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What the Wisconsin Badgers hockey team could teach Sarah Palin

Scott Woodham
Aaron Jansen illustration

In nearly every political speech that Sarah Palin has given since resigning as Alaska’s governor, one of her tendencies is to make mention of a locally or regionally important sports team. For a political figure, there’s probably no better avenue than sports to create common ground and ingratiate oneself with an audience. But it’s not without risk.

Usually when I hear Palin mention the hometown team, I consider it a savvy, friendly gesture, and one that I can often relate to. She and I seem to share a commitment to sport. I’m no athlete -- far from it in fact -- but playing various sports throughout my life has taught me huge, enduring lessons about life, myself and other people.

I know that may sound clichéd to people who denigrate or disregard sports and their fans. After all, the idea goes, physical activity cannot be a path to wisdom. As with any central cultural phenomenon, and though “just a game,” a sport provides a mirror that reflects the best and worst of a society and people in real time. We are in the end, I believe, what and how we most love.

So, whenever Palin mentions sports or is shown in a sporting setting, I often feel a little glimmer of familiarity, like maybe she and I aren’t so different after all. But when she mentioned the University of Wisconsin Badgers’ women’s hockey team in her Tax Day speech in Madison, it struck a foul chord in my ear. And to be sure, that discomfort intrigued me. Because she closed her speech with a spirited “Game on” to President Obama and the “liberal left,” that discomfort seemed worth exploring.

Palin chided “the Republican establishment” for failing to stand up and “fight,” then asked the crowd, “Maybe I should ask some of the Badger women’s hockey team -- those champions -- maybe I should ask them if we should be suggesting to GOP leaders they need to learn how to fight like a girl!” (6:20)

I was confused because Palin is probably the most famous “hockey mom” in the world, and I’ve come to understand that the person who reportedly contributes the most to Palin’s public statements, Rebecca Mansour, is herself a fan of the NHL. In fact, the week of Palin’s Wisconsin speech, Mansour’s Twitter feed contained hockey references (for non-fans, the NHL playoffs have been going on).

I was surprised because here were people I thought understood sportsmanship and hard work -- and who count themselves along with me in the tiny number of Americans who actually follow hockey -- coming together to suggest publicly that collegiate national champions were successful because of how well they fought, and that national Republicans might learn from their example.

Figurative language is tricky. There are many kinds of it, but the most common kinds are, essentially, a set of lies that are able to tell a striking kind of truth not possible with literal speech. Following figurative language beyond that initial glimmer of truth, however, can lead us into troubling territory. Palin’s invocation of the best team in Division I women’s college hockey last season is no exception.

The Madison crowd responded enthusiastically when Palin mentioned their newly victorious national champions, as do most audiences she deploys a sporting metaphor with. What crowd wouldn’t respond that way? Hometown teams can hold an outsized place in a community’s shared life. That might surprise non-sports fans, but it’s true, and in Alaska and much of small-town America, it’s especially true.

Since that Wisconsin speech, ardent Palin fans (and I write “fans” very deliberately there) have been repeating “Fight like a girl” and “Game on” in various online social contexts. They may even crop up in another speech by Palin because they have been so successful.

Maybe it’s because of the lingering notion that sports are trivial, or maybe it’s because so few Americans actually follow women’s hockey, but “Fight like a girl” and its reception have been all but ignored. Which is too bad, because when looked at deeply, both seem very significant.

The failed simile of Palin’s is first significant for how utterly wrong it is to imply that fighting is what makes a national collegiate hockey champion -- or any hockey champion for that matter.

Unfortunately for Palin and her justifiably enthusiastic fans, the NCAA has zero tolerance for hockey players who fight -- even throw a single punch -- in its men’s or women’s leagues. Contrary to what many people (including Palin) seem to believe, the major North American professional leagues, including the NHL, are unique in the world for their ritualized acceptance of fighting. None of the major European leagues tolerate fighting, nor do any international tournaments, including the Olympics.

