Viewpoint—Sports set the bar low for conflict-resolution techniques

By David Whalen

Besides being a platform for the most talented athletes in the world, professional sports acts as a stage for some of the strangest and often most hilarious forms of human behaviour.

In truth, as with any other workplace, sports venues are governed by their own bounds of acceptable social interaction. Nowhere is this more true than in hockey and baseball.

Case in point – on Nov. 10, prior to the opening face-off of a game between the New York Rangers and the Toronto Maple Leafs, Rangers forward Sean Avery and Leafs forward Darcy Tucker had an argument.

As Avery and Tucker yapped and shoved each other, teammates came rushing in. The scene wasn’t unlike a pack of wild dogs barking over a slab of meat. Later, during the actual game, Avery and Tucker engaged in the standard hockey fist fight.

For whatever reason, athletes consciously or subconsciously decide to adapt to a fairly rigid paradigm of behaviour. Ultimate Fighting aside, where else is it socially acceptable to engage in bare-knuckle fisticuffs other than at a hockey arena?

Another good example is virtually anytime a goaltender is forced to cover the puck during a scramble in front of the net. Often, there is an opposing forward looming over him, hacking away at his glove. As the whistle blows, a horde of teammates and opponents come striding in. They exchange a few shoves, complement each other’s mothers, and skate away. Another day, another many thousand dollars.

The madness isn’t limited to the players either. Remember when then-Senators coach Brian Murray and Sabres coach Lindy Ruff had a foul-mouthed verbal throw-down during a fight-marred game last February? Ruff, a former NHLer, knew well the preferred lingo and gesticulations. After Chris Drury was decked by Chris Neil, Ruff burst through the Plexiglas divider separating the benches and launched into a profanity-laced tirade against Murray.

“Don’t go after our fucking captain!” Ruff shouted, his comments picked up by a nearby television microphone.

In his defence, the more fastidious Murray mainly kept to pointing sternly at Ruff. However, the feral outrage exhibited by Ruff was largely absent – maybe an early indicator that Murray had had enough of the coaching lifestyle and was ready to move upstairs to the cozier general manager’s booth, as he did prior to this season.

Occasionally, there’s a spillover into the amateur ranks. Witness the Nov. 23 bench-clearing brawl involving eight-year-olds at a hockey game in Guelph.

Yet, for all of hockey’s inherent head-bashing, the sport pales in comparison to baseball in terms of sheer hilarity and downright absurdity.

What fan doesn’t delight in seeing Cubs manager Lou Piniella kick around the dirt and remove a base before chucking it weakly into the outfield?

So too is there something darkly amusing about teams feeling the need to seek revenge after one of their batters has been struck by a errant pitch – a mature tack that typically results in the emptying of both dugouts.

In recent memory, the most extreme example of professional baseball etiquette run amuck is Asheville Tigers manager Joe Mikulik’s 2006 tirade in a game versus the Lexington Legends. Following a questionable ruling at second-base, Mikulik stormed out of the dugout and got within an inch of the second-base umpire’s face. Predictably, Mikulik was promptly thrown out of the game.

But he didn’t go quietly. Presumably to prove a point, Mikulik performed his own face-first slide into second base before pulling a “Piniella” and tossing the base into the outfield. He then retired to the dugout where he began rapidly hurling bats onto the field. Finally, he grabbed a bottle of water, headed for home plate, admonished its umpire, covered the plate with dirt, and began pouring water over it.

What explains this behaviour? Why do grown men become petty little boys after they put on their uniforms?

There’s no definitive answer, but ego, testosterone and tradition are surely involved.