Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Hockey and Schadenfreude

"Schadenfreude" is an imported word from the German nihilist tradition that nicely sums up a common human sentiment. It simply means "to gain pleasure from someone else's misfortune." There's no single word in the English language that captures the meaning so perfectly. Which is probably why it has become one of those newly popular words with the mainstream media in the past number of years.

It's a logical emotion to experience. The rage that humans have always felt is still present as it was a thousand years ago. But the historical response of bashing in each other's skulls is no longer an option for most. The accumulation of slights, disrespect, and mistreatment at the hands of others in society needs an outlet.

It fits in nicely with another one of the most widely held beliefs. That somehow there is a cosmic righter of wrongs who makes sure everyone gets what they deserve. An absurd notion that people use to calm themselves when they have been screwed over by another, telling themselves that "what goes around comes around."

Of course, most people never stop to consider that if that's the case, then the misfortune they have just suffered is also well deserved and payback from something they must have done in the past. (For the most asinine sports related example of this type of thinking, check out the Glenn Hoddle story from a few years back.) This kind of world view is easily validated because inevitably every person will experience some kind of tragedy or setback.

Professional sports offer a never-ending litany of opportunities for the spectator to satisfy their shadenfreude instinct. The most common example and one that is not troubling, is the enjoyment a fan takes in seeing opposing teams become frustrated, make mistakes and lose.

Taken a bit further, satisfaction can be derived from the personnel or disciplinary side of things imploding for a hated rival. Management changes, fines and suspensions are the types of situations that fit into this category.

When schadenfreude veers into sociopath territory is when pleasure is taken from the sight of a player knocked out of a game with an injury. While some sports are premised on doing exactly that to achieve victory, I'm referring more to team sports such as hockey.

By far most fans don't like to see anyone injured during the course of a game but there are more than a few who will delight in the sight of a player from the opposite team being stretchered off the ice.

Some who seem to enjoy this recognize that it comes across as inappropriate and will seek ways to rationalize their feelings. With a huge database of hockey clips on public sites such as YouTube, a person can easily search for hits delivered by a currently injured player and hold that up as why they "got what they deserved."

Others are far too energized and thrilled to worry about what it says about their character. Take in an NHL game and witness the few who revel in being hard-core and unrelenting in their callousness. Better yet, patrol any number of discussion boards and witness the gloating over shattered limbs, ripped ligaments and bashed in faces.

You might think that one of the worst incidents in NHL history, which saw Steve Moore's career ended by a blind-side assault from Todd Bertuzzi, would result in universal sympathy for Moore. Not so. There is still a vocal contingent who think that, in fact, he "had it coming."

Who is worse? The fan who goes to lengths to explain away his views? Or the one who shamelessly luxuriates in the physical pain of professional athletes who happen to be on the other team?

Every serious injury in the NHL is accompanied with comments that "no one wants to see this kind of thing." I can only assume that those making these claims are trying to cast the game in the best light or live strictly in that world of the public face that is played out in the pages and on the airwaves of the most popular media outlets.

Revenge scenarios in the NHL are some of the strongest and most intriguing of any sport. It's hard not to get caught up in the frenzy of wanting to see your team damage their bitterest enemies with a lopsided victory. Some are simply unable to draw any reasonable boundaries and take things to their most twisted conclusion.

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