A fight in NCAA hockey results in an automatic ejection and suspension for the instigator and any player who retaliates. That means everyone involved must leave all areas approved for players and have no contact with coaching staff or teammates for the rest of that game, and for a first offence, the next non-exhibition game as well. Disqualification penalties are also cumulative, so by the fourth one, a player gets sent away for five additional games at minimum. Basically, the NCAA says to fighters in no uncertain terms, “Come back when you’re ready to play hockey.”

Fighting doesn't win championships

People will likely defend Palin’s remark by saying she didn’t mean that kind of actual fighting, that she meant a variation of “contest” or “engage” or “strive” or something less aligned with actually going toe-to-toe. And they’d be correct. Plus a little obvious. Of course she didn’t mean to tell Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, or any other prominent Republican, to skate down elbows-high on President Obama or congressional Democrats. That is clearly silly.

But if those Republican leaders aren’t skating or shooting well, and their opposition has been keeping them pinned in the defensive zone, metaphorically speaking, shouldn’t they think about fighting? In other words, the full import of Palin’s suggestion to Republican leaders would be lost without relying on a little metaphorical, old-time-hockey violence.

Saying Palin didn’t mean actual fighting also disregards the persistent stereotype of hockey as a game that rewards and encourages violence. Maybe that stereotype is the reason so few commentators have thought twice about Palin’s suggestion. But it is ignored at everyone’s peril.

For Palin’s Badger simile to work its utmost magic, hockey champions must be really good at throwing down the gloves and fighting dirty, and therefore, maybe Republican leaders who want to “win” should throw down the gloves, too. 

Unfortunately for Palin and those who would take her political advice to heart, fighting basically never wins hockey championships. Fights don’t score points. Neither do ejected, suspended, or penalized players.

Skill, teamwork and keeping stupid mistakes to a minimum contribute to a team’s overall success far more than fighting does. And the Badgers’ women’s national championship team proved that hockey maxim very well this last season.

Stupid mistakes are pretty much synonymous with “unsportsmanlike play,” which is often what escalates into a fight in leagues that allow fighting. Unsportsmanlike play, for non-hockey fans, usually leads to penalties, and penalties can leave one team with fewer players on the ice. That imbalance, known to the full-strength team as a “power play,” can lead to trouble.

In fact, according to the University of Wisconsin’s women’s hockey blog, a power play allowed the Badgers to score what would eventually become the winning goal in the championship game this year. The Badger women scored that goal not by fighting back, but by refusing to retaliate or be dragged down into a series of stupid penalties. They kept their heads in the game and kept playing hockey. Which is exactly what champions do.

That’s also what the Badger women did all season long. According to the Badgers' statistics page, during their entire 2010-2011 season, the national champions didn’t receive a single major penalty (which are given out for serious or flagrant instances of unsportsmanlike play) or a single game misconduct (which are most often given out for fighting). Their opponents, on the other hand, were given two game misconducts, so even when retaliation may have seemed tantalizing, the Badgers didn’t bite. 

They also spent about 2 minutes fewer per game on average in the penalty box than did their opponents, and received on average slightly less than one fewer penalty per game. Although hockey statistics aren’t as telling as those in other sports, like baseball for instance, that all basically adds up to, on average, nearly one extra power play per game.

By that measure, then, the Badgers appear to have overcome one of the biggest challenges hockey players face: Balancing the necessary physicality of the game with control over one’s own impulses. Because those impulses often come with consequences that can seriously hurt a team’s chances for winning, keeping them in check is essential.

In other words, courage is not letting a thug from some other crap town goad you into throwing the game away. Courage is keeping righteous anger -- even if it seems justified -- from leading to bad decisions with wide implications. 

Fighting won't win political games

Violence and hockey have a kind of contradictory relationship in North America. In the continent’s professional leagues, there are rules against fighting, but also, adorably enough, there are rules that govern how a fight must be legally entered into and conditions that allow it to continue. For instance, players must, according to NHL rules, drop their sticks and take off their gloves before fighting.

Making sure hockey players do something in a legal manner before engaging in illegal behavior is exactly the same as if criminal statutes required marijuana enthusiasts to rinse out their bongs before each smoking session.

