As I watch the NHL sail into a new season, I am reminded of the Titanic on its maiden voyage, sailing full steam ahead despite warnings of ice in the area. The Titanic, you see, was not like other ships. It was unsinkable. Until it hit the ice.
Similarly, the NHL continues to hold its course despite a variety of warning signs, all the while clinging to the notion that it’s not like other leagues. NHL, you see, is not like other leagues. Its players “know what’s right and wrong.” Until they hit their spouse.
It’s said that as the Titanic sank into the icy waters of the North Atlantic, the “band played on” in an effort to calm the passengers. That’s great, as far as tales of misplaced heroism go. But when dealing with real life and death situations, promoting a sense of normalcy does nothing more than encourage complacency and blind faith in authority and the flawed products of humanity, whether they be an unsinkable ship, or a criminal justice system.
In light of this, it’s time for the NHL to change its tune. It’s time to stop sweeping the very real problems under the rug. It’s time to do something about the epidemic of still young men taking their own lives after a career spent bashing their head around an NHL rink. It’s time to do something about the alcohol and substance abuse that sees NHL players involved in accidents or swept up in roadside checks while under the influence every off-season. And, it’s time to take a visible stand against domestic violence and sexual assault.
We have here a league that once suspended Sean Avery without pay for making rude comments. Mind you, those comments were completely sexist and inappropriate comments and they damaged the reputation of the league, so the NHL was right in suspending him. The point is, if the league recognizes that mere words can damage its reputation, how can they not see that continuing to allow Patrick Kane to participate in NHL activities will be that much more damaging?
And, yes, I understand that Kane is entitled to his day in court. I am not making a judgement on his guilt or innocence. But from the league’s perspective, there is no upside to allowing him to continue as an active participant in league sanctioned activities until this is resolved.
I understand that he hasn’t even been charged yet. But that’s irrelevant. And so are the accusations and machinations on display by all parties on both side at the moment. What we’re witnessing now is a PR battle for public opinion that has nothing to do with guilt or innocence, and everything to do with hearts and minds. Either way, it. Is. Irrelevant.
What matters, from the NHL’s perspective, is whether Kane’s continued participation in league events creates a “substantial risk of material harm to the legitimate interests and/or reputation of the league.” [emphasis added] He has a contract with the Blackhawks and is subject to the provisions of the NHL-NHLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement, including this one, which gives the league the authority to suspend a player even without their own formal review, let alone the conclusion of a criminal investigation:
So, really, what’s to lose by suspending Kane? Or even just asking him to stay home with pay. I mean, that’s exactly what the NHL did with Slava Voynov less than a year ago, right? That’s what happens in many other jobs when there’s a suggestion of impropriety of some sort, right? Heck, in some jobs you can even shoot somebody and still be put on paid leave pending an investigation and without being charged.
From the league’s perspective, there are really only four outcomes to consider, each derived from one of the combination of guilty/not guilty and suspended/not suspended. Where is the upside to the league in not suspending Kane if he winds up not even being charged? I understand there’s a different calculation at play for the Blackhawks here, but for the league, what’s the upside?
I dare say there isn’t one.
But what if they suspend him, you ask, and he’s eventually found not guilty? Well, then they were just being precautious and protecting their business interests as it is within their rights to do so. Heck, it’s not just their right, it’s their fiduciary duty to protect the interests of the league.
The NHL is not a court of law. Their decision to suspend or not suspend Kane has absolutely no bearing on the resolution of the criminal investigation nor an eventual trial. But it does have an impact on the league’s reputation in general, and on the message they are sending to their customers, especially women, far too many of which are survivors of sexual assault:
— Jen LC (@RegressedPDO) September 22, 2015
In addition, this is about more than just Patrick Kane and his guilt or innocence. He can be completely exonerated tomorrow and the NHL will still have played this out incorrectly from a business point of view and insensitively from a societal point of view. This is about how we, as a society, treat the victims of sexual assault. As @RegressedPDO explains:
The criticisms of the handling of these issues by sports leagues and teams over the past few years will not suddenly become less valid because of how one legal case turns out. Victims of sexual assault, abuse and violence will not suddenly vanish because of how one legal case turns out. Perpetrators of sexual assault, abuse and violence will not suddenly disappear because of how one legal case turns out. The massive power imbalance between those who commit such acts and those who are the victims will not suddenly disappear because of how one legal case turns out.
So what this represents is an opportunity.
An opportunity to take a stand and say to the victims of sexual assault, “You don’t have to keep silent. You can come forward and have your concerns heard. We understand that rape is a serious allegation, and life doesn’t just go on as if nothing happened.”
And if you’re still out there saying, “What about innocent until proven guilty?” all I can say to you, is that is purely a construct of the legal system meant to check the power of the state to imprison the citizenry. In fact, even within the narrow context within which it applies, being found “not guilty” does not imply innocence.
There is no requirement on me, you, the NHL or anyone else to wait until a court of law finds an accused guilty before making decisions and taking whatever action we deem appropriate within the bounds of existing contracts and the law of the land. The NHL is perfectly within its rights to take action to protect its interests and not dismiss the concers of tens of thousands of its own fans, while still respecting due process.
But hey, if you want to hang your hat on that one, you know who else wasn’t found guilty in a court of law? OJ Simpson.
Finally, I want to conclude with a word about the media coverage of this whole situation. For the most part, the mainstream hockey media has been noticeably and appallingly silent. There are some occasional retweets of non-hockey journalists in Chicago or Buffalo covering the developments. Or sometimes a virtual shrug of the shoulders, hiding behind the “ongoing investigation” or “we just don’t know anything” or “we aren’t legal experts”.
Well, neither am I.
But somehow, despite that, I’ve managed to formulate an opinion on what the NHL should be doing from a purely business perspective outside of the ongoing legal process. You can disagree with it. That’s fine. The point is that what the NHL does and the outcome of the legal process are mutually exclusive. You can separate the two things. Really.
Or you can just pretend nothing is happening, asking everyone to keep calm.
And the band played on.
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