As a former junior-league hockey star turned anthropologist, Canadian scholar Michael Robidoux is convinced that there is much more to hockey than merely mullets and fist-fighting. To study this thesis, Robidoux set out to live amongst a hockey team and write his analysis for publication of his dissertation. In Men at Play, a daring ethnography of nearly a year spent with a minor-league hockey team, the Troy Reds, Robidoux puts his understanding of theory via analysis of the social, power-based, sexual, class, and economic dynamics of professional hockey to play in his narrative in exciting fashion, mixing and matching his wide and thorough understanding of Derrida, Marx, Foucault, Steinem et al with a “been there, done that” realism that instantly draws the reader onto the field of activity that happens behind, beneath, and within the field of play.
Abstaining from merely presenting an analysis of play in the (post)structural sense Robidoux rather focuses on analyses of power relations that overlap and underlap through hockey society and (Canadian) society at large, and examines the homosocial relations between players that result simultaneously in response to and in support of their position on the low end of their relative power totem. The story he presents is shocking, describing the daily life of the average hockey player in a world that relies upon the strict socialization of young Canadian boys, often 13 and 14 years old, into a system run by multibillion-dollar corporations that depend upon young men to skate around on fake ice and physically beat the crap out of each other.
Professional hockey, Robidoux tells us, is a world where confused boys are forced into initiation rites that involve intense sexual humiliation and drinking urine; this socialization process, at such a young age, ensures a rigid social structure and robs these young men of valuable life lessons and experiences. While most of us spend our teenage years and early to mid-twenties finding out who we are as (especially sexual) persons, learning valuable things about ourselves and learning our life lessons some as simple as learning how to write a check and others more intense such as how to interact with people hockey players spend these years being molded into a machine that works for the enjoyment of fans who buy products advertised at the stadium and on television during broadcasts. As they go on through the hockey system, socialization is strictured merely to the experiences shared by other hockey players; hockey does not end when they step off the ice because the players’ financial and psychological/emotional security mandates that hockey is a 24-hour event. After their hockey careers are over these men are often lost, cannot control their anger, feel depressed, and are anti-social. Life is so scripted for players, via time constraints practices, games, travel, weight room, physical therapy, etc. and social mores, that most players end up hating what they once loved to do the most in the world, play.
We learn of the exploitation encountered by the players, mere cogs in the machine of the multibillion-dollar hockey industry, putting their bodies on the line in intense physical competition, crippled with debilitating arthritis and other ailments in their thirties. Hockey practices workplace exploitation much like any other the minute a player can no longer perform at a certain level he is cast away but adds a twist. When discarded, these young men still in the prime of their lives lack the skills economic and social to make it in any industry outside of hockey. For this reason, they must always be on guard, suspicious of even those they must trust the most, their teammates, for the minute they slip they know that a teammate is waiting in the wings to snatch up their cherished spot. The people they count on the most will willingly stab them in the back at a moment’s notice. This is considered merely the way things are.
Men at Play is a scathing indictment of the hockey industry and its many practices of putting profit and the appeasement of corporate sponsorship ahead of the health, mental and physical, of the young men it relies upon. Robidoux’s style leaves something to be desired, however, if he expects widespread dissemination of his future output. In general, Men at Play suffers by not presenting the hockey community in the words of the players. Quotes and field notes are much too scarce and only serve to make it seem as if Robidoux is skating around in theory rather than grounding his ethnography in observed behaviors. And, though Robidoux presents a serious critique of what is religion to millions of people, it will most likely be beyond the grasp of the people who could really change things, spectators. Owners and large multinational corporations will only change practices when enough customers demand said changes in the way things are run, and the average hockey fan indeed the average Canadian or American citizen lacks the understanding of Robidoux’s use of theory for Men at Play to impact them in any significant way.
Of course, in all fairness, this was his graduate project and his intended audience was most likely his thesis committee. In that context, Robidoux presents a fresh voice in contemporary anthropology and social critique. He will be one to watch for in the coming years with some polish and a slight change in scope, he might even damn well be dangerous.