To fight or not to fight, that is the question.
John Ziegler, president of the National Hockey League, spent nearly two hours yesterday trying to give a satisfactory answer to the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime during its second hearing on H.R. 7903, the Sports Violence Act of 1980.
Following Ziegler to the witness table were Pete Rozelle, commissioner of the National Football League; Hank Peters, general manager of the Baltimore Orioles; Simon Gourdine, deputy commissioner of the National Basketball Association, and Steve Brenner, general counsel for the North American Soccer League.
All parties indicated varying degrees of distaste for and opposition to the proposed legislation, which would penalize a player found guilty of using excessive violence and subject him to a fine of $5,000 and one year in jail or both.
No witness savaged the bill more than Rep. Harold Volkmar (D-Mo.). "I can't believe this is serious," he fumed. "It's an affront to pro athletes to even have these hearings. There are more important things I can be doing for the country. I don't plan to stay."
Those who hung around saw Ziegler struggling to defend what the subcommittee chairman, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), termed "probably undoubtedly the most violent of all professional sports."
In his testimony, Ziegler referred to a 1977 report by the House Select Committee on Professional Sports, which found that fighting is a good release and should be controlled, not eliminated.
"I personally subscribe to that viewpoint and believe it is shared by the majority of people in North America who have played or studied the sport," Ziegler said.
Ziegler argued that if fighting were banned, as it is in Europe, more cross-checking, elbowing, tripping, kicking and other dastardly deeds would occur.
"What's the difference between fighting as an outlet and fighting for the sake of fighting?" asked the bill's sponsor, Rep. Ron Mottl (D-Ohio).
"Fighting is not part of the game," Ziegler responded. "It breaks out because of the nature of the sport. We are determined to decrease it. If somebody comes to a game to see fighting, we would just as soon not have them there. But if you eliminate fighting, sticks will naturally come into play."
"If fights were banned are you telling us that sticks would then be used?" an astonished Conyers asked.
"Yes sir, I am," Ziegler said.
Rozelle staunchly defended his sport's performance on violence, citing major rules changes, swift disciplinary actions and fines, and improved player attitudes about their careers as the reasons for the improved situation. He also theorized that the greater media attention given to the sport was partly responsible for the increasing concern over violence in it, although such incidents have in fact been decreasing.