Every once in a while, I read an article or series of articles in the newspaper and know I am looking at Pulitzer Prize material. It happened years ago in the Washington Post when Katherine Boo wrote about neglect and abuse in D.C. group houses for the mentally retarded (“Invisible Deaths“). The amount of research required and that old fashioned term ‘shoe leather’ to compile the data showing the horrendous treatment or simply horrendous neglect that led to countless deaths of the patients in the government-funded (but certainly not -supervised) group houses was incredible. Boo’s series of articles still haunts me–the extent of the greed of the landlords in charge, and the sad stories of deaths, unnecessary and unmarked, of the weakest among us. I read it and knew then it was stand-out journalism. More importantly, it did the important job of journalism: it forced the city to act, to begin reforms.
And today I have read another series that moves me in the same way. John Branch has just written an incredibly powerful and incredibly sad three-part series in the New York Times about the life and death of 28-year-old Derek Boogaard, the hockey player who died of an alcohol and drug overdose last May: “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer.” Branch follows Boogaard’s struggles and eventual success to make it to the NHL. He details the tawdry underside of professional hockey–the players signed almost solely to act as enforcers, that is, to get into punching matches with opposing players to intimidate or punish the other team and to (and this part is most disgusting) ‘entertain’ the bloodlust, if you will, of the fans. Branch goes on to reveal the horrible effects on the players of such fights. The final chapter of the series, “A Brain ‘Going Bad,’” reports on the results of research on Boogaard’s brain, which showed the devastating results of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) resulting from the numerous head blows Boogaard received during his fights–multiple concussions on concussions doing their damage insidiously.
I fell in love with ice hockey in college. Growing up in Virginia, I never saw a game until my freshman year, but once I did, I loved the speed, the finesse of the skaters. However, college hockey was not about the fighting. After reading this series, though, I feel sick. I won tickets to a Caps game last year and thoroughly enjoyed myself with family and friends, except for the fight on the ice that broke out sometime in the third period. The worst part about the fight was watching the crowd rise in ululating glee. It was nauseating, like watching Romans at the coliseum, chanting for gladiators bludgeoning each other or even just a gruesome match between man and lion. “Punched Out” makes clear that such fights and such primal bloodlust in the fans is the norm, not some weird fluke. The article makes me ashamed of ever liking the sport. It should make everyone ashamed whoever enjoyed a hockey fight.
The series also should remind all of us of the importance of good journalism by a strong news organization. It takes time and money to investigate a story such as this one or the one Katherine Boo covered. And Branch’s reporting built on the work of Alan Schwarz, also of the New York Times, on CTE in football and hockey players. I can only hope that the series, like Boo’s, does the important job of journalism: force change.