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Drawing The Line: What's the breaking point for violence?

Dave Naylor
7/4/2011 3:31:52 PM
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All this week on Sportscentre and TSN.ca we present Drawing The Line, a five-part series examing the issues around violence in sports. Over the past few months we've sat down with current and retired players, league and team executives, doctors, academics and those who manage grass roots sports in this country. We'll shed light on the issues around one of the hottest topics in sports, asking the questions that determine where we draw the line on sports violence, how that line should be established and why this issue continues to be so hotly debated.

It is a simple question without a simple answer.

How much is too much violence in professional sports?

Well, start with the meaning of the word violence, which in itself stirs plenty of controversy.

It's been argued that anything which occurs within the rules of a particular sport doesn't qualify as violence, nor should much of what goes on beyond the rules since it's understood that things just happen in the course of contact sports.

A kick to the head in mixed martial arts, being crunched into the boards in hockey or a thunderous hit over the middle in football may inherently all appear to be violent. But yet to some, violence suggests an intent to injure beyond the mutual understanding of those competing against one another.

The dictionary, meanwhile, says violence is a “rough or injurious physical force, action, or treatment” which, when applied to the world of sports, covers a whole lot of what goes on all time.

But determining the line between wanted and unwanted violence, and trying to decide how forcefully that line should be policed, is a very tough challenge, with the only answer in the eye of the beholder.

Violence has been a part of sport for almost as long as it has existed. The idea of physically outdoing someone in competition logically involves the notion of one person being allowed to physically punish the other.

But figuring how to balance the need to minimize risk with the desire to maximize of excitement is a process that never ends. And one that's been made all the tougher because of the avalanche of contradictory information that is coming at us these days.

It's been hard to miss the drum beat in the sports world over the past year or so.

Rarely does a day go by where we aren't reviewing some gratuitous act of violence on the highlights, hearing about a suspension that's being handed down, learning about some disabled former athlete who's struggling to get by, or learning that ailments we used to brush with a shrug are far more dangerous than we ever imagined.

It's enough to make us think and re-evaluate all that we consume in sports entertainment and ask ourselves whether the very high degree of tolerance we have for this stuff really ought to be so.

It has even been suggested that we must be nearing some sort of breaking point, a line at which consumers of sports will say enough is enough and turn away.

And yet at the same time there is so much which suggests violence in sports has never been in such high demand. 

Think about the NHL season that just completed, of Sidney Crosby coming off the ice dazed, not yet to return, or of Max Pacioretty's head slamming into the stanchen after Boston's Zdeno Chara directed him that way. Think of the uproar that followed.

Then think about how the Vancouver Canucks Stanley Cup run captivated Canadians this spring, with the NHL enjoying sky-high television ratings for everything from the playoffs to the recent draft.

Think about the National Football League and those hits delivered last season that brought the commissioner out of his chair and forced the league to augment its rules this off-season to redraw the line about what's allowed and what's not.

Then think about February's Super Bowl game that was the highest rated sports event in North American history.

Think about the opposition to UFC in the province of Ontario and the government that believed it was necessary to protect us from a sport that was simply too barbaric for public consumption.

Then think about those 55,000 seats that sold out in an instant and the remarkable cross-section of society that turned out to watch an exhibition of physical violence like no other.

Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that despite all the attention directed towards violence in sports in recent months, research commissioned this spring by TSN shows the three fastest trending sports among avid fans right now are mixed martial arts, hockey and football, which also just happen to be the three most violent sports at our disposal.

Go back over the past 40 years and it's not hard to find instances when violence in sports has surfaced as a debating point, usually disappearing for a period of time before something happens in a game that puts it back into the conversation.

Part of what's brought the conversation forward this time has to do with athletes who are bigger and stronger than they've ever been, resulting in bigger collisions and harder blows in an age where the big hit can be a ticket to sports highlight fame.

But a large part of what's evolved recently isn't cyclical at all, but a slew of new information that has changed the nature of the debate to a much more serious tone.

There is now hard evidence that suggests all of those blows that thrill us as we watch from our couches have come at a price for the athletes participating, and that price can be steep, indeed.

For the first time, medical science is weighing in and raining on the notion that the most heroic and praiseworthy athletes on the planet are those who can push through any level of pain or injury to keep competing, even when their bodies are telling them to stop.

We can't say we're not aware of that stuff anymore, that we don't understand the risks associated with some of the sports we consume, and yet whatever outcry there is for change is being drowned out by demand.

Violence in sports is the thing we may hate to love. But a lot of people do love it. And that doesn't appear ready to change anytime soon.

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