Blood sport

March 14, 2004

FOR THE SECOND time in four years, police in Vancouver, British Columbia, are investigating whether to charge a professional hockey player for a brutal, on-ice attack on an opponent. The first mugging, a stick bashing, led to an assault conviction. The second took place Monday and left the beaten player with a broken neck.

Anyone who viewed the latest thuggery - endlessly replayed on TV sports shows last week - had to recoil in horror. Vancouver Canucks All-Star Todd Bertuzzi skated up behind the Colorado Avalanche's Steve Moore, sucker-punched him on the side of the head, and jumped on him - driving him headfirst into the ice, where a pool of blood quickly formed.

Of course, pro hockey has a long history of violence; its enforcers - employed mostly for their fighting skills - are legendary. This hit was to have been in that tradition, a payback for an earlier attack by Mr. Moore on a Vancouver star. But such violence isn't saving pro hockey from gushing red ink, and it was so out of bounds as to truly warrant police involvement and a ban on such attacks. That's the case in highly skilled Olympic hockey - fighting gets you thrown out of the match - but it remains exciting.

But the problem of violence in sports is hardly restricted to ice hockey. In pro sports, it's fueled by the powerful incentives of big money, fan appeal and television's obsessive focus. The day after Mr. Moore's neck was broken, a cable TV show aired the ugliness 16 times in six minutes. That's not surprising given that virtually every sports replay reel celebrates the big hit - the blindside tackle in football, the mayhem under the boards in basketball, even the hapless baseball brawl.

More disturbingly, the breaching of the fine lines between aggressive play and outright violence has seeped down to even high school and youth games - with the courts increasingly involved. Across the country, there has been a continual stream of incidents of players fighting, coaches assaulting referees, fans brawling, and parents attacking each other - in one infamous attack by one hockey dad on another in 2000, fatally so. Just last week in Prince George's County, a high school soccer player was acquitted of assault charges stemming from a fight during a game last fall in which one opponent suffered three dislodged teeth and another a broken arm.

Over the years, pro hockey has had more than a few wake-up calls on this issue. But this latest mugging ought to be a jolt for the whole sports world - all the way down to pee-wee leagues.

No one wants to substitute the police for game referees, but that's where we're headed unless this deep-seated culture of blood sport is overcome by a new competition - in self-control.

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