Many North American hockey fans seem fine with the contradictory place fighting has in the sport. A majority of them say they like to see fights, and many of them watch games hoping to see them. But the prevalence of fighting has been a serious point of debate in North American hockey these days, just as “violent rhetoric” has been lately in political circles.

Some people say hockey fighting is necessary to “protect” highly skilled, but perhaps more vulnerable, players and to keep tensions -- which can run high in such a physical game -- from boiling over in worse ways (like what, I can’t say, maybe shankings?). Fighting proponents also say that winning a fight can increase team morale and turn the momentum of a game. But it’s a risk. A lost fight can make everything worse.

Fights usually get a crowd into the game, too. Many hockey fans say potential fights are a key draw. I don’t hold a love of fighting against other fans; a hockey game is an aesthetic object, after all, and there are as many ways to appreciate one of those as there are individuals. But fighting is not playing hockey; it’s a related sideshow. It turns hockey fans into fans of unsteady, 60-second boxing matches full of half-landed punches, and livid, padded hugging, not hockey. A key beauty of “the beautiful game” is the rhythm and flow, and fighting disrupts that entirely.

All aesthetics aside, the most common time that any team looks to fight is when it is losing and has run out of options. When hockey has failed them, frustrated teams -- teams whose game plan has become a mess and whose emotions are getting the better of them -- are the ones most likely to start a fight or attempt to goad their opponents into starting one. Fighting in a hockey game is what you do when you’re out of alternatives and you have somebody on your team who’s better at fighting than playing hockey.

Maybe it’s the same in politics, too.

Is Palin turning into the GOP's chief goon?

In North America, teams have relied upon a class of expendable, usually lesser-skilled players called “goons,” “enforcers” or “thugs” (not to be confused with “union thugs”) whose primary purpose is to get in the game and pick a fight or use, in Palin’s phrase referring to labor unions, “thug tactics.” Goons are usually players who aren’t that good at other aspects of the game (like scoring points), and they usually get a reputation they can’t shake. Young players know to be careful of being type-cast into the role of thug because once that reputation is gained, it’s hard to shake. The opposing team, in fact, will probably be the first to remind them.

Ever since 2008, I’ve wondered how Palin fits into the larger context of the Republican party, and today I think I’ve come a bit closer to understanding. Thanks to, of all things, hockey.

Almost every week or so, Palin jumps over the boards to take a heavy shot at the opposition (or some heckler, or the press box) and then to sit in the penalty box. She’s starting to resemble the GOP’s Bob Probert, a legendary enforcer who once famously got into a fight during practice with his own teammate, Keith Primeau. (And just to make sure, Probert and Primeau aren’t the only NHL teammates who have “danced” in practice.)

With every new, strident attack on the president, members of Congress, “Republicans In Name Only,” reporters or whoever, Sarah Palin runs the risk of becoming the GOP’s chief goon for all time. Maybe she’s taking this role because she thinks herself better at absorbing a penalty than skating, passing or scoring, or maybe she thinks fighting is the same as playing hockey. But either way, the “Republican establishment” has done nothing to disabuse her of those notions.

As a fellow Alaskan and a hockey fan, I’d like to think Palin’s better than just some goon, just as I liked to hope Bob Probert was better than that, and just as I know the national champion Badger women were better than that. So much the worse for Palin if it ends up being the case. And worse yet for her fans, who in failing to reject her enforcer role actually enable it. Turning Palin into a farce only benefits that same “GOP establishment” they seem so furious with.

Palin said it herself at Wisconsin’s Capitol: “The lesson comes from here in Madison.” She wasn’t talking about a local hockey team when she said that, but she might as well have been. Political leaders can learn a great deal from the 2010-2011 NCAA Division I women’s hockey champs.

If the transformation of Sarah Palin from hockey mom to cement-head ever completes itself, her targets need only say one thing when she provokes them -- the classic retort to antagonists across the sports world: “Scoreboard.”

The Badgers probably said it a lot last season.

Contact Scott Woodham at swoodham(at)alaskadispatch.com.