Illustration by Ari Libenson
At the first Olympics, sports and violence were nearly synonymous. Many of the initial sports such as boxing, wrestling, and pankration were based purely on physicality. Just two men asserting their strength until one of them quit or was unable to continue. As time progressed, many sports had put physicality to the side as technique and finesse came to the forefront. To this day, many sports have physical aspects but audiences and players have steered away from violence.
Most sports have combined physical aspects and finesse, and this mixture has proven successful. Hockey, a game enjoyed in many developed nations, has a long history of combining power with technique and is known for its fighting. Retired hockey player Chris “Knuckles” Nilan said that fighting “makes guys think twice about taking liberties with each other.” In this sport, fighting is used as a barrier from letting players take cheap-shots. Fighting is illegal in hockey, but unlike other sports, players do not get ejected. Usually they just sit out. These policies exemplify the toleration that the sport of hockey has towards violence. The fans love the fights and they embody the toughness and passion that characterizes hockey.
Other sports treat fighting quite differently. In basketball, a sport notorious for its soft players, professionals such as Marcus Smart and James Harden have made careers out of selling even the slightest contact. For sports where contact is minimimal, it adds extra pressure on referees to catch every detail. This has caused National Basketball Association (NBA) players and referees to often not see eye to eye. When fights do happen, immediate ejections, suspensions, and fines are handily tossed out. Because of the higher punishments, it is much more common to see chest bumping than fist throwing, as players resort to verbal wars rather than physical ones. Early in the season, Los Angeles Lakers’ star point guard, Lonzo Ball was seen walking away from one of these confrontations. When asked about it after the game he said, “It’s the NBA. People ain’t really going to fight.”
In soccer, contact is common but excessive contact is a foul. Similar to basketball, actual fistfights in soccer are extremely rare because the punishments can be devastating for a team’s chances at winning a game. Since the field is so large and the referee is usually only watching the ball, dirty plays away from the ball are very common. For example, Luis Suarez famously bit three opponents in three different matches. However, in the case of Luis Suarez the punishment fit the crime. After the third biting incident, Suarez was banned for four months, forcing him to miss important games. Some perceived this to be a harsh ruling, but since its enforcement Suarez has been on his best behavior and received little disciplinary action. Additionally, this ruling sends a clear message to other players that this behavior will not be tolerated.
Over time, many of the more physical sports have gotten less physical. Sports that were once known for gritty play have become much less so. Despite being known for its physicality, fighting in hockey has been declining. During the 2008-09 season in the National Hockey League (NHL), 41.3 percent of games had fights, but now roughly 17.9 percent of games have fights. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the NBA was refereed much different than how it is now. A player could get away with contact that would now get them an ejection and a fine. This is partly due to replay technology allowing officials to see slow motion replays of dirty plays when before you just needed to be sneaky.
Just over three weeks ago, the culture surrounding fighting in baseball was on full display. In both a Yankees vs. Red Sox game and a Padres vs. Rockies game, benches cleared after pitchers on both teams intentionally threw at opposing batters. While the degree of physical altercation varies for each incident, in both games, punches were thrown. The main perpetrators were ejected and received retrospective action reflecting the tolerance or lack thereof of this behavior in Major League Baseball.
Another leading reason for the decline in physicality is that audiences have veered away from violence. New medical discoveries regarding the long term effects of both boxing and football have caused both of these sports to lose popularity. According to Sports Illustrated, NFL ratings fell 9.7% this year. This is even more drastic than the drop-off of 8% that occurred between 2015 and 2016. It is not a stretch to credit much of this decline to the accumulation of studies revealing the dangers of football. Audiences want action, but they do not want to worry about the players dying or having long term effects.
In the future, sports will continue to morph with society’s preferences. It will be interesting to see if they continue shifting away from physicality, or if it makes a return to the mainstream.