In the late 1700’s Jean Jacques Rousseau proposed the concept of the social contract. It works like this: each individual gives up a degree of independence and personal freedom by giving authority to the “sovereign”, in most cases government, to act on their behalf for the good of all. In return the individual receives security and protection.
In the United States the principles of the social contract are embodied in the Constitution. In Canada, the principles can be found in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The idea of the social contract, though originally directed only at the relationship between the people and their government, has pervaded many other aspects of western society.
There is an informal social contract between the National Hockey League (NHL) players, owners, sponsors, the public and the government that allow things to happen on the ice, which, if they happened anywhere else would be a crime.
Hence the phrase “that’s part of the game” in reference to fighting and the many other forms of hooliganism we see on the ice.
There is a tacit understanding that a certain degree of physical violence is acceptable, perhaps indeed required, to maintain public interest in professional sports. A little violence here and there ensures the seats in stadiums and arenas are filled, the television ratings stay high and the leagues continue to be able to sign those much-needed lucrative television contracts.
So every day we have things happening in hockey arenas, football fields, boxing rings and other sports venues that if they took place outside such venues would be criminal.
The other side of that understanding is that professional sport organizations police themselves and enforce a code of conduct that protects individual players. The protection comes from professional leagues providing adequate “penalties” in the form of fines and suspensions to regulate behavior.
The social contract breaks down when the league fails to do its part to protect players.
A recent example is the hit by Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruin which propelled Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens into a stanchion, resulting in serious injury. The NHL’s response was the tried and true “that’s part of hockey”. Essentially no repercussions.
Other professional sports like the National Football League have finally taken serious steps to protect players by changing its policy on hits to the head. The NHL however seems to be content to allow the senseless violence to continue.
There have been a few examples of violence in hockey that resulted in criminal charges. Those cases involved obvious intent to injure. Chara, of course, claims it was not his intention to injure. Would you expect him to say anything else?
The Chara/Pacioretty incident in Montreal has sparked public furor. In Montreal hockey and Les Canadiens are a religion and Montreal Police are conducting a criminal investigation into the incident. Even the Federal government is getting in on the act. Sponsors like Air Canada and Via Rail are voicing their opinion and concerns. The long-standing social contract may be unraveling.
What is NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s response? He is basically thumbing his nose at everyone.
All of this should serve as a wake up call for Gary Bettman (the little Commissioner) and the National Hockey League. Perhaps their defence that fighting and violence is an inherent part of the game is wearing a little thin with a whole bunch of people.
People are realizing that there is another brand of hockey out there, the brand of hockey that is played at the Olympics, and the World Juniors that is at least as entertaining and perhaps more skill based than what the brand of hockey the National Hockey League is pushing. A brand of hockey that does not tolerate mindless on ice violence and that makes a serious attempt to ensure that players like Sidney Crosby get to showcase their talent for all to enjoy as opposed to being sidelined due to concussions.
The little Commissioner and the league need to remind themselves that if they don’t do their jobs, someone else will step in and do it for them. For the privilege of operating outside of the normal rules that apply to all citizens, they have an obligation to ensure the safety of players in the arena. When they violate the social contract all bets are off.