The Problems with Football and Hockey

January 24, 2018 § Leave a comment

I watched both the AFC and NFC Championship games last weekend.  I haven’t watched as much football or even NHL hockey this year and I’ve been trying to figure out why.  In terms of hockey, my team sucks, but, I’ve remained a fan of hockey in general when the Habs have sucked in the past.  When it comes to the NFL, to be a Chicago Bears fan is to know misery.  They’ve sucked almost continually for the past 35 years.  So I’ve watched a lot of football, despite my team being in last place.

But this year, something has changed.  I have long had issues with football, the injuries, the concussions. I played football when I was younger.  I have lingering injury issues, and I don’t want to think about how many concussions I’ve had.  No one cared about head injuries in the late 80s/early 90s.  And then there’s the question of football and CTE.  I wrote about this a few months ago, when the Commissioner of the Canadian FootbalL League, Randy Ambrosie (a former CFL player) insisted that we don’t know if there’s a connection between CTE and football.  Funny, the NFL has admitted there is a connection.

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Houston Texans QB Tom Savage convulsing after hitting his head on the turf after being hit.

Hockey isn’t doing much better.  We have been subject to a steady stream of stories about ex-NHL players being caught up in drug addiction, depression, and early death.  This has happened to stars like Theoren Fleury and Mike Richards, and it’s happened to former enforcers, like Chris Nilan, Derek Boogard, and so on.  Earlier this month, I read an article about former enforcer Matt Johnson, who was in jail in Los Angeles after vandalizing a Denny’s restaurant on New Year’s Eve.  Johnson claimed to be homeless and refused legal help, at least initially.  His dad reported how worried he was about his son, and how much he’s tried to help him in recent years.  Or how about Kevin Stevens, who was one of the greatest power forwards of the early 90s, who devolved into addiction to painkillers?

To me, it seems that these athletes are sacrificing their bodies, their brains, and their futures to play.  And, yes, part of that is their own choice.  But, there are also structural issues here.  Teams have historically pushed their players to play injured or not.  Teams have pushed painkillers on players.  And then there’s brain injuries.  The NFL has come to an agreement with a group of former players for payouts for concussion damage, though there are problems there.

But that doesn’t do much for the current game.  Think of Houston quarterback Tom Savage continuing to play after appearing to convulse after hitting his head on the ground.  Or how about Rob Gronkowski in the AFC Championship game, when he was knocked silly by Barry Church of the Jacksonville Jaguars.  After the hit on Gronkowski, the Jaguars celebrated, and the commentators, Jim Nantz and Tony Romo (a former NFL quarterback), just carried on as if nothing major happened.

Then there’s the NHL.  A group of former players has brought a class-action suit against it.  The league’s response? To challenge the science behind the linkages between hockey and brain injuries.  Seriously.  It is otherwise doing next to nothing, beyond a ‘concussion protocol’ that is as much of a joke as the NFL’s.  This week, TSN in Canada reported that former NHL star Eric Lindros, whose career (and that of his brother) was ended by concussions, and Montreal Canadiens’ team physician Dr. David Mulder, approached the NHL last year and challenged the league to donate $31 million (or $1 million per team) to fund research in brain trauma. The league has ignored them.

And so, ultimately, I am finding it increasingly difficult to watch NFL or CFL football or NHL hockey.  Watching 200+ pound men smash into each other at full speed, in many cases purposely targeting the head is nauseating.  And wondering about the long-term effect of concussions is equally nauseating.

Both hockey and football are brutally physical sports.  Hockey is also played at incredible speeds on ice.  That’s part of the game.  Hitting is central to both.  I don’t have a problem with that.  I do have a problem with blatant head shots.  I have a problem with pumping players full of painkillers to get them back on the ice/field.  I have a problem with professional leagues denying a connection between concussions, head shots, and CTE.  I have a problem with commentators and fans acting like these kinds of hits are acceptable.

And until fans and advertizers really do question these forms of brutality against the bodies of professional athletes, nothing is going to change.

