The Friday Night Travesty, or how an eLinguist deals with strange social behavior

Let it be known to the world that I am a relatively new hockey fan. I was converted after living in Pittsburgh for a few years, after meeting several people who were great fans of the game and willingly shared their enthusiasm with me. It was a conscious decision to try to understand hockey, because it is important to the city that I currently call home, and because it is a main preoccupation of people who are important to me. I absolutely cannot claim that I know everything about the sport — sometimes, I feel like I don’t know anything at all — but this past week I have been struck for the first time by an all-out obsession with it.

On Friday, February 11th, the Pittsburgh Penguins played against the New York Islanders. If you haven’t heard about what happened during that game, there are plenty of places that you can go to read about what went down (try here for a story and here for videos). This has caused a flurry of debate — on one side, that the Penguins deserved it because in the last game one of our guys broke their guy’s jaw, and furthermore we have a player on our team, Matt Cooke, who is known for being rather brutal from time to time. On the other side, the Islanders clearly went over the line of what’s considered acceptable in gameplay, by doing things like jumping a Penguin from behind when he wasn’t looking, and taunting an injured player while he was down.

All of this aside, I have personally been absolutely mystified as to why this would happen. First, about why the referees would allow the brawls to continue and not stop it before it started. Second, about why the Islanders would go beyond the accepted societal norms in order to have revenge, at great cost to their team (a hefty fine and suspensions of many of their players). I have had discussions with my hockey-knowledgeable friends and read some books on the sociology of sports and violence.

There are a lot of books out there about the sociology of sports.

I’ve been reading one edited by Jeffrey Goldstein called Sports Violence, which I gather is kind of a landmark book on the subject, which has gotten me to thinking a lot about sports in ways that I haven’t before. It isn’t really news to most people (myself included) that a sport is an entire society in itself with its own rules for interaction and behavior. Just like any other society, there are laws which will get you punished (e.g. time in the penalty box, or a game suspension), and there are also ways that people can transgress the law which are approved of generally by the society (e.g. dropping the gloves and engaging in a fight, which will get you penalized and possibly thrown out of the game, in order to send a message to another team or repay them for some other event). All of these things fall within the social-conventional norms, which Haan (1977) discusses. They may transgress the “law” of the society of hockey, but they fall within the norms.

Because of this, and because of my understanding of the way the society of hockey works, I can understand why the Islanders would be more aggressive against the Penguins. We beat up a couple of their guys (within the social-conventional norms), and so one expects a response within the norms. It’s clear that they’d come out ready to play — and they did, on Friday when the Islanders scored a bunch of goals early and thoroughly trounced the Penguins — and even ready to fight — which they did, when Maxime Talbot was challenged to fight.

What I was trying to figure out is why the Islanders would go so far beyond the boundaries of social conventions, at great expense to their team’s finances, player base, and reputation, in the final period of that game on Friday. The closest I have gotten to an explanation is perceived injustice, the type discussed by Mark, Bryant, and Lehman. They talk about this in regards to fan behavior, but I can see its effects in this situation too.

So something happens, and it’s perceived as unfair. Hard hits don’t get punished as harshly as they should. The Islanders have suffered some unfortunate circumstances in the league in general. Fans rail on Marc-Andre Fleury for laughing after the fight between Johnson and DiPietro — even if, as has been discussed, he was laughing at the absurdity of a goalie fight, not at the injury to DiPietro which no one knew about until the next day. Whether these actions are unjust or not, they are perceived that way, and that is the motivation for going beyond the conventions. The perceived injustice is highlighted with over-the-top behavior as a means of drawing attention to their frustrations, and since frustration often leads to aggression in sports (as documented over and over in Goldstein’s book), it followed that such fighting and aggression was the chosen way to attract this attention.

Of course, after I’ve written this, I discover that someone else has written about it with information that corroborates my analysis, albeit defending the behavior of the Islanders. I’m not really interested in arguing about who was right and who was wrong; I embarked on this adventure as a way to help me understand the motivations behind what happened from a social standpoint. And now it makes a little bit more sense, at least to me.

Yeah, this post has nothing to do with linguistics, so let me add something: in all of this, I have seen an interesting linguistic phenomenon in that the arguments of people who can’t spell “hypocrisy” are often devalued because of their spelling. It goes back to what I talked about in a previous post about raiding guild applications, that proper spelling indexes a number of other features including interest in the topic. With this particular topic about “hypocrisy”, it seems that proper spelling indexes either intelligence or one’s right to make a statement in a public forum.

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