So… there’s been quite a bit of discussion in the wild about why a recent fight between NFL players of the Cleveland Browns and players of the rival squad the Pittsburgh Steelers did not result in criminal assault charges. The fight was broadcast to at least hundreds of thousands, I would imagine, very possibly millions. There were tens of thousands physically present at the scene and able to observe what happened and testify to it. Why, then, aren’t the participants being brought up on charges? Why were they not immediately arrested by sworn police officers present at the time?
Today this discussion was referenced by Mano Singham. And while I agree that there are reasons why we as a society might choose to prosecute the participants in these assaults, there are also reasons why we might not. One of those reasons is racism.
Wait, what? Yes. Racism.
For decades, NFL-style, “American-style” football has been criticized (accurately!) as a violent game. Yet for all those decades, such football has sparked violence that violate’s the sports rules and which might reasonably be interpreted as felonious assault at a much lower rate than ice hockey. For decades hockey in North America has been famous for bloody, bruising battles with sticks swung, skates kicked, and punches thrown that have nothing to do with the game or its rules on the in-game objectives of the players. And yet these violent assaults are almost never prosecuted.
While it’s reasonable to note that using helmet that one has removed from an opposing player to then attack that player is an escalation over, say, a barehanded assault since a weapon is involved. Set aside for a moment that bare handed assault is still a crime, albeit a lesser one than armed assault, but sticks and skates, used as they have been in ice hockey violence, also constitute felonious, armed assault. Yet there is a long history of ignoring such assaults that take place during or immediately before or after hockey matches.
As it happens, ice hockey players are much whiter than demographically average and much, much less black than demographically average for the populations of Canada and the US where NHL hockey is played. As it happens, an NFL player is much more likely to be Black than any random person selected from the populations of Canada and the US.
Given this, it’s clear that charging the Black player who swung a helmet is criminalizing Black men’s behavior that, as a society, we have been unwilling to criminalize when engaged in by white men. In fact, the white violence of the NHL is and has been a much bigger problem for much longer. Not only are fights more common (from what I understand), but weapons made from sports equipment are much more likely to be used in NHL violence. We literally excuse from criminal liability white men’s behavior that is worse, that is a problem both more frequent and, on average, more severe.
It’s certainly intellectually consistent for a person who advocated prosecuting the helmet swinger and who doesn’t know anything about hockey and its fights to respond to this information by asserting the hockey players should also face prosecution. This after-the-fact decision can certainly be persuasively used to argue that a particular individual is not racist. But the fact that as a culture we are publicly spending a huge amount of time discussing this NFL fight (which, by the way, caused no injuries) and its potential basis for initiating prosecutions shows that we as a culture are still racist. Some people knew about this disparity. Law review articles have been written about it. Sports enthusiasts know about it. Sports media who was responsible for initiating and propagating this discussion certainly knows about it. One can only conclude on this evidence that we are treating NFL violence and NHL violence vastly differently, and the racial disparity amongst both players and fan bases cannot be ignored when attempting to determine what this differential treatment says about us as a society.
We. Are. Still. Racist.
If we wish to prosecute players of sports for these types of crimes, we cannot, for the good of society, being with a Black NFL player without an intervening warning that our social policies have changed. If a local DA in charge of a jurisdiction with both an NHL team and an NBA or NFL squad announces today that in-game fights by professional athletes will now be prosecuted, then the first person who later commits such an assault should be prosecuted regardless of race. But prosecuting the Cleveland player for this particular infraction can only violate previously established legal norms and create a criminalization of Black men that society has shown itself unwilling to impose on white men.
That is simply unacceptable.
Verbose Stoic says
Except we actually don’t. For starters, the only behaviour that there’s never any discussion of charging someone with assault over in hockey are normal fights, which are seen as being part of the game and mostly willing, usually don’t result in any injuries, and when they happen in football — which I agree is less common than it is in hockey for historical reasons — no one wants assault charges either. When it comes to the equivalent case where an action is as out of bounds to the normal play of hockey as someone taking their helmet and swinging it at someone, not only does everyone call for charges and not only have charges been laid, but often the players have been CONVICTED of the crimes:
In all three incidents, all of those players were indeed convicted of their charges.
