05 March 2009

Fightin' Shape

Returning to the running world after 20 years was a homecoming. Home to the sport I loved way back when, home to getting back to fightin’ shape, and mostly home to the culture I loved then and love now, where, unlike other sad and abhorrent parts of our culture, fightin’ shape doesn’t mean anyone’s fighting.

Think about it. Have you ever seen a fight break out at a marathon? Running is up there with figure skating, where the occasional Tonya Harding might surface, but if she does, she’s a rarity, a news item, and universally loathed. Come to think of it, the worst violence I’ve ever seen in a race was in the movie “Run, Fat Boy, Run”, and that, while absurd to any true runner, was truly hysterical.

This is on my mind because I went to a fight Saturday night, as the old joke goes, that is to say, I went to a hockey game. A professional hockey game. The Worcester Sharks minor league hockey, to be precise. The Sharks were playing in a high pressure match because they are, after all, in 5th place in their division in the latter part of the season, and they were playing the worst team in the league, so after all, there was a lot on the line.

I’ve been a hockey fan for 30 years, and I’m not naïve to the nature of the game. It’s rough, no doubt. You skate around and smack guys into the boards and there’s a good chance you’re going to get someone hoppin’ mad at you at some point. But kids – who by nature of their lesser-developed maturity are more likely to fly off the handle – manage to play the game under control (and in most cases, though sadly, not all, the parents in the stands stay under control as well).

At the college level, the officials keep a pretty tight reign, and warring offenders are generally brought to justice. As a result, the college game is, to my mind, fabulous to watch if you’re fortunate enough to see it played well. To my fortune, my alma mater Rensselaer took the NCAA title during my final year as an undergrad in ‘85. We logged thousands of miles (in the car, not running, too bad…) and had a hell of a time watching truly fine talent play the game the way it was meant to be. It wasn’t peaches and cream – there were fights now and then – but only now and then.

The last time I saw a major league Bruins game, I spent the whole trip into Boston explaining to my then 5-year-old daughter that sometimes these guys didn’t behave well, and if they did that, we saw that as bad, and didn’t cheer or shout, no matter what the rest of the fans did. Then I held my breath, hoping for the best. I didn’t get to turn blue. They dropped the gloves 12 seconds in.

Saturday’s trip to the Sharks was organized through my daughters’ school. After all, at the minor league level, it’s a family-oriented event, so they say. They send their cute mascot to the schools (my daughters reported his malodorous suit needs a very thorough cleaning). They support local charities. They put forth an image of community wholesomeness.

It’s crap. Their business is built on raw violence, stoking the animalistic bloodlust of the populace. We’ve come no further than the Romans with their lions-in-the-Coliseum bloodlettings. The violence was frequent, intense, and not only allowed but encouraged. The game commentator on the public address system extolled the fights as part of the great entertainment of the evening. In short, it’s clearly league sanctioned, because it sells the product.

Witnessing adults acting like animals is a sad occurrence. Witnessing children – especially young children like the 6-year-old boys and girls behind me sitting next to their smiling parents – screaming “Fight! Fight! Fight!” is downright disturbing. It’s no wonder society is a mess.

In a baseball or football game, when tempers flare, officials and teammates immediately jump in to try to separate the warring parties. In the rare case where a larger melee erupts, at the least it’s a notable event, and typically the parties engaged suffer some retribution. At the ‘family friendly’ Sharks game, when players dropped the gloves, they danced around each other for a solid minute before starting to fight, so as to stoke the crowd to higher levels of frenzy. The officials and their teammates, who had plenty of time to act, did nothing. It’s part of the show.

I’ve known hockey for years, and I’ve known that at the professional level, violence has been a problem for years. Even from that position, I was blown away at the extent of the pandering to such base instincts. Chances are good that was the last professional hockey game I’ll attend.

Think about this next time you’re jostling for position amongst 25,000 runners. When someone runs into you, you both say you’re sorry. Even at the highest levels of competition, civility is the norm, not the exception. Don’t take for granted the fabulous culture of the running world. It’s one of the new remaining islands of civility in society. We’ve got it good. We work out bodies into fightin’ shape, yet never see the need to fight anyone other than ourselves.

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