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The Death of Language

October 4, 2017 § 1 Comment

We live in an era where the President of the United States labels anything he doesn’t like as #FAKENEWS.  Last year, we watched Brexit succeed (at least in a referendum) where the Leave side was guilty of inventing several truths that were actually lies.  And one of the President’s surrogates has coined the term ‘alternative facts’ to describe lies.  I wrote about this last year in the wake of the Presidential Election.

The damage to public discourse and the use of language through politicians who lie nearly every time they open their mouth is obvious.  But there is another source of danger when it comes to the actual meaning of words and their usage: sports journalism.

As my friend John likes to note, nothing should ever get in the way of ESPN’s ‘hot take’ on any and all, most notably language and truth.  But it’s not just ESPN.  Take, for example, Canada’s TSN (for those who don’t know, The Sports Network is the largest sports network in Canada, with a monopoly on broadcasting the Canadian Football League; it also holds regional marketing rights to NHL games, as well as Major League Baseball, and various other sports.  It is also 20% owned by ESPN).  A headline earlier this week on TSN.ca states,  that “Pens, Lightning Battle It Out in First 7-Eleven Power Rankings of 2017-18.”

Um, no. The Penguins and Lightning are not battling it out to top the power rankings.  Why?  Because these are entirely subjective rankings created by TSN.  The Lightning and Penguins did not play a game, a play off series or anything for this honour.  TSN’s staff just ranked them as the two best teams in the game.

And so you may not think this a big deal, TSN’s headline writers are just looking for attention to encourage people to click on the story.  Sure they are.  But in so doing, they are messing with the meaning of words.  They are cheapening the meaning of the verb ‘to battle.’

This kind of thing is pretty common in sports journalism, whether through laziness or incompetence, I can’t tell.  But you will notice that around trade deadlines or amateur drafts or free agency periods, sports journalists will tell you about the ‘names’ being thrown around.  Sure, they are names being bandied about (mostly by these very same journalists, who get to make up the news and then report on it).  But names don’t get signed, trades, or claimed in drafts.  Players do.

Maybe you think I’m just a crank for being worried about language.  Good for you.  You’re wrong.

Of course language is mutable, of course meanings of words change over time, and the way we speak changes.  Ever heard someone speak 18th century English?  Or how about the word ‘awful’?  Initially, the word meant ‘full of awe,’ or something that was truly awesome (to use a word that has developed to fill the void caused by awful’s evolution), as in the ‘awful power of nature.’  Today, we would say the ‘awesome power of nature.’  And awful means something that sucks.  But these are changes that have occurred over centuries, and occurred due to colonization, and the like (want to have some fun? Compare the meaning of English words in the UK and the US).

The mis-use of words like ‘battle’ to describe an artificial power ranking that actually has nothing to do with the teams allegedly in this battle is something else entirely.   So is discussing the ‘names’ that were traded.  It’s a mixture of exaggeration and laziness.  And, ultimately, this kind, I don’t know, laziness or idiocy like this renders language meaningless.

 

The Centre Of The Universe?

December 2, 2016 § 2 Comments

An interesting thing has occurred in the realm of Canadian sports journalism in the past few weeks.  For those of you who don’t know, the English-language Canadian media is centred in Toronto, which every media outlet will remind you is “Canada’s largest city.”  The much smaller French-language media is centred in Montréal, which is Canada’s second largest city.  Toronto’s got a population of around 4.7 million, compared to Montréal’s 3.8 million.  Vancouver is third, closing in on 2 million.  And Edmonton, Calgary, and Ottawa are all around 1 million.  So we’re not looking at the situation in the UK, where London is the largest city and about 5 times larger than the second city, Birmingham.

But, reading Canadian sports media these days, and you’d be convinced that Toronto is the only city in Canada and that its sports teams are all wondrous, virtuous conquering heroes.  Never mind the fact that Toronto teams don’t really win much of anything ever.  The basketball Raptors and soccer Toronto FC have never won anything.  The hockey Maple Leafs last won the Stanley Cup in 1967.  And the Blue Jays last won in 1993.  The Argonauts of the Canadian Football League are the really the only continually successful Toronto sports team, having last won the Grey Cup in 2012 (but, the CFL is a 9-team league, so law of averages…).

