PITTSBURGH — I believe I first lost faith in human enlightenment back in the Capitals-Islanders series of 2015. It happened after Washington’s Tom Wilson crashed into Lubomir Visnovsky, an Islanders player with a history of concussions. Wilson got a two-minute minor penalty, while Visnovsky was knocked out of that series. Depending on your point of view, Wilson either should not have been penalized, or should have been locked up in Rikers. And in a remarkable coincidence, the opinions seemed to have a geographic correlation.
“It was a good, solid, strong hit,” Caps television voice Joe Beninati told me at the time.
“There’s a difference between a good hit and a bad hit, and that was a bad hit,” Islanders beat reporter Arthur Staple said.
“I didn’t see the Wilson hit as a penalty,” said Al Koken, the dean of Caps media members. “Something tells me that if those [officials] really went back and reviewed the tape, they might not even have called the two minutes they called; that they were more reacting to the optics of it.”
“I think it warranted more than a two-minute minor, is what I would say,” Islanders radio voice Chris King said.
These are educated, professional, honorable people. They all told me they would like to believe their opinions wouldn’t change if the players’ uniforms were reversed. They all told me they were giving me their best version of the truth. I believed them.
“If something’s black and white, and I see it as white, I have to tell you that it’s white or else I can’t look at myself in the mirror,” Beninati said.
So that brings us to Monday night’s first period in Pittsburgh, and the drawn-out three-man car crash that now defines this second-round series. First Alex Ovechkin made contact with Sidney Crosby, who began to go down. Then Matt Niskanen cross-checked the stumbling star in the head.
Crosby, a transcendent star with a history of head injuries, left the game. It was a gruesome scene, and anyone with a drop of humanity felt terribly: for Crosby, for his team and for the sport. But was the contact dirty and premeditated? Or was it an unfortunate hockey play deserving nothing more than a minor penalty? You can guess how that debate went.
The Caps, Pittsburgh columnist Kevin Gorman wrote, “resorted to one of hockey’s cheapest tricks: take out the opponent’s best player.”
“Wasn’t dirty,” CSN’s Rob Carlin wrote. “He was falling.”
“While playing with the Penguins, Niskanen was a sneaky, borderline dirty player,” Pittsburgh columnist Rob Rossi wrote. “These days, he has opted to skate across that border.”
“Ejecting a player in the opening minutes of a playoff game for a bang-bang play with a guy falling into you?” asked 106.7 The Fan’s Grant Paulsen. “No thanks.”
Pittsburgh’s Chris Kunitz described it as a deliberate cross-check to the face; Washington Coach Barry Trotz described it as a hockey play.
Fans, needless to say, gathered in the same camps, based on their allegiances. My friends Ryan and George are best buds who happen to fall on opposite sides of this particular rivalry; “Clean/freak accident,” wrote Ryan, a Caps fan, while George was questioning Trotz and praising Rossi. What in the name of Hegel is going on here?
“People are both consciously and unconsciously biased as a result of being a fan, a team member, someone who would like to see the world the way they would prefer to see it. That’s probably not anything you don’t already know,” said Howard Lavine, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, who specializes in political psychology. (I called him while eating breakfast at a Pittsburgh hotel; nearby, a Penguins fan was predicting a four-game suspension for Niskanen.)
Humans, Lavine said, “desire to engage in this group-level experience, which is not something that we can often experience, but which our human natures still crave. This is built into us through evolution. We sincerely believe that we saw what we think we saw, and it looks very different because we are rooted in different sort of fan situations. And one last thing to note: The idea of being motivated to be a member of a group is partly a function of wanting that group to be seen as different and better.”
That means you want your team to win, yes, but it also suggests you want your team infused with nobility and honor. Matt Niskanen is a good guy whose reflexes caused him to hit the head of a falling player. Sidney Crosby is a treasure whose life may have just been altered by a craven bit of brutality. Deshazor Everett didn’t know Darren Sproles was going to duck during that punt return last fall. But Al Horford definitely was trying to take out Markieff Morris on Sunday afternoon.
And local reporters, even as they try to be objective, are still steeped in the group-level experience that surrounds them. I’m not a Caps fan and have never been a Caps fan. But I know and interact with the players, and I know and like the fans, and I just don’t trust myself to be objective. If that were Ovechkin drifting off the ice after a series-altering head shot, I can’t imagine my response Monday night would have been the same.
The stakes aren’t high in sports, and the consequences of tribal behavior during a second-round series probably aren’t significant. But this isn’t just about sports. Watch President Trump when he discussed New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski during the campaign: Whether you think he was cruelly mocking Kovaleski’s physical disability or was making a harmless gesture of general derision likely is correlated to your feelings about Trump. That’s just one example out of thousands over our past two years – the same small action interpreted in wildly divergent terms – so America’s divide yawns wider while our tribal bitterness grows.
“It’s simply the idea of bonding with other partisans, whether it’s sports or politics,” Lavine said. “It feels good. We have a very deep, underlying group nature, and any instance in which we can sort of lose our individuality in the euphoria of bonding with the group, we’ll take that opportunity. And that, I think, is what’s happening, too.”
It doesn’t depress me all that much in sports, although it makes me question my eyes and my judgment. It does make me worry about the country. Lavine pointed out ways we all get beyond this; when Republicans and Democrats are overseas, for example, they’re not Republicans and Democrats, but Americans.
How that helps us navigate sports conflicts, I have no idea. Take a step outside this Washington-Pittsburgh bubble, and calmer heads were at least attempting to cool the hot air. “There were so many moving parts, and so much preexisting context, that it’s possible to see just about anything you want to see in it,” Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky wrote, calling the Niskanen hit “a Rorschach cross-check.”
I pressed Trotz on this issue – he had seen some of the Pittsburgh outrage on Twitter – and he may have come up with an even better metaphor.
“It’s like a car accident,” he said. “You have your side how it happened, and the other person will have his side. I mean, it’s perspective.”
The NHL’s perspective was that no further punishment was needed here, either for Ovechkin or Niskanen. The series and rivalry, though, were changed, maybe forever. Pittsburgh fans felt worse about the Capitals on Tuesday morning, and Caps fans were incredulous at Pittsburgh’s reaction, and it doesn’t give me much hope for human enlightenment.
Lavine, by the way, used to be a Philadelphia Flyers season ticket holder. In the 1970s. This was before social media, before you knew instantly what the other side thought about your tribe.
“I’ll tell you something that just freaked me out,” he told me. “I’m 54, and anybody my age who was into the Flyers thought Bobby Clarke was the greatest person in the world. We had no inkling that the rest of the world thought he was dirty. That was a revelation. We thought Bobby Clarke was skill and grace and honor.”
We’ve always had our blinders, in other words. It’s just that now, we get to immediately gawk at the blinders worn by the other side.