Monday, December 26, 2011

I have written in a previous post about the similarity between religion and some sports cultures. I have always enjoyed sports. As a child and teenager, playing sports was all I ever wanted to do. I was a pretty decent athlete too, usually one of the best players on whatever team I played on and usually the fastest or second fastest runner in my grade. As I grew older, though, I started to migrate away from team sports and towards more individual sports. At the time I started to become fed up with what I perceived as some of my teammates complaining all the time and others not pulling their weight or putting in the full effort. A few times I remember being downright embarrassed by my teammates actions in a game, and wanted nothing to do with them. This happened whenever a teammate of mine showed no respect for opposing players or even referees. I hate trash talking. When I played sports I kept my mouth shut and played hard.

Ice hockey is an interesting sport. It is a game that requires a huge amount of skill to play well. Not only does a player need to have all the technical, tactical, and strategical skills involved in most team sports, but in addition the game is played on skates. You can have great hand-to-eye coordination and a fantastic ability to read plays in sports, but if you can't skate well then you'll be a lousy hockey player. The finesse, speed, and skill of the game are fun to watch. Sadly, though, in North America there is a culture surrounding ice hockey that I see very few positives in. From a young age players are taught to be "tough", to never show any pain or emotion of any kind other than anger at opponents, retaliation for an intended or accidental slight by an opponent is a must. If someone accidentally trips you, then make sure you slash him across the wrists with your stick next chance you get. Hockey is a physical game. Part of the game is using your body to check someone and take the puck away from them. Knowing exactly when and how to hit someone to body check them effectively takes some skill. But in hockey culture, if someone effectively body checks you (legally) then you are encouraged to take offence, remember their number, and get them back later in the game even if it means stepping outside the rules of the game or the normal conduct of sportsmanship. This payback can often take the form of a fight, a pervasive part of ice hockey in North America. The penalties for fighting in hockey are minimal compared to most sports. Indeed, one could argue that fighting is encouraged in many ways. Traditionally, each professional team would have an "enforcer" or designated fighter who would make sure that anyone who hit a star player was challenged to a fight. As with any such system that uses force to discourage violence by an opponent, an arms race develops. In the case of ice hockey, each team has an enforcer, so often all that ends up happening is the enforcers fight each other ultimately having little to no effect on the intiiation of hits against star players. Thus, the whole system of fighting in the game is entirely futile. There is no question that if hockey leagues properly officiated their games, then star players wouldn't get targeted for dirty hits because opposing players would know that their season or their career would be over.

So, with that background, I recently read the autobiography of Bob Probert, an NHL enforcer (fighter) who played professionally from the mid-1980s to 2002 for Detroit and Chicago. I won't make this post a general book review, the book itself is far to poor quality to deserve an actual review, but I will make a few comments on the sad and pathetic life of Bob Probert. Probert grew up playing hockey and, as a big man or 6'3" and 225 - 230 lbs, he was probably destined to be a fighter if he ever made it professionally. He knew his role, and one can't really fault him for playing his role in the sport given the money on the line. But, Probert's life was a tragedy. A raging alcoholic and drug user, throughout the first two thirds of his career he was drunk most days. He never took his training seriously, and often stayed up all night partying before a game. Somehow he managed to keep playing at a hight level. But, as expected of someone who can't control their drinking urges, he was caught numerous times driving while drunk. He was also arrested several times with cocaine on him, once while he was trying to cross the border from the United States into Canada. The man's life was a disaster zone. What surprised me about the book was not the number of times he was in trouble with the law, but how irresponsible he was towards everything and everybody in his life. In his autobiography, he never takes any responsibility for any of his massive foul-ups. He always blames the cops when he gets arrested, the reporters when the story appears in the papers, his teammates when they tire of his antics and say they expected him to get in trouble again, his coaches when they demand accountability from him. In short, anyone whom he perceived to stand the least between him and a lifestyle of pure unadulterated fun with no accounatabilty. Probert recounts going into rehab at least half a dozen times. Most of the time he was in rehab he treated it like any overgrown adolescent would: with an attitude that simply betrayed his disinterest in changing, but rather simply going through the motions to pacify the authority figures in his life. At least twice in rehab he had sexual relationships with staff or others going through treatment. His sole objective during rehab appeared to be to find a way out and get another drink. Countless times in his book he talks about being clean for a few days or weeks and then caving the moment anyone asked him if he wanted a drink, as though it was their fault for failing to keep the alcohol away from him. As far as the reader can make out, he was unfaithful throughout his pre-marriage relationship with his future wife, and throughout their marriage as well. When his wife confronted him with infidelity his response was to more or less shrug it off and blame the booze. In short, there is no other conclusion to come to than that Bob Probert was a first class asshole who happened to be good at playing hockey and fighting while standing on ice skates.

And yet...he was revered by the hockey world. Fans adored him. Teammates generally respected him as one of the "good guys". When he died, at the predictably young age of 45, in July 2010, the hockey world paused and mourned the tragic loss of this great man as though none of them could have seen it coming. It is simply stunning, given his reckless approach to life, booze, drugs, women, and driving, that he made it past 30.

So why do people in the world of sports get so revered? If Bob Probert had not been a professional hockey player, I am convinced he would have been considered a collasal foul-up and loser. He would likely have ended up in jail long-term. (As it is, he did a significant stint in jail, and faced huge legal problems which were only handled in his favour because of the large financial backing involved in professional sports). In his book he must recount, in passing, driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs dozens of times. How many hundreds of other times did he drive drunk that he doesn't mention? He was staggeringly lucky to never kill anyone while driving drunk.

To me, the cultures of sports and of religions are interesting. I find many similarities in the cultures. There are unwritten and written codes that one must follow for no particular reason. People are blinded by irrational thought.

Had Bob Probert not been a hockey player and had instead orphaned some kid during one of his countless episodes of impaired driving, he would be remembered only as a total loser. The fact that he was lauded and rememberd as a "good guy" by all of the hockey world at his funeral and in multiple media stories only illustrates the insane, irrational thought processes in the world of sport. Sport is a religion, plain and simple.

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