Toronto FC was engaged in a tense two-leg Eastern Conference final in the MLS Cup Playoffs against the Impact de Montréal, or IMFC.  An all-Canadian conference final should be one of those things that grip the nation, or at least get the media to recognize its import.  And while Sportsnet, the second of Canada’s sports networks, largely has, TSN, the largest sports network and MLS rights holder, has not.  It has openly and blatantly cheered for a TFC victory, and its coverage has exclusively treated IMFC as an interloper in TFC’s eventual, wondrous assent to the top of the North American soccer world.  On Wednesday afternoon, in advance of the second leg of the series, to be played at BMO Field in Toronto, TSN posted this article about the five keys to the match as its headline on TSN.ca.  Note that it’s all about what TFC needs to do to win.  This is just the most egregious example.  The rest of the coverage on TSN.ca Wednesday afternoon was all slanted towards TFC: its mindset heading into the match, which players it needs to excel, and so on.  Not a word from IMFC’s perspective, except for a feel-good story about the club’s 38-year old captain, and Montréal native, Patrice Bernier.

In the aftermath of the TFC’s victory Wednesday night, in a tense 5-2 match that went to Extra Time, allowing TFC to advance 7-5 on aggregate, TSN’s homepage was a torrent of TFC.  And while this is a good thing, and deserved, TFC won, it’s also still one-sided.  This was especially true of the headline that said “TFC MAKES CANADIAN SOCCER HISTORY.”  Factually, yes, it did.  It made the finals of the MLS Cup for the first time and is the first Canadian club to do so.  But, it did so after making history in an all-Canadian conference final.  And there was not a single story about IMFC and its own very improbable run to the conference finals.  TSN has continually picked against IMFC all season.  It predicted the Montréal side would miss the playoffs.  Then it wouldn’t get past DC United in the first round, or New York Red Bulls in the second round.  And so on.

On Thursday morning, TSN.ca’s home page featured no fewer than 12 features and stories about TFC out of the 28 in total.  Of the remaining 16 stories and features, 10 were about the Maples Leafs (7), Raptors (2), and Blue Jays (1).  One story was about how the Calgary Flames pummeled the Maple Leafs Wednesday night and another mocked Montréal Canadiens winger Andrew Shaw and his bad temper.  There’s a reason why Canadians in the Rest of Canada tend to dismiss TSN as Toronto’s Sports Network.

Meanwhile: Hockey.  The top team in the NHL right now is the Montréal Canadiens.  But, TSN’s coverage is almost exclusively about the amazing, wondrous Toronto Maple Leafs, who have a collection of burgeoning young stars and actually look like they might be a good team again one day.  There are also, you might note, five more Canadian teams in the NHL.  Sucks to be a fan of one of them: TSN just doesn’t care, other than to note the ways in which they’re failing.

And then Sportsnet.  Sportsnet is the rights holder for the NHL in Canada.  And while its coverage tends to be more national in nature, in that it notes that there are indeed teams in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Montréal, besides Toronto, how about them kids in the T-Dot, y’all?  But Sportsnet can even out-do TSN.  On Wednesday, the American-based Forbes published its annual list of NHL teams ranked by value.  As always, the New York Rangers are the most valuable hockey team.  The Rangers are worth $1.25 billion USD.  But Sportsnet’s headline reads: “Maple Leafs Rank Third in Forbes’ Annual Most Valuable Team List.”  So, you think, well, that makes sense.  But, wait, what’s the second most valuable team in the National Hockey League?  Chicago?  Los Angeles?  The New York Islanders?  Nope.  It’s the Montréal Canadiens.

Now, I know we Quebecers had ourselves a couple of referenda on leaving the country, and we still harbour a pretty strong separatist movement; at any given time, around 35% of us want out of Canada.  But, in both 1980 and 1995, we chose to stay.  And 65% of us at any given time want to stick around in Canada.  And we keep giving Canada Prime Ministers.  In my lifetime, five of 9 prime ministers have been Quebecers.

So, in other words, my dear TSN and Sportsnet, Québec is part of Canada.  And Montréal remains one of the largest cities in North America, and also remains a major centre of global commerce.  And its soccer team isn’t that bad, even if its appearance in the Conference Finals is a surprise.  And its hockey team, which is, after all, the most decorated hockey team in the world, is the most valuable Canadian team.

