An old issue, the need to curb excessive violence in professional sports, was resurrected on Capitol Hill yesterday when supporters of a federal bill told Congress violence in the games is being mimicked in the stands.
"Crowd violence is probably the ultimate danger to the existence of sports," Joseph Robbie, owner of the NFL's Miami Dolphins, told the House judiciary subcommittee on criminal justice. "I perceive that one of the greatest threats to the future of spectator sports of every kind, here and abroad, is deliberate excessive violence on the playing field, and violent crowd reaction in the stands."
Robbie was one of the handful of witnesses who testified before the committee yesterday in support of H.R. 2263, a bill proposed by Rep. Ronald Mottl (D-Ohio). The bill would make it a federal offense for a professional athlete to injure another player through use of excessive physical force "that has no reasonable relationship to the competitive goals of the sport" and "is unreasonably violent." Abuses would be punishable by a $5,000 fine, imprisonment not to exceed a year, or both. Much of yesterday's testimony centered around hockey.
Dr. Visvaldis George Nagobads, team physician for the University of Minnesota hockey team and for the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, said the sport is full of revenge and machoism.
Parents and coaches pressure young players to win at the expense of fun, and excessive violence is called "explosive hockey," he said. A few members of last year's gold metal-winning U.S. Olympic team opted to play in Europe rather than play "explosive hockey at home in the NHL," Nagobads said. And although a few NHL teams play with "meaningful, intelligent body contact," he said, some NHL players brand them "chicken."
William R. McMurtry, a Canadian attorney who was commissioned by the Ontario government in 1974 to examine violence in hockey, said he found "violence had, in fact, reached epidemic proportions, affecting even games involving 10-year-olds and 12-year-olds," and had influenced some impressionable youth more than religion and education.
"It's not so much that sports don't mold young characters and influence them," he said. "The tradegy is that they do."
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) chaired the committee. "What will be necessary to get the leagues to clean this up?" he asked McMurtry. The attorney thought for a moment and finally suggested any action that would educate and motivate management.
Mottl's bill is directed specifically at the abuses of individual athletes, but supporters and a few opponents of the bill agreed that management is equally, if not more, responsible for the violence factor.
Player abuses are few, said Brig Owens, a former Washington Redskin who testified on behalf of the NFL Players Association, which opposes the bill. Overly violent players are now fined or suspended, he said. Owens' concern for stronger regulations governing the use of artificial turf and other equipment that affect player safety.
Jim Korn of the Detroit Red Wings of the NHL said that he opposed the bill and the notion that management was selling violence.
Much of the four-hour hearing, which included the showing of film clips, focused on the win-at-any-cost ethic.
"The aggressive versus the excessive is the key," said attorney Richard B. Horrow, who helped Mottl draft the bill. He told the committee, "You've got to draw that clear line."