Calling the Shots

04.29.14

What Hockey Players Can Teach our Toothless Politicians

Washington could take a lesson in how to handle foul plays and shoddy calls from what happens in the NHL.

Politicians of both parties seem incapable of explaining why they make the decisions they do.  Whether it’s Barack Obama’s Hamlet-of-the-Tar-Sands XL pipeline act, or John Boehner’s Bluto Blutarsky “Who’s with me?” routine on immigration reform, the ability to use facts to actually change minds and build consensus has become vestigial. Persuasion is now the Third Nipple of American politics.

But it’s not because fact-based reasoning cant work. It’s because our elected leaders  have decided it’s easier to play to their base or obfuscate furiously than it is to actually explain why they’ve reached a hard decision to a hard problem, or why we should actually consider some broadly shared sacrifice for the good of future generations. And we’re all worse off for it.

There’s a better way to build support for difficult judgment calls than the grandstand/demonize/never discuss/never apologize method practiced in Washington. And there’s an excellent and vivid example of it on display right now courtesy of the National Hockey League during its Stanley Cup playoff season. The NHL’s Department of Player Safety, responsible for the remarkably contentious process of levying fines and disciplinary suspensions for excessive on-ice player violence, is making its judgments and doling out its punishments with a heap of consensus-building savvy that eliminates all but the most extreme objections and keeps the league moving toward its difficult goal of reducing in-game injuries.

And Washington, should it care to take notice (although its Capitals are finished early after a lousy season), could really learn something valuable.

Since last September alone, the NHL Player Safety team has handed out punishments 42 times for cheap shots and dangerous plays of all descriptions. The kind of plays, in fact, that cause genuine and lingering animosity between players and among fans, as many of the victims of the dirty hits end up with severe concussions or significant knee ligament injuries. And yet, the number of times that those punishments have led to huge controversies within the hockey player, fan and media communities is…zero.

It turns out that transparent, cogent decisions, thoughtfully made and openly presented to the public, tend to produce smarter outcomes. And what’s more, they also—listen up, DC!—create a virtuous cycle of increasing credibility for the decision making body itself. You take on something hard, you handle it wisely, and people notice and give you credit you can bank for the next round of tough decisions.

With an extensive, no-hype/all-facts web, social and traditional media presence (capped off by its vaguely pornographic-sounding “Discipline Videos” webpage), the league’s Department of Player Safety aggressively lays out and explain all factors and reasoning behind all its suspension decisions.   

You think making a call in Washington is contentious? You haven’t seen rabid partisanship until you’ve seen a St. Louis fan outraged over its team captain being knocked out of the playoffs by a Chicago player’s vicious shoulder to the captain’s head. Or any number of other, similar plays throughout the year. One side screams for justice while the other side minimizes the issue and claims, in effect, that nothing out of the ordinary occurred. 

The press gets involved, the Twittersphere goes wild, and all the seeds of intractability are sown. It’s like Washington on PED’s. But if any sport’s going to teach politicians a lesson or two, it’s probably not surprising that it would be one known for bare-knuckle brawling; the trick is keeping the brawls from wrecking the whole business of the league.

1.    Maintain complete transparency in all matters.

Unlike most major sports leagues, the NHL has thrown the doors open on its player disciplinary process. Rather than using selective truth to try to justify a particular decision, the league appears to make every effort to play all its cards face up on the  table.

Lesson for Washington: A genuinely smart politician would embrace the power of transparency rather than just talking a good game about it. The first administration that actually embraces transparency and harnesses its possibilities may unlock the key to successful governance in the future.

2.    Take forceful and quick action when an issue arises.

The Department of Player Safety’s game watchers send out e-mails with video footage of questionable plays within minutes of their occurrence, and further disciplinary inquiries are always announced within 24 hours. No time wasted scrambling for cover or waiting to see how bad things might get before acting. Lesson for Washington:

In the finance business, there’s a maxim that “Time is risk.” Almost no piece of bad news or bad behavior gets better with age, but political environments are notorious for creating hear-no-evil-see-no-evil dynamics. Get the bad stuff out quickly and win points for staying on top of it.

3.    Gather as much relevant data as fast as you can from as many viewpoints as possible.

“Viewpoints” here includes not only literal camera angles, but also input from the offending player, the players’ union, the player’s agent, and team representatives. Rather than selective filtering for purposes of justification, information is instead used as the fuel for illumination.

Lesson for Washington:

Gathering data in Washington has come to mean chatting only with your supporters, friendly lobbyists and think tanks. Which would be like the NHL eschewing videotape and listening only to the offending player in a disciplinary process. Great leaders never fear contrary viewpoints or conflicting data. Does anyone in DC remember the meaning of the term “co-opted”?

4.    Make sure everyone understands the rules, and then stick tenaciously to them.
The NHL makes an extensive effort to ensure that its players and fans all understand the rules that govern the game and the disciplinary actions surrounding it. It proactively creates videos explaining rule changes and invites any player seeking insight as to what is and isn’t acceptable to come to New York for briefings before trouble arises. And it doesn’t waver from the rules for expediency’s sake.

Lesson for Washington:

Increasing your predictability increases faith in your qualifications to represent voters; interestingly, NHL reporters and fans can generally now predict suspension lengths for a given incident within a game or two. Principle-based decision making could boost perceived integrity and defuse an overly personalized DC political climate.

5.    Communicate decisions plainly and earnestly.

This is the equivalent of anti-matter for Washington, but with regard to these player safety decisions, the NHL simply doesn’t seem to mince words. They’re plain-spoken and quietly confident rather than clever or cloying. Immediately after a decision is reached, the league calls the player to advise them and then puts out a remarkably thorough and concise video explaining every aspect of the decision. The narration on the videos, provided by the head of the player safety department (currently  former NHL player Stephane Quintal), is delivered in a “Just the facts, ma’am” monotone that would make Jack Webb proud.

Lesson for Washington:

Be more Calvin Coolidge and less Baghdad Bob. The truth as you see it doesn’t require that much additional commentary. Brevity and authenticity are the mother’s milk of credibility, which, in turn, is what wins fans and neutralizes enemies. All the spinning in the world can’t do that.

It may be that the average Congressman or West Wing denizen would scoff at the idea of learning lessons from a sport dominated by Canadians with missing teeth. But with stunning new polling data showing that a majority of Americans now believe neither political party is looking out for their interests, there’s little doubt that new methods of doing business in Washington could help put points on the national scoreboard.