And, if you just so happen to be one of those provincials from the rest of the country, well, as we say back home, tant pis.

Research Note: Playing hockey against priests in Griffintown

June 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

As I noted in yesterday’s post on Frank Hanley, we really do live in a different era today.  In one of the chapters of The House of the Irish, I talk about hockey in Griffintown in the 1950s and 60s.  I interviewed Gordie Bernier, an old Griffintowner, a few summers ago about his life and growing up in Griff and his thoughts on it today.  The previous weekend, he was playing in an old-timers hockey tournament in Pointe-Claire, so clearly it was a major part of his life.  I can relate.

Bernier recalled playing with the Christian Brothers who ran the School for Boys in Griff and who liked to play hockey against the young men:

Keep your head up. But the league we had, we were only young…I was only, I think 17 or so, and we were playing against men, so some of the guys were older. It was a good experience….You keep your head up [laughs]. We used to go there, I think 8 in the morning to the rink on Basin, I lived other on Duke, we used to walk with our skates on, by the time we get over there if there was snow, give us the shovels, we had to clear off all the snow, and we’d play from 8 in the morning ‘til closing time, 10 at night. We were still there, play hockey all day at the weekend. Walk back, your ankles [were all swollen and sore].

Don Pidgeon, a man who has done more than anyone to create the memory of Griff as an Irish neighbourhood, also remembers playing the Brothers, and smashing one over the boards of the outdoor rink on Basin Street Park in Griffintown, with a hip check.

The Brothers, obviously, played hard, and they played to win.  And the lads of Griffintown were not about to give any quarter, as David O’Neill recalls, the Brothers were

great athletes, and a lot of them liked the rough stuff just as much as the boys, and the older boys used to try to establish themselves among their own friends, and there were a few of the priests who used to give and take as good, or better. That generated the respect from the local community towards the priests, and a lot of people respected the priests for their ability to give and take without any complaining. No punishment, except that you got decked back when you weren’t looking.

Certainly, then, this was a different era, when decking a priest, or getting hit back as hard, if not harder, was a means by which the young men and priests earned each others respect, and that of their friends and colleagues, and the wider community.

On PK Subban and Controversy

February 27, 2014 § 8 Comments

Watching the Canadian Men’s Olympic Hockey team at Sochi, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that there is no way that PK Subban is the 8th best defenceman in the country.  He’s the reigning Norris Trophy winner, an offensive threat, a hitter of big hits, a puck carrier, and he’s a rock solid defenceman.  In short, Subban’s skill set seemed to fit exactly with what Canada needed, especially in the preliminary round when it was having problems moving the puck.  And while Subban makes mistakes, so, too, do Drew Doughty and Duncan Keith, Canada’s golden boys of defencemen.  And surely, Subban was a better choice to play than Dan Hamhuis or Jay Bouwmeester, at the very least? But, no, not in the eyes of the coaches.  And, really, at the end of it all, what’s to quibble with?  Subban handled his demotion with grace, and Canada won the gold medal going away, making it two in a row for the men, and landing their first medal on the big ice of the European game.

Subban attracts attention and controversy wherever he goes.  A lot of it is racially charged, and a lot of it comes from people who should know better (which is everyone, frankly, this is the 21st century, not the early 19th).  Subban is many things that many hockey fans do not like: flamboyant, exuberant, and incredibly skilled.  As a result, aside from legitimate criticism, Subban attracts a lot of racist attention.  Let me be very clear: criticising Subban’s play for mistakes or boneheaded plays is not racism. But a lot of the static around Subban is race-based.

When Subban broke into the NHL back in 2009, a lot of the media discussion was about controlling Subban’s exuberance, about toning him down.  Oddly, when Maxime Lapierre played for the Habs, he was an energy player, who was always on the edge, running his mouth on the ice, irritating opponents, trying to goad them into penalties.  Sometimes he crossed the line.  But there were rarely discussions about the need to control or reign in Lapierre.  Unlike Lapierre, Subban can make an entire building of fans rise to their feet with a rush up the ice, the kind of thing we Habs fans haven’t seen since the glory days of Guy Lafleur, frankly.

