Of the four major professional sports, baseball, football, basketball and hockey, baseball would have to be considered the least physically confrontational. This is not to say that MLB has not had its’ ugly moments. Memory brings back the image of the Oriole’s Roberto Alomar spitting on umpire John Hirschbeck in 1996.
More recently, there was the ugly, bench-clearing brawl on May 19, 1998 between the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles. This viscous battle raged for at least 10 minutes with nearly every man on the field throwing a punch. It was precipitated with a beanball, MLB’s form of enforcement. Just as many hockey traditionalists believe an occasional fight is a natural part of the game they cherish, many baseball purists view a well-timed “purpose pitch” as a necessary part of their game.
McSorley wasn’t the first professional athlete to place a piece of lumber across an opponent’s head during the heat of battle. On August 22, 1965, Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants split Dodger catcher John Roseboro’s head open with his baseball bat. A series of brushback pitches led to the brutal attack by the future Hall of Famer.
Like McSorley, Marichal apologized publicly. Although he received the most severe penalty issued by the league to that point, as had McSorley, some felt it was not enough, just as some feel is the case with McSorley.
The NBA is another professional sport that has had its’ share of violent moments. Kermit Washington of the Los Angeles Lakers pulverizing the Rocket’s Rudy Tomjanovich’s face comes to mind, as does Latrell Sprewell’s choking of his Warrior coach P.J. Carlesimo. Not to be left out is one of the NBA’s original “bad boys”, Dennis Rodman, who’s indiscretions not only include multiple altercations with other players, but also kicking a courtside cameraman in a delicate area.
The worst NBA season for fines and suspensions was 1995-1996, when 57 players were punished, suspended a total of 62 games and assessed $475,000 in fines. These cases were all handled by the NBA, as did the NHL with McSorley.
Along with the NHL, the NFL probably comes to mind when thinking about an aggressive, collision-filled game. Like hockey, footballs’ physical nature often leads to situations where hostile, intimidating behavior is prevalent. This, in turn, gets out of hand and rules are broken.
Take for example, the fact that during the 1999 season, Denver linebacker Bill Romanowski and Detroit safety Mark Carrier had a combined total of $92,500 in fines. Carrier was suspended for one game and fined $50,000 for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Green Bay receiver Antonio Freeman on November 21st. This vicious display of brutality left Freeman with a concussion. Once again, the league handled the punishments.
If a person were to hit another human being over the head with a stick, throw a rock at another person or smash their own skull savagely against someone else’s, they would be arrested. That is what would happen if such transgressions occurred in the everyday realm of the real world.
This is not the case in the world of professional sports, where “play” can and does become violent. When such things happen on the field of play, whether it is a diamond, football field, basketball court or a hockey rink, there is a distinction from regular society. The governing bodies of the respective sports are responsible for the activities that go on during the course of the contests. It is their responsibility to impose and enforce rules upon the participants of those contests.
Mark Carrier did not head butt Antonio Freeman outside a gas station in Green Bay, Wisconsin; he did it on the field of a National Football League contest.
Nor did Juan Marichal club John Roseboro in a San Francisco nightclub; he did it during a game on a Major League Baseball diamond.
Likewise, Kermit Washington did not sucker punch Rudy Tomjanovich on a downtown street in Houston; it was on the court of National Basketball Association game.
What Marty McSorley did to Donald Brashear on February 21, 2000 happened on a rink within the context of a National Hockey League game. It wasn’t in a Vancouver restaurant.
After all of these acts took place, the league officials of the respective sports took the necessary action. Paul Weiler, who teaches sports and the law at Harvard School, assessed the responsibility for dispensing law and justice, by saying, “As long as the league is doing it in a meaningful fashion, I think it’s right to have a hands-off attitude. Especially when it’s part of the culture of the sport.”
Unfortunately, what McSorley did is a part of the culture of hockey as it is played in the NHL. For his actions, he was suspended for 23 games, which later turned into a full season, the harshest punishment in NHL history. Because this culture is part of the nature of the very unique game of NHL hockey, its’ league officials handed out discipline in a historically consistent manner and McSorley’s punishment fit his crime.
That’s it for hockey and violence in sports for now. Until next time…from the booth.