I can remind myself of a time when I have thought "They can draft all the (insert non-elite QB positions here) they want, Team X isn't going anywhere until they figure out who's going to play QB." Of course, I counter that (in my head) with "Brad Johnson, Trent Dilfer...non-elite QBs won 2 Super Bowls this decade, and the rest were Brady, Mannings and Roethlisberger (not sure on the spelling). On and on, back and forth.
We'll close with this - if they took fighting out of hockey, that's just one less talking point for hockey.

S: Bringing us back to your original argument, harsh roughing the passer penalties weren’t introduced to protect the Johnsons and Dilfers. They were introduced to protect the Bradys and Mannings; guys that DO make the most significant scoring differences on their respective teams. They’re also the QBs whose names alone make a lot of money for the league so our argument is basically a chicken or the egg debate.

W R: You had to get that last little remark...
The reason Bradys and Mannings are protected has more to do with marketing than scoring and winning. I know we're all trying to get all of those Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson commercials out of our heads from the beginning of the decade, but I need to warn you that word on the street is that Seneca Wallace can really pitch a killer tag line. Sometimes I wonder if they even let Dilfer and Johnson into the park at Disney for free.
We'll close with this - if they took fighting out of hockey, that's just one less talking point for hockey.

S: So if the leading goal scorers were marketing cash cows instead of toothless goons with accents, do you suppose we’d see an end to fighting and mandated facemasks?

W R: What do you mean "if"? Outside of Manitoba, the ony hockey player I can think of with any endorsements whatsoever is Sidney Crosby. Before he was identified as a China Doll, Patrice Bergeron was the "face of the Bruins." Gretzky had endorsements. You may think I'm making your point, but I'm not. To really prove my point, wehn Zdeno Chara was brought on board with the Bruins, there was a legitimate and ongoing debate about whether a non-scoring defenseman could be the face of a franchise.
Maybe I'm not getting your point - are you saying that leading goal scorers ARE toothless goons with accents? Have you seen Sidney Crosby? Peyton Manning is a toothless, noseless, limbless pulp of a goon next to him.
Leading goal scorers are marketing cash cows, relatively speaking, in the great white north with the game just the way it is.
If you got rid of fighting, put face cages on every helmet, and put in place "roughing the forward" - you would see the NHL cease operations within 2 years.
WE'LL CLOSE WITH THIS - if they took fighting out of hockey, that's just one less talking point for hockey.

S: Last word.


  1. I am so glad Withn Reason is back, we need you on that wall.

  2. I'm not certain of which wall you're referring to, but thanks for the support.

  3. You need to see "A Few Good Men" again

  4. Ah, yes. Thanks for clarifying.

    For those unfamiliar:

    You Can't Handle the Truth

    A well written, well acted explanation of the presence on this planet of "nations" or "countries" - the lines you can't see from space.

  5. Well, it looks like I'll have to eat my words about Patrice Bergeron ("Before he was identified as a China Doll..")...Excellent series against the Canadiens. Along with Chuck Kobasew, quietly the MVP of the series.

    Go B's.