Recently Alex Ovechkin was suspended for excessive brutality (not the name of the actual penalty) for a body check against a Pittsburgh Penguins player.
Ovechkin deliberately accelerated (not against the rules), lowered his shoulders (not against the rules) and then leaped shoulder first into the Penguins player, hitting him squarely in the head (against the rules). The Pittsburgh player crumpled to the ice and the Penguins bench was in an uproar.
After watching the replay multiple times, it dawned on me that the way physicality is being managed in sports is changing. The questions to ask are is it changing for good or bad and are the changes fair to the fans?
Before you jump out of your chair and yell at me saying, “Of course it is good, dummy—it’s for the safety of the players,” give me a moment to elaborate. How do we know it is safer for the players? What statistics do we have that show a decrease in the long-term injuries associated with physical play?
I’ve heard and read different information about concussions and the long-term dangers of repeat brain injuries (which is essentially what a concussion is: brain trauma). However, aside from a few isolated studies there is very little information out there that supports taking the “Ovechkin-like” hits out of hockey.
The NFL has recently prohibited nearly all contact from defensive players, essentially limiting the effectiveness of the most intimidating players. Are receivers really “hearing footsteps” and dropping passes when they run across the middle of the field? Are hockey players wary and on guard that another player is going to slam them in the corner? Whether we like it or not, these rules and the limits on physical players effect the integrity of the sport.
Where does it stop? When do sports say, “We know guys can get hurt, but unfortunately that’s part of the risk of playing our sport; it’s what our fans come to see and the players all know the risks before they sign up to play”? I fear we are entering an era where contact sports are gradually becoming non-contact sports.
If we rewind 30 years, the hit Ovechkin was suspended for would have been recognized as a good, aggressive play. Instead, in the modern era it leads to a three-game suspension and worse yet, it most likely will have a negative effect on the way hockey’s greatest player plays the game.
Is this what we want? Do we want an NFL where players no long hit hard in the secondary and guys hold on to balls they might have fumbled had full contact been allowed? Is this what our society wants in sports? Are we simply a pacifist society with no tolerance for blood and physicality in sports?
I won’t even get started on MMA.
I know my examples and theories are a bit far-reaching, but the argument is valid. To hit or not to hit? That is the question that now must be ever-present in every professional athlete's mind before he makes his next hard check, tackle or foul.
In my opinion, contact sports are going in the wrong direction—for both the players and the fans. We as fans are being deprived of the full experience. We are being denied the style of play that made the games we watch today so popular.
I’ll leave you with this thought…Historically the greatest teams of all time in nearly every sport have a few common factors; one of those common factors is tough and aggressive play. If we fast-forward five or 10 years, based on the trends with rules and the enforcement of rules around what is now considered “excessively rough” play, will there be another '85 Chicago Bears? Will there be another Broad Street Bullies?
Unfortunately, my friends, we all know the answer if things keep going in the direction they’re going now. Say goodbye to the Broad Street Bullies and say hello to the London Sillinannies (Family Guy reference—if you don’t know it, Google it).