The Real Heels
The NHL needs to change its suspension policy to remind us of the difference between the athletes we love to hate and those that jeopardize the integrity of the sport with their conduct
The “Heel Turn” is a common phrase used in professional wrestling (i.e. the WWE) to denote when a previously popular persona, or “face”, turns into a generally disliked character, or “heel” by virtue of some boorish act. “Heel turns” in competitive, non-staged sports are rare, and met with more vitriol than probably deserved when they do occur (see: James, LeBron). These instances are often caused by off-field incidents that had nothing to do with their athletic achievements. For the most part, a “heel turn” is just a popular general distaste for someone who was once liked.
Some athletes do incite loathing for what they do between the whistles. Just ask “Dirty” Denis Potvin, who still hears random chants of “Potvin Sucks!” during New York Rangers’ games at Madison Square Garden for his aggressive play 30 years ago as a member of the New York Islanders’ dynasty in the 70s and 80s. The difference between Potvin and LeBron, as you might have guessed, is that Potvin only took abuse from Ranger fans (generational chants from New Jersey Devils fans aside), whereas NBA fans across the country berated LeBron for his “decision.” Potvin was/is locally detested, LeBron turned heel. Obviously LeBron was bound to take heat (pun intended) in Cleveland for his desertion, but the league-wide reaction reached a whole different level. The on-court implications of his decision, in addition to the circus act he and the Heat put on that summer of 2010, incited “boos” across the country, and turned LeBron into an infamous heel.
Today, 2 rings, 2 MVPs, and 1 Olympic Gold medal later, the hatred for LeBron across the league has predictably died down. Heels can turn back to Faces, as LeBron is currently showing. Sports fans love athletic greatness. Winners cannot remain heels for long. Even athletes that have darker “heel turns” will be forgiven and supported (see: Woods, Tiger). What athletes have difficulty bouncing back from are instances of on-field behavior that jeopardize sportsmanship, particularly through cheating (i.e. steroids in baseball) and unsportsmanlike conduct (i.e. violence outside the bounds of the sport). Out-of-bounds violence plagues leagues from a legal standpoint, but more importantly, detracts from competition, jeopardizing the entertainment value of sports.
Violence is an inherent part of certain sports. Physical contact in hockey, football, soccer, and boxing is often celebrated as evidence of the passion and toughness in athletes. When this violence goes outside the scope of the sport and threatens to seriously injure another athlete, the enjoyment of the competition dissipates, and the indignation of fans and league-governing commissioners alike ensues. This conduct does not just result in a mere “heel turn,” instead it results in serious problems for any league in not only protecting the safety of its players, but also discouraging similar conduct. These leagues must also actively work to prevent fan disillusionment in the purpose of the competition to begin with – which is, after all, entertainment and athletic achievement.
The NFL has done a fine job of convoluting this issue since 2010, when, in partial response to scientific and scholarly outcry, the league began fining and suspending any player for any violent tackle involving contact to the head of another player. Of course, this was a tactic to mitigate the eventual lawsuit the league was hit with by former players suffering the effects of brain injuries as a result of the sport. The hits that render fines and suspensions are rarely the kinds that lead to fan or media scrutiny. Largely, these hits are “football plays” that would have gone un-penalized during a game and un-punished by the league afterwards through suspension or fine. Today, punishment for these hits represents the changing culture of the NFL to make the game safer. The hits being legislated out of the league are part of the competition fans enjoyed and players embraced. To a degree, most people understand why the league needs to change. The lawsuit and subsequent settlement are for injuries sustained during competition that the NFL knew or should have known would result in permanent brain damage. Concussion protocol is now prevalent in the NFL and player safety has been promoted as a priority.
The issue is now convoluted because fines and suspensions, the tactics used by the NFL to change the culture of the league to prevent head injuries, were previously reserved for actions that were considered unsportsmanlike and outside the bounds of the game, like throwing a punch or committing a foul/penalty in a particularly violent or egregious manner.
Now the lines are blurred.
This type of league action has carried over to professional ice hockey, which arguably has the bigger problem in changing its culture than does the NFL. The NHL is looking to eliminate (or at least discourage) fighting and hits to the head through off-ice punishment to make the game safer in response to a similar impending lawsuit. Brendan Shanahan, former NHL star, has cracked down on hits like these in his position as the league’s Director of Player Safety, by handing out fines and suspensions to players delivering hits to the head. Players such as Capitals defenseman John Erskine (in the video above) were deemed to have ‘crossed the line’.
Not dissimilar to the hits that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell punishes with fines/suspensions in the NFL, the hits Shanahan now punishes were previously considered borderline legal or at least no more than a 2-minute in-game penalty (as opposed to a post-game fine or suspension). Scott Stevens delivered hits like this, this, and this throughout his career without so much as a phone call from the league. Now those hits would lead to millions of dollars in fines and suspensions These punishments, delivered by way of meetings with league officials and notices in the mail from Mr. Shanahan, rather than a trip to the penalty box, have similarly helped to blur the lines of what is considered conduct outside the bounds of the sport.
