The Code: What Is It Good For?

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Anyone who has competed in a sporting activity from a very early age has been taught the principles of good sportsmanship, fair play and respect towards an opponent. Most of the same apply to everyday life and are basically common sense.

I do understand that when competition heats up, body contact accelerates and tempers have a tendency to flare; been there myself. The question remains and its one that may never find the correct solution, but when does a player cross the line or when is a ruling from the officials deemed too lenient? Who decides the “get even” or “appropriate” punishment delivered by the team offended? Simply put, at what point do the players take matters into their own hands and self-police the in-game action?

The common referral to self-policed actions in sports is often a result of a player not abiding by the code. So let’s examine the code and in no particular order what constitutes violations thereof; some examples would be as follows,

1. Showing “up” an opponent
2. Challenging a smaller or the team’s best player to a fight or running them
3. Fighting a player at the end of a shift
4. If the score gets out of hand, rubbing it in with excessive celebration
5. Running a goalie
6. Shooting puck after the whistle or puck into empty net after stoppage in play or crossing center ice during warm-up

These are some of the rules in the player’s edition of the unpublished but vital understanding for survival in the world of sports. Each sport has its own variation and you can see most of the examples above relate to hockey.

Like anything in life, the best way to get someone’s attention is through shock and the element of surprise, when the feeling of wrongdoing has occurred. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that to send a message to an opponent that you are unhappy with, progression of the game or when pure frustration has taken over, that violating the code might be the easiest way?

If we look at the antics of players such as Brad Marchand, Chris Neil and ex-NHLer Sean Avery, these players have made careers of violating the code through acts that can be summed up as cowardly. Why? Because they hide behind the instigator rule rather than face the consequences of their actions, thus in direct violation of the code. When Milan Lucic then with Boston, ran Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller, it was viewed as a pure cheap shot and gutless (which it was) clearly violating the code. However Lucic to his credit, (can’t believe I just said that) the next time he faced Buffalo, took the challenge and fought the first player who stepped up to defend the honour of the code. The discipline of the code worked, as it should in that instance. But in the aforementioned examples, all that does is create chippy play, cheap shots, and hits after the whistle and staged fights. Yes folks for those unfamiliar, staged fights occur when tough guys fight just for the sake of fighting, serving no purpose except maybe to justify why they are on the bench and ready to go.

One of my favourite “breaking of the code” moments occurred earlier this year during the Jays/Texas playoff series in game 5 after Bautista hit the 3-run shot giving the Jays the lead for good and clinching the series. The famous bat-flip infuriated Ranger pitcher Sam Dyson, so he charged at the next batter Encarnacion to let him know that Jose’s bat flip was disrespectful to the game. Say what????? The code???

This clown Dyson serves up a batting practice pitch to the best home run hitter the last half dozen years and the only reason the ball didn’t end up in Barrie, it was hit so hard it bounced off the upper deck wall; and he’s worried about being shown up? He just single handedly cost his team an ALCS birth and he’s upset about a bat-flip? Whoa Nellie talk about mixed up values. That sadly is what sports have become.

Now on the other hand, recalling the night Kobe Bryant lite the Raptors up for 81 points, how about the code exhibited that game? The outcome wasn’t in doubt yet the Raptors stood back while this guy kept shooting 3’s with no regard about showing up the opponent but for total selfish, personal gain. He should have been decked, period! That’s what sports used to represent! The code failed.

We’ve examined a few examples at opposite ends of the spectrum but the result, sadly is still the same; the code is no longer an unwritten pledge the players live by, it’s a self-serving mechanism used to enhance reputation, creditability and a bigger paycheck. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, because that’s what sports in general has become, which in turn is a reflection of how we live our day-to-day lives.

Some of us remember when things were pretty simple and the code while unmentioned was an integral part of the game. Run the star player, be prepared to take a pounding and fight the tough guy, run the goalie, same result, a pitcher gets lite up, next batter gets off-speed pitch in middle of the back or inside. A takeout at second breaking up a double play or close play at home resulting in the catcher getting run over are infractions the players used to police themselves because they understood the implications for there actions. Now the egotistical umpires think the show is about them; the coaches want to justify their existence; the owner even gets into the act to protect relationships with the fan base and on it goes. The sporting world is made up of discipline committees, boards, legal representatives, hearings and the message from the agent is very clear, if you penalize my client too harshly, we will seek litigation.

It is quite clear to me there is no proper answer to define the code and it has merely become an adjective to hide behind when best suited. However, the sporting world will still try to keep the integrity of the game intact to a degree and may I suggest one look no further than Jim Croce’s words from 1972,
“You don’t tug on superman’s cape,
You don’t spit into the wind,
You don’t pull the mask off that old lone ranger ,
And you don’t mess around with Jim.”