So you’re wrong about how hockey reacts to those sorts of stick swinging incidents that would be outside of the normal play like the helmet case is. Additionally, it’s quite likely that the difference in attitude is due to the fact that hockey is a relatively minor sport in America — poker had better ratings than it at one point — and is pretty much a national sport in Canada, so in America these events get ignored unless they’re egregious and in Canada they are hesitant to get the law involved for things that have normally been part of the game. You can compare the reactions to that for the incident where Rougned Odor hit Jose Bautista and note that while that was not part of a normal baseball fight, no criminal charges were considered or laid:
So I don’t think you can use hockey as an example to show that this is racism. A similar incident in hockey would indeed spawn calls for criminal charges, and the more minor incidents that occur regularly in hockey would also be ignored in other sports where the players are not as predominantly white.
The violent assault last weekend is reminiscent of 2006 when Albert Haynesworth intentionally stomped on the head of an opponent whose helmet had come off Haynesworth received a paltry five game suspension, and there was no legal involvement. Fights in NFL games are sometimes less brutal or ruthless than NFL training camp fights between teammates. They are competing for jobs, and there’s no minor league for football.
These legal involvements seem to affect the NFL the most, even though basketball and baseball fights happen about as often as football fights. Basketball has a higher percentage of Black US-born NBA players than the NFL, and baseball used to have a much higher percentage of US-born Black players, though many Carribean and South American players are Black. At the risk of sounding defensive about white people, hockey has a fighting “code” that you don’t see in baseball or basketball fights (i.e. never hit someone who’s down, no hitting from behind, etc.). Hockey players who violate the code face consequences from their own teammates, not just opponents or the league. This video is disgusting and ugly, but has a surprising ending that demonstrates “the code” (jump ahead to 0:50 seconds).
Three extremely ugly incidents come to mind when thinking about NHL, MLB and NBA fights. I have no doubt that racism plays a role in how many incidents are treated, but in the NBA’s case, I suspect money, damage control and image control made the owners demand harsh punishments fom the legal system:
In 1965, Juan Marichal (a Black man) hit John Roseboro (white) over the head with a baseball bat during a late season game. Despite the violence and damage caused, especially in the era of the Civil Rights movement, Marichal faced little punishment: a fine, a nine day suspension, and neither police nor courts became invovled. Roseboro later petitioned for Marichal’s election to the Hall of Fame.
In 1979, the Boston Bruins were playing the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden. A fight on the ice spilt over into the stands when a fan struck a player on the ice. Eighteen Bruins climbed the boards and attacked fans. It became known as the “Shoe Brawl” after Boston’s Terry O’Reilly beat a man with his own footwear. O’Reilly was suspended for eight games (other Bruins too) and faced fines, but all legal matters were held in civil courts, not criminal. This was a few years after the Broad Street Bullies brought goon hockey to the NHL (“If you can’t beat ’em, beat ’em up.” – Fred Shero, Philadelphia Flyers coach) and two years after the success of “Slap Shot” in theatres. Fighting had been normalized.
In 2004, the NBA’s darkest hour happened when Indiana visited Detroit: “Malice at the Palace”. Several players received long suspensions (Ron Artest received 86 games, the longest in NBA history) with minimal legal consequences (community service, fines, etc.). However, three of the ten involved (Stephen Jackson, Jermaine O’Neal, and Anthony Johnson) received one year probation sentences. In 2004, the NBA was two years into a six year $4.6 billion TV contract, so money was likely a motivator in doling out punishment and sending a message.
“Malice at the Palace” didn’t bother me as much as the December 21, 2009 incident in the Washington Wizards’s locker room, when Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton drew guns on each other.
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A side note on #1’s comment:
Dino Ciccarelli swinging at Luke Richardson was vastly different than the other hockey incidents listed on the link. Most articles don’t mention it, but Ciccarelli’s child was in hospital at the time due to a congenital illness, close to death (though later recovered). Ciccarelli’s mental state may have been taken into account.
Similar to Ciccarelli, on December 19, 1999, Orlando Brown was struck in the eye by a flag thrown by an NFL official. Brown hit the official in anger. He was first suspended for five games by the NFL but it was later “rescinded” as a public relations move. Brown had been blinded in that eye. He could not see for three years, and won a $15m settlement from the NFL. Diabetes related blindness ran in Brown’s family which played a role in his anger. After his second retirement (playing again from 2003-2005), he eventually went blind before his death at age 41 in 2011.
Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says
Sorry for the delay in approving your comment, Intransitive. It got held up b/c of the number of links. You are generally approved to drop comments whenever you like. 🙂
No hurry, no worry. Nobody owes me.
Correction: John Roseboro is Black. I heard wrong.