Sports: The Substitute for Real Manhood?

If it had happened on a street corner in the North End, rather than the ice surface at TD Garden, it would’ve been at least a misdemeanor, if not a felony.

During a stoppage in a hockey game last Saturday, December 7, Boston Bruins tough guy Shawn Thornton approached Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik from behind, casually tripped him, and bashed his head into the ice multiple times with his forearm.  Orpik was immediately evacuated to a local hospital; he had lost consciousness for 30 seconds and was later diagnosed with a concussion.

The assault was ostensibly Orpik’s comeuppance for an arguably legal-but-violent hit on Bruins star Loui Eriksson earlier in the game.  Thornton’s vengeance, though, was sneaky and brutal even by the standards of a game known for its brand of frontier justice.

Those who have defended Thornton’s battery have generally done so with reference to what hockey people call “The Code” (cue ominous timpani).  “The Code” is shorthand for the informal standards of gentlemanly conduct that govern the game.  According to some interpretations of “The Code,” Orpik was obligated to fight Thornton (bare-knuckle fighting remains a common occurrence in hockey) after the former’s borderline hit on Eriksson.  Having failed to do so, Orpik is thought to share the blame for any harm that might come to him later in the contest.

The idea of “The Code” is viscerally appealing because it posits a miniature society governed by shared understandings rather than strict rules.  In a culture where daily experiences seem more driven by actuarial logic than interpersonal intuition, “The Code” offers an oasis of informality.  “The Code” is the promise of a truly free, self-governing society, where standards are enforced communally rather than by external fiat.  It is a profoundly conservative concept, and it is undoubtedly one of hockey’s most compelling attributes.

This being said, no reasonable understanding of “The Code” includes a place for Thornton’s assault.  Many of his defenders aren’t even fans of the Boston Bruins, for whom partisan bias could serve as an excuse for moral callousness.  This attitude can’t be motivated by a misguided striving for the attractive informality described above; the point of “The Code,” rightly understood, is to avoid incidents like this, not to encourage them.  Rather, the impulses here are far less appealing.

It’s no secret that we live vicariously through celebrities, athletes included.  The more atomized a society becomes, the more our identities become bound up in abstract concepts and popular culture, rather than in the concrete communities of family, church, etc.  Lacking in our own lives the social raw materials with which to build our self-concept, we grasp for whatever else might be available to construct an identity.

In the case of hockey violence, it is clear that for many men their concept of their own masculinity is intimately tied up with sports fandom.  The venom of the epithets hurled at players who do not meet certain standards of machismo, such as in bastardized versions of “The Code,” demonstrates just how tightly these men have tethered their self-image to others’ manly sporting exploits.  Making hockey a less violent game by, for instance, banning fighting is so resisted by this cohort because doing so would rob them of the ability to vicariously prove their mettle.

This is, in a word, pathetic.

These men are not just pathetic in that they are pitiable: The word “pathetic” comes from the Greek “pathos,” which means “suffering.”  And there is a real element of suffering here—there must be, if one is so desperate as to tie one’s identity to professional sports.  It is the suffering of alienation in a society that values less and less the associations and responsibilities from which authentic identities are formed.

Professional sports are not inherently unhealthy for society.  But as their cultural stature expands as civil society wanes, we must grapple with the danger that our coliseums will begin to live up to their name.



3 responses to “Sports: The Substitute for Real Manhood?

  1. I’m assuming you’ve never actually PLAYED hockey. Orpik’s hit, while legal, had a definite intent to injure his opponent. This is not the first time Orpik has done this. If he had just lived up to “the code” all else would have been avoided. Thornton should be suspended. He could have “evened the score” far less brutally. But Orpik shares in the blame. If you intend to injure an opponent, you can’t start crying when it happens to you.

  2. I believe that Mr. Thornton should not only be suspended but arrested and cited. Code, shmode; knocking someone down and beating them up seems well outside the bounds of the kind of fights hockey accepts as part of its game, no matter what Mr. Orpik may or may not have been guilty of.

  3. This article is proof positive of people who have no idea about hockey commenting as if they know all there is about the sport and “The Code”. Mr. McGinley, while I respect your opinion and can understand where your observations come from, if I had never played nor become a fan of hockey, I would be inclined to agree with you.


    Fighting in hockey is not a way to “vicariously prove their mettle”, although to an outsider it might appear as such. In a sport that features grown men flying around at high speeds and crashing into each other, passions flare and emotions get the better of us. Have you ever been really angry at someone, say, to the point of seeing red? If you did, and you had a long composite stick in your hand, would you not be inclined to use it as a weapon?

    Fighting is way substituting all out warfare with weapons for a more controlled brawl. Have you seen how much equipment hockey players wear? If you and I were to dress up in full gear, get on skates, and fight each other until one of us fell down, the amount of damage we would actually inflict on each other would be no worse than what one might receive during rush hour on a subway.

    However there are exceptions when fights have gotten out of hand, but the possibility of real danger is part of the appeal. Yet, if you were to take statistics of all the injuries from fighting in the NHL, and divide it by the total number of fights, the percentage would be quite small. Nascar drivers face death, bull riders face getting stomped, etc. Part of that is what appeals to their fan base (obviously not all, but it is a part of it). But do all Nascar drivers die in flaming wrecks? Do all bull riders get trampled? It is the flirtation with danger that draws the appeal.

    Now to Thornton. Do you know anything about Sean Thornton? Do you know he is one of the most humble and kind people outside of the rink? Did you know during last year’s play offs, he was hit by a slap shot that broke his foot yet still stayed on his skates for almost a minute after and continued to block shots so his team could win? We can sit behind out computers and comment on how fool hardy it is, but at the same I envy the man that play with that much selfless passion. Have you ever put yourself at risk of physical injury for the sake of your friends?

    Do you know anything about the game that this happened in? Did you know that James Neal intentionally kneed Thornton’s teammate in the face? Did you know that Orpik hit Erikson with intent to injure? Or that Chris Kelly was hit by a slash from Pascal Dupuis so hard it broke his ankle? It was an ugly night for hockey.

    But put yourself in Thornton’s shoes. Someone just smashed your best friend, with intent to injure. A group of guys is getting testy and shoving around your friends. One just kneed your buddy in the face. Do you stand idly by?

    Thornton’s surprise attack was quick, vicious and over done. But did you see that after Orpik failed to defend himself that Thornton backed off after 2 punches? Sometimes in the heat of a moment you lose yourself, and when you come back you realize what you have done. Thornton has been extremely apologetic, and people who know him attest that is one of the sincerest people.

    I do believe Orpik should have fought Thornton. He would have taken a few punches, fallen down and sat for 5 minutes in the box. If you hit a superstar, you have that coming.

    I write all this not to change your mind, but to point out that it is very easy to judge something by a quick video clip. To draw conclusions about society based on a incident in a sport you are clearly not intimately familiar with seems bizarre to me. I can agree that society does seem to place an over emphasis on its celebrities, but this has been going since the dawn of civilization. You are clearly versed in Ancient Greek and Latin; were the original Olympics any different from a hockey game? Was gladiatorial combat (and I mean the real historical combat, not the Showtime/Spartacus/Hollywood bastardization bloodbath) any different from the men in the NHL flying around on ice?

    Sports allow the fan to spend his emotion via the efforts of his heroes, and you can sit back and make fun of it for what you do not understand, but calling it pathetic to tie one’s identity to professional sports displays a clear lack of experience. Go to a hockey game Mr. McGinley. Force yourself (if need be) to root for your team, to yell at a missed, close opportunity, to cheer for their triumphs and feel saddened by their defeats. You may learn something.

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