If you read or watch or listen or look at anything this year, make it “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer“, a multimedia piece at the fullest definition of the term from the New York Times. I can honestly say that it is the most moving piece of journalism I’ve seen in a year, and one of the best I’ll probably read in my lifetime. They’ve managed to take a topic that I’m only tangentially interested in — hockey — and spin a tale of the greatest tragedy, full of some of the most interesting and heartbreaking moral questions we can ask ourselves.
In May of this year, New York Rangers hockey player Derek Boogaard died. I didn’t notice, probably didn’t even read about it and don’t really care about sports. Scientists now believe his death, which was from an overdose of painkillers and alcohol, was also partially due to a rare degenerative brain disorder caused by years of head trauma. To try to summarize the piece, which paints a complete picture of Boogaard’s life in the context of the world of hockey and his position as an enforcer, more completely would be a waste for everyone involved; put aside the hour or so it’ll take you to emotionally invest and go through the incredibly thorough work John Branch and Shayla Harris, among others, have done, to fully understand the factors at work here. However, I will say that I’ve found that Boogaard’s story grapples with the same questions and upsetting realizations we’ve seen stirred up in the wake of the Penn State sexual abuse scandal involving coach Jerry Sandusky (which the Times also addressed in a disturbing interview and excellent article this weekend).
I never liked organized contact sports, for the regular reasons, like how I’m not very good at them, and I don’t like things I’m not good at. What I finally got good at and clicked with was swimming, which gets glory every four years at the Olympics, when we drool over hot bodies, and then promptly forget about the underwater aquatic feats these people can accomplish we can only dream about as we paddle around in the pool.
But what I’ve realized after consuming this story about Boogaard is that part of the reason I connected with swimming was that the sport possessed an almost total lack of the machismo masked as sportsmanship we see displayed in modern American sports. I liked that it wasn’t broadcast as part of the highlights on the 10 o’clock news, that there wasn’t an entire channel devoted to it (that many people got). Because of the lack of commercialization of the sport, relatively speaking, there was less pressure on me. And because it was in fact an individual sport masking as a team sport, there was less self-sacrifice for some greater sports godlike diety that was really just money, money, money.
Derek Boogaard was a victim of nature and of nurture. He was never going to be good at hockey in a traditional sense, but he grew up in a place where that was all he could see himself doing. But the problem was is that he was never going to be good at other things, like school, that could have provided him with another path. As disgusting and upsetting the inherent lack of care the NHL has in the health of it’s players (I admit extreme naivety about the amount of literal boxing that goes on during a hockey game, but how on earth is that considered an acceptable part of the sport?), I’m not sure Boogaard could have done anything else but play hockey.
If we lived in a world where the NHL didn’t pick up and discard players at their whim, Boogaard never would have played hockey, and then he never would have done something that, at least some of the time, he seems to enjoy. Why did he enjoy it? Perhaps because he was taught to. But also because some part of him identified with that magical feeling that winning and being validated gave him, just for himself, and hopefully not connected with anyone else’s agenda.
I will say that I’m not naive enough to think this story will drastically alter the shape of American sports. People still get wasted and watch grown men beat the shit out of each other, who then politely pause for a commercial break so their fans can go to the bathroom and buy a Bud Light. No one really cares about those men — at least, not the people who’s faces and voices you see forcing you to care about them.
And why, you may ask, does any of this sad hockey player’s death and sort-of unhappy childhood have anything to do with Sandusky, who allegedly molested dozens of children? At first glance, both the stories are just about sports. But to me, they’re about the power of power, the power of a corrupting force, the power of the “greater good” that we hold over every individual one good. People turn a blind eye. People are scared. People think it doesn’t really matter, that there isn’t really proof for any wrongdoing.
But while a bunch of hockey fans might be disappointed if they don’t get to see a brawl during a game they paid for, I can tell you that I spent a morning with my stomach in knots watching those fights over and over again. And yes, I know how the story ends. Maybe that’s why it’s so upsetting; I can’t be caught up in the moment, I know that guy dies and people are hurt and the people who should care don’t. But you know that too. And if you watch one more time, you might not like it so much anymore either.