The NHL’s culture problems have policy solutions

By Taylor McKee, Ph.D. Candidate and Instructor, Faculty of Health Sciences, Western University and Janice Forsyth, Associate Professor, Sociology & Director, Indigenous Studies, Western University, The Canadian Press

This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis, and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site. This piece has been condensed to fit word parameters.

Allegations about harassment, abuse, and discrimination in hockey have rocked the sport over the past few weeks.

If there are mechanisms in place to help address hockey’s toxic culture — including initiating an independent third-party investigation — then shouldn’t we be talking about how to put these policies into effect and how to improve their effectiveness?

Commonly thought of as the connective tissue bonding Canadians: claims of abuse, discrimination, and harassment have revealed hockey as a blunt instrument that tears this connective tissue apart.

When the highly successful, historic and Indigenous-led Beardy’s hockey program was phased out of the Saskatchewan landscape, Indigenous and non-Indigenous players were denied valuable opportunities to interact and participate in intercultural exchange through sport.

When former Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters, then a coach for the Rockford Ice Hogs of the AHL, used the N-word when dealing with a Black player, he did so because his career has existed within a racially homogenized, insulated environment. Peters was once recognized as one of Hockey Canada’s preferred coaches at the international level, coaching the Canadian under-18s, the World Championships and an assistant coach at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. This culture sheltered him from the consequences of using hateful language.

And, following years of making xenophobic comments during the Coach’s Corner segment of Hockey Night in Canada, longtime hockey commentator Don Cherry insinuated in a pre-Remembrance Day broadcast that immigrants were not grateful for the sacrifices of Canadian veterans.

These recent incidents are a part of hockey culture.

It’s easy to focus on coaches as individuals. They serve as the de facto child and youth care workers, teachers, and caregivers all rolled into one. Still, we cannot blame coaches anymore than teachers should be the only ones held accountable for unethical classroom conduct.

The need for oversight in organized sport has never been more apparent, especially in the wake of numerous scandals in the NCAA. Consider Penn State and Michigan State’s sexual abuse scandals.

Certainly, the new safe sport policies for Canada have yet to be tested and, indeed, have some serious imperfections to work out. Thankfully, there are indications from the government that its intent is genuine. For example, it may withhold funding if a sports organization does not implement “specific measures” to ensure compliance with the policies.

Still, other indicators are cause for concern. The independent third-party investigation option is available as a pilot project and closes in March 2020. Can enough reliable evidence be collected in less than one year about these complex issues?

Troublingly, safe sport policies deal almost exclusively with accountability measures for catching offenders. There is almost no emphasis on helping victims come forward and heal their wounds in a safe and respectful environment.

The disregard for their health and safety is similar to the lack of supports proposed for professional hockey players. In the wake of the Peters and Cherry scandals, the NHL recently instituted a “mandatory annual program on counselling, consciousness raising, education and training on diversity and inclusion for head coaches and general managers.” Similar to the safe sport policies in Canada, there appears to be no support for the victims, in this case, the professional players.

Certainly, harassment, abuse and discrimination in hockey are not exclusively the NHL’s problem. The Graham James abuse scandal from within Canadian junior hockey serves as a chilling reminder of the vulnerability of minors in Canada’s hockey system. As the world’s largest and most lucrative hockey organization, the NHL could require its affiliates to adopt safe sport policies similar to those being enforced in Canada.

Can hockey afford to clean up its mess?

Given the magnitude and depth of harassment, abuse and discrimination in hockey alone — from the grassroots to the professional level — addressing this issue using the courts could hamstring the budgets of many organizations.

The NHL generated US$5.09 billion in revenue during the 2018/19 year. If the NHL decided to finance the implementation of the safe sport policies for hockey