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Drawing The Line: The appeal of violence in pro sports

Dave Naylor
7/6/2011 12:42:23 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's Friday night of the opening week of the CFL season and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are driving with the ball against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Bomber quarterback Buck Pierce drops back to throw, unaware of a blitz that has linebacker Jamall Johnson coming around the right side of the line of scrimmage and bearing down on him with a full head of steam.

Pierce is a talented 29-year-old quarterback whose career has been steadily interrupted by injuries, including concussions, and a dislocated elbow that ended his 2010 season on Labour Day weekend.

When Johnson hits Pierce at full speed, the result is so forceful that the Bomber quarterback is lifted off the ground, almost appearing to come out of his shoes. I wince momentarily and wonder if I've just witnessed the end of his career. 

Pierce's head hits the turf, his helmet rolls off and he appears stunned and not sure what's just happened to him. Johnson, meanwhile, sprints down the field in celebration, eventually bending on one knee and waiving his arms madly, believing he may have given his team a huge edge if Pierce cannot continue. The crowd at Ivor Wynne Stadium roars its approval.

And me? I am simultaneously fascinated and horrified by what I've just seen. But my immediate response is to grab the remote control and rewind my television set so that I can watch the hit over and over again - my guilty pleasure coming from Buck Pierce's pain.

It's a clean hit, I say to myself, one that is well with the rules, even though those rules may have done nothing to protect Buck Pierce's longevity in life or in football.

When Pierce gets up, there are two heroes that emerge from this sequence of events: Johnson for delivering the hit, and Pierce for sustaining it and managing to stay in the game.

Such a scene may seem at odds with a society that has outlawed violence in nearly every walk of life.

But that's part of the appeal of full contact sports, the satisfaction that comes from experiencing something that's forbidden anywhere else.

That cathartic rise of excitement comes from a place we do not fully understand, but that feels as if it must be rooted in our evolutionary history when the ability to physically overcome someone was part of our survival instinct.

Anyone who has ever sat at a game where a big hit was delivered, or cheered on one side of a fight, has felt it. It's something we can neither explain nor deny. And it's why a big hit is so valued not just for what it does in the instant it is delivered but for the way it can energize an entire team or a crowd with excitement.

There has plenty of concern expressed in recent months about violence in sports, with the suggestion being made at times that we may be nearing some sort of breaking point where fans will finally turn away.

Far quieter than the noise being made about the state of violence in sport entertainment is the fact that the sports that deliver the most violence are also the fastest trending sports among avid fans in Canada - football, hockey and mixed martial arts.

And it's not just violent sports that appeal to us, it's also some most violent athletes within those sports because they do things we simply can't imagine doing ourselves.

Take any football or hockey team and the two most popular players are usually the superstar player and the tough guy, with the tough guy often being the true fan favourite.

When Mike Tyson was on top in the sport of boxing, he wasn't much of a role model for the world. And yet the notion of The Baddest Man on The Planet captivated people around the globe and his rawness and made him an international superstar.

That kind rawness is what drives a sport like mixed martial arts, where there are no bells and whistles, no costumes to hide behind, just simply two human beings inside a cage that makes it feel like a fight to the death, even though we know it is not. 

None of which is particularly new since from the very first records of competitive sports, dating back centuries ago, there has usually been a component of physical violence.

That violence may be more refined today, more regulated and surrounded by protocol for safety. But the appeal of a spectacle of violence hasn't changed much at all.

We can get our fix of violence on television or in movies as well. But only in sport s there is no script, allowing us to  be captivated by the uncertainty of when a shocking moment may unfold.

And when it does, we can scream and cheer and bang on the glass in a way we so rarely do anywhere else in society, the catharsis for our appetite for violence released in the form of an entertainment spectacle.

Stand in arena when a thunderous hit is delivered in hockey, a crushing blow in football or a knockout punch in a boxing ring. Then watch the reaction.

It's no wonder that sports teams and leagues love to market the big hit, guided simply by the laws of supply and demand.

And they know their market even better than we know ourselves.

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