These rule changes are a result of a changing culture – ‘we know the effects of hits to the head (and the effects of lawsuits by former players), so we’ll change the rules’. No one argues this is probably a good move going forward. However, the league has done a poor job of recognizing what a difficult change this is for players and what the proper punishment needs to be, especially considering these types of hits were not only permissible, but encouraged within the last decade.
Scott Stevens was a feared-but-respected player in the NHL because of his physical play; “violent” as it was, those hits were part of the game. People around hockey knew how to separate Stevens’ big hits from incidents like the one involving Todd Bertuzzi in 2004, which was never, and will never be part of hockey. The difference between Stevens’ hits and Bertuzzi’s attack is obvious, and so were the punishments: Stevens racked up close to 3000 penalty minutes during his NHL career; Bertuzzi was suspended by the NHL and the IIHF for 17 months (a suspension which not only left him out of 20 NHL games, but also prevented him from playing overseas during the 04’-05’ NHL lockout).
The problem is that now, those same Scott Stevens hits are met with the same type of punishment as the Bertuzzi incident – a suspension. This undermines the seriousness of what punishment via fine or suspension represents. Before the new NHL policy in 2010, fines and suspensions were reserved for conduct outside the bounds of the game (if you received a fine or suspension, you did something that was way out of line, which was saying something for the violent sport that hockey used to be). Today, fines and suspensions are just as much a part of the game as the hits Shanahan attempts to legislate out of it.
Take an action like this, by Boston Bruins forward Sean Thornton. It is clearly not a hockey play and is not part of the game. Thornton received a 15-game suspension for his actions. The problem: John Erskine, in the clip above, also received a suspension (for 3 games). No one questions that Thornton deserved his suspension (even he didn’t feel the need to appeal it). The question is why Erskine was punished in a similar manner as Thornton for a play that is, or was, part of the game. Few argue against the need to legislate out dangerous hits for safety’s sake. However, the NHL needs to figure out how to distinguish between malicious actors and the players still trying to adapt to the new way of checking. Using the same punishment for both types of conduct makes no sense.
Physical players, enforcers, big hitters and other tough guys around the league may turn heel with a big hit on a star player, but these guys aren’t the same as the real heels that act outside the scope of the sport. Thornton and players like him need to know that they are being punished for reprehensible unsportsmanlike conduct, and not for just an illegal hit. Like writing a ticket for a murderer or imprisoning a litterbug, using a fit-all punishment system doesn’t help anyone or send an appropriate message to the fans about what the sport represents.
The standard set for tortious conduct in sports is “recklessness.” Hackbart v. Cincinnati Bengals, Inc., 601 F.2d 516 (10th Cir. 1979). If a player is acting outside the parameters of competition and acts with reckless disregard to injure an opposing player, he is liable for his actions. It follows that if the league takes no action to prevent or punish such action or permits such action, they may take on liability as well. But it is important to note the distinction between leagues like the NHL and the NFL changing the culture in inherently violent games and punishing outliers like Bertuzzi and Thornton appropriately to avoid further lawsuits against the league. While the lawsuits against both leagues have led to a perceived softening of these hard-nosed sports, they have similarly prevented a clear understanding of what should be considered “reckless” behavior.
In both the Bertuzzi and Thornton cases, the NHL ultimately got it right. The players were suspended and publicly scorned for their actions. The difference between the two cases is that Bertuzzi’s suspension came at a time when suspensions meant something, whereas Thornton’s suspension is one of a long list of this season’s suspensions for incidental, non-malicious hits and physical contact that do not equate.
The NHL was founded on the play of guys like Denis Potvin and Scott Stevens, who drew the ire of opposing fans base because of their physical play. But those players were also respected because they confined their play within the bounds of competition. For safety’s sake, most fans understand why the game needs to get away from that kind of play. Fans across the league have never appreciated or respected conduct like that of Bertuzzi or Thornton, they know the difference. Unfortunately, the NHL has not demonstrated a similar awareness.
 Anyone who followed the WWF in the late 1990s (during its height of popularity), will quickly cite Shawn Michaels and the “Montreal Screwjob” as the most prominent example of a “heel turn, which then triggered countless attempts by the WWF/WWE to recreate the magic that triggered and drove the “Attitude Era”.
 Lest we forget, LeBron carried largely awful Cavs teams into the playoffs and to an NBA Finals in 07’ before making “the Decision”.
 For anyone who’s ever been to a Ranger game at MSG and was not alive during the bulk of Potvin’s playing career, you invariably heard the sharp whistle of someone in the stands, followed by the entire crowd, like 18,000 Pavlovian dogs, scream “Potvin Sucks!!” followed by asking the person next to you who the hell Potvin is, and either getting the historical (but probably biased) version of who he was, or getting the “I don’t know. We just always yell that,” version.
 The reason: Potvin’s play was part of the rivalry between two New York teams and one of the main cast of characters to fuel that rivalry; LeBron’s decision to leave Cleveland for Miami (and join the company of two other top ten players) effected every NBA franchise (evidenced by the Heat’s subsequent three straight finals appearances and counting).