And yet, Subban has been called out by nearly everyone in the hockey establishment for his allegedly cocky attitude, from  Don Cherry to Mike Richards, and everyone in between, including a few coaches of the Club du Hockey Canadien.

And criticisms are continually made about his play.  That he takes too many penalties.  That he gives away the puck too often. And so on.  Oddly, the Habs other young defencemen are not subject to this kind of criticism. It’s a given that defencemen take a long time to mature and they will make errors on the way.  And young players, especially, will be overly exuberant at times.  But they’re given leeway Subban is not, at least in the media and amongst some fans.

And yet, Subban’s penalty minutes are not egregious.  And, as far as his alleged poor defensive play, that’s just patently false, as this advanced stats discourse shows.  It even shows that Subban can more than carry his weight in relation to the rest of the dmen on the Olympic team.

I won’t even get into Darren Pang’s rather unfortunate mistake of referring to Subban not doing something the “white way,” as opposed to the “right way” (it was a slip of the tongue, he apologised immediately, but, we all know what Freud says of slips of the tongue).

Racism, especially in Canada, works insidiously.  There are certainly still loud mouth racists out there, but aside from the occasional offensive tweet or comment board post, that is not the discourse around Subban.  I could also point out that Winnipeg Jets forward Evander Kane is similarly targeted by the media for his alleged bad behaviour.  Kane is also black.  No, rather than outright racism, this works in a more callous manner, it creeps along, and we find Subban (and Kane) critiqued for behaving in a certain way when other, white Canadian players, are not.  We find the play of Subban (and Kane) under the microscope for alleged inefficiencies when others are not.  We see the the character of Subban (and Kane) under question, when white players’ characters are not.

Case in point.  After the 2011-12 season, Ottawa Senators defenceman Eric Karlsson won the Norris Trophy as the best dman in the NHL.  There were protests that Karlsson was a one-dimensional player, he was a defensive liability, etc.  That the likes of Doughty, Keith, Shea Weber deserved to win.  But the outcry died down pretty quickly when advanced stats showed that Karlsson is actually a pretty good defenceman.  And by the time the 2013 season finally began after an epic lockout, the controversy was over.  But here we are now, at the tail end of February, Subban won the Norris in June last year, and the controversy lives on.  Tell me that racism doesn’t play a role here.

The criticism directed at Subban is not of the ilk directed at other superstars, rather, it is unrelenting and often unfair and baseless.  It’s very hard not to come to the conclusion that PK Subban is resented by many in the hockey world (fans, media, players, coaches, managers) for something as simple as the colour of his skin.  And that, to me, is just stupid.

The Civil War and the Atlanta Flames

February 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

Atlanta Flames goalie, Daniel Bouchard, c. 1977

Atlanta Flames goalie, Daniel Bouchard, c. 1977

Last week, I was watching the Calgary Flames play, I can’t remember who they were playing; I watch a lot of hockey.  I’ve never liked the Flames.  They were arch rivals of the Vancouver Canucks in the 1980s and, as much as I have never cheered for the Canucks (who wore the ugliest uniforms in NHL history in that era), I never cheered for their rivals either (Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Calgary), with the exception of the Los Angeles Kings.  The Flames also committed the venial sin of defeating the Montréal Canadiens for the Stanley Cup in 1989 (to this day, the last time two Canadian teams played for Lord Stanley of Preston’s mug).

Vancouver Canucks road uniforms, 1978-84

Vancouver Canucks road uniforms, 1978-84

The Calgary Flames came into existence in 1980, when the Atlanta Flames packed up shop and moved to the much smaller Canadian city (in a wonderful twist of fate, Atlanta’s next chance at an NHL team, the Thrashers, packed up and moved the much smaller Canadian city of Winnipeg in 2011, where they became the Jets, Version 2.0, the original Jets having moved to Phoenix in 1996, becoming the Coyotes).

When I was a kid, the Atlanta Flames were this team that no one ever thought about.  The only real time they entered my consciousness was in 1977 or 1978, when my parents were considering moving from Montréal to Atlanta.  We moved to Toronto instead.  But, due to the snow storm that hit Atlanta last week and the fact that it was in the news, I was thinking about the old Atlanta Flames whilst watching the Calgary Flames.

