Seeing Red, Seeing Stars, Seeing Bars

I was recently referred to by one of my friends as a “soccer mom” because I didn’t like his little facebook post of “Soccer players pretend they’re hurt, hockey players pretend they’re not.” I can take the kidding from him, let’s face it I drive Marcus to about 3 practices a week despite the fact that there’s several inches of snow and ice on the ground and it only recently managed to get above freezing for most of a day. But I’ll keep my kid in soccer thank you very much if it means not having to worry about concussions. What is permitted in hockey as part of the game is turning the sport into a literally bloody mess. That brings me to today’s tour of violence in the two sports and we’ll see where you want your kid afterward.



Seeing Red: First stop Manchester, for the game between Manchester United and Real Madrid. With United up 1-0, Nani (Man U) went up for a ball with his leg way out in front of him and basically ninja-kicked Arvalo Arbeloa (Real) in the chest. Nani was focused on the ball, but by leading with that leg he was judged by the ref have used “excessive force” to win the ball and so out came the red card. While many have argued the ref’s decision (including everyone in the city of Manchester), the response from Real was telling, they simply subbed Luca Modric in who almost immediately scored and then minutes later Cristiano Ronaldo put in the winner. No need to “even things up” no need to “send a message”, Nani was gone and so was Man U’s game plan. I’m going to back the ref on this one – it was excessive, whether he meant to or not is irrelevant, only that he did do it. I think what was so shocking to Sir Alex Ferguson wasn’t that it could happen, but that one of his players could receive a red at home. He was counting on the intimidation of the crowd at Old Trafford to nudge the ref to a yellow rather than the straight red.

Seeing Stars: Our travels take us now to Toronto, for the Leafs – Senators game the following day. 26 seconds into the game Frazer McLaren of the Leafs and Dave Dziurzinski of the Senators dropped gloves and had the good ol’ fashioned punch out. Suddenly, Dziurzinski was down and not just down, but out cold. McLaren needed stitches, but at least remained conscious. The consequences for the deliberate fight that had nothing to do with the play of the game: 5 minute majors for both, and then all was forgiven and McLaren went back on the ice. Oh, and there was another fight later in the first period, probably to “even things up”.

Dziurdzinski after the fight

Dziurzinski after the fight

Compare the two sports now – in one (I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt) a dangerous, but likely unintentional play ends up in a player being ejected for his conduct. In the other, two players deliberately stop the game so as to fight one another, one ends up with a concussion and the other receives only a five minute ban from the game, and this leads to a further fight soon after. The league may review McLaren’s actions, but this is largely accepted and tolerated in the sport.

I’m going to tie this back to my research now with the importance of the crowd to the teams involved. In the soccer example, Sir Alex was furious, not because there was a card, but because the ref wasn’t swayed by the emotion and intensity of the stadium (the affect, for you theory junkies) into giving a yellow, or a warning. In sending off Nani in such an unexpected way the ref did have a huge influence on the game, it rocked the management of Man U, the players and the fans. But I’m not going to say this was a negative effect, since it was the right call for a bad tackle.

On the other hand, in the hockey example the players were trying to create that emotion and intensity for their teams by starting the game with a fight, in this case it seems to have backfired as you can’t really get all riled up when someone is lying unconscious on the ice. And one has to wonder about the mentality of deliberately attempting to injure someone as a way of motivating your fans and teammates. Affect is a two-way street, rile up the fans and they’ll rile you up too, that’s the intent of this relationship – get the extra boost from the home crowd to put you over the top. But it isn’t just something that you turn on or off, it has a life of its own and can react in strange and unpredictable ways. Which brings me to…

Seeing Bars: The consequences of playing with emotions and intensity can sometimes spin off in ways that you never mean it to. Last week former youth hockey coach Martin Tremblay was sentenced to 15 days in jail for tripping a 13 year old player during the post game handshakes. I don’t think that there is any excuse for what he did, but I wonder if a sport that so strongly encourages its “toughness” aspects does not set itself up for exactly this sort of situation? It is Sarah Palin’s pitbulls with lipstick image come true.

Tremblay trips a 13 year old

Tremblay trips a 13 year old

My argument isn’t perfect, there’s a lot that goes on in a soccer crowd in some places that makes hockey fans positively tame, but the example that is set in the game itself is critical for setting the mood of the crowd around the game. How will fighting in hockey stop? When people stop watching because of the fighting. I gave up. We’ll watch the Olympics next year because there won’t be fights. The hockey will be good, but without idiocy, because as international hockey has shown, you can play without the fights.

Hockey on the Brain: Why North American Leagues Lockout (because they can)

A slight departure this week.

Normally at this time of the year there would be a hum of sports stories flying in the media. At this point the sports sections of the major Toronto papers could effectively be renamed the Leafs section. Alas no. For the fourth time in 20 years the biggest game in town has been shut down by the owners. In that time, the NHL has lost more games to work stoppages than all the other major sports leagues combined, it is also the only league to completely wipe out a season.

Why is my soccer blog venturing outside the realm of footie? I think there is a connection between how the leagues structures of North American sport operate and the work stoppages. Going back to the beginning way back to about a century ago, two continents decided on very different structures of  league ownership. In England (and similarly in much of the rest of Europe), the power of the overarching league control was given to the national federation, the FA. Owners got a seat at the table, but if there was a better team around they could lose out on their spot. While the FA wasn’t exactly a part of the government, it wasn’t a part of the owner’s little racket either. Perhaps it was a cultural trust for authority derived from the state?

North America turned instead to the power of the corporation. In cash we trust. Owners also formed leagues, but to protect their interest, they each got a seat at the board with the governor and decided that it was to work as a secret club, you needed to pass the test of having enough money for a team and then you could receive your membership for life. North American leagues work effectively as cartels; Major League Baseball was actually exempted from US anti-trust legislation. It puts far more power in the hands of the owners than a similar European league.

Now I’m not blind to some of the obvious differences in the geography of the two places. North American cities were separated by vast distances that made the organization of leagues slightly more difficult than say England. Europe was divided politically so that each country insisted on its own league. But I think it was the power of business in the US during the end of the 19th century that settled things for how sport was to be organized here.

The effect has been that NA leagues have stressed inter-city rivalries (Boston vs NY, Toronto vs Montreal) while England makes almost a bigger deal with its intra-city derbies (Liverpool vs Everton, Sunderland vs. Newcastle). It has also calcified the NA leagues and given owners some rather unique powers: Drafts – being able to designate the team rights to certain players and removing the player’s freedom of labour; Territoriality – how is it that Phoenix can still have a team when its pretty clear from demand in Toronto that a new team here would sell out in a second?; no fear of relegation – as much as I like having TFC in MLS, if they played as bad as they do in Europe they’d be in the 6th tier of soccer already and deserve it; and most importantly, lockouts – can you imagine the owners of any soccer league trying to pull this on their own league, fans and players?

No. It wouldn’t happen, short player strikes have happened before; leagues have threatened to hold off without TV rights settled, but the moment the doors close the vultures of every other league in the world will swoop down and destroy the pool of talent those teams possess. For most NA leagues there are few other options. NFL Europe: not really, baseball in Japan: maybe, other basketball leagues: not much of a comparison (but getting better), KHL or Swedish Elite League: maybe to kill time. Given that sort of power and few options for players is it any wonder why there are so many lockouts in NA sport? Owners here have the players over a barrel.

Yes I feel sorry for the millionaires over the billionaires, not by much, but seriously, how have MLSE ever helped the sports fans of Toronto?