I may be slow on the uptake, but the reason why the Atlanta NHL team was called the Flames was a Civil War reference.  After Atlanta fell to the Union Army under General William Tecumseh Sherman in July 1864, Sherman, a vindictive sort, ordered the civilian population out, and then proceeded to sack the city old school, by burning it (though he was persuaded to save the city’s churches by Fr. Thomas O’Reilly of the Church of the Immaculate Conception).  The city was devastated.

The ruins of the Atlanta rail roundhouse, July 1864

The ruins of the Atlanta rail roundhouse, July 1864

Calgary Flames star Kent Nilsson, c. 1984

When Atlanta was awarded an NHL expansion franchise for the 1972-3 season, Tom Cousins, the owner, chose the name to commemorate the burning of Atlanta.  When the Flames relocated to Calgary eight years later, Nelson Skalbania, the new owner, decided to keep the name, thinking it a fitting name for an oil town.  The uniforms remained the same, except that the flaming A was replaced by a flaming C.

Sports Journalists and the English Language: #Fail

December 18, 2013 § 4 Comments

I just read an article on Sportsnet.ca about the Toronto Maple Leafs.  I don’t like the Leafs, and I enjoy it when they lose, something they’re doing a lot of right now.  But, something about this article seemed unfair, like it was piling on.  Chris Johnston starts off his article by saying “The word “crisis” is now being attached to the Toronto Maple Leafs and after just seven wins in the last 22 games it really isn’t much of a stretch.”  Right away, my eyebrows go up when I see language like this.  The passive voice.  The word is being attached to the Leafs.  By whom? In what circumstances?  When?  Why?  Johnston isn’t interested in answering any of that.  It turns out, the word “crisis” was pitched at Leafs’ coach Randy Carlyle by another Toronto journalist, Steve Simmons.  And Carlyle wouldn’t commit to the word.

So it turns out “[t]he word ‘crisis’ is now being attached to the Toronto Maple Leafs” by another sports journalist.  So two guys who cover the Leafs think this (I’m sure many of the fans do).  It reminded me a lot of the hullabaloo swirling around the Chicago Bears last week when news broke that starting quarterback Jay Cutler was ready to return from injury.  This would normally be a good thing, except that his backup, Josh McCown, was the reigning offensive player of the week.  One blogger for ESPNChicago began arguing that McCown should be the starter and, suddenly, all of ESPN was making this claim, arguing that “voices” had been calling for McCown.

The Leafs and Bears examples are reflective of a general shift in sports journalism I have noticed of late.  Journalists are desperate to reach readers and viewers, so the coverage gets more and more shrill.  In the case of the Bears and Leafs examples, journalists are attempting to create stories, to give themselves traction so that they can later claim they were the ones who ‘broke’ the story.  A classic example of the tale wagging the dog.

This general shift has also lead to a loose relationship between the English language and events the journalists are attempting to describe.  For example, last weekend, the Boston Bruins played in Vancouver and were hammered by the Canucks 6-2.  After the game, Bruins forward, Milan Lucic, who is from Vancouver, went out to blow off some steam.  For his efforts, he claims he was punched in the face twice by some idiot, which led to a lot of shouting and masculine preening in front of some guy who filmed it on his phone and the Vancouver police.  A Bruins journalist, Joe Haggerty, called this a “street brawl” in an article on-line.  Some idiot throwing a couple of punches is many things, a brawl it is not.

In watching highlights of the Montréal Canadiens’ game against Phoenix last night, a TSN commentator on SportsCentre claimed the Habs couldn’t “buy a goal,” about a half second before showing highlights of the Canadiens’ first goal in a 3-1 win.  Obviously, they didn’t need to buy a goal, they scored three of them.  This is like the football commentator I saw this weekend reporting that the Dallas Cowboys had scored 24 unanswered points before showing us how the Green Bay Packers came back to win the game.  Obviously those points were answered.

These are a wide variety of recent examples in the world of sports journalism of writers and broadcasters having a loose grip on reality and a dodgy relationship to the meaning of the words they use.  While I realise that we live in a somewhat post-modern world, but words do still have meaning.  But in the world of sports journalism, at least, editors and producers seem to have forgotten this.  And more’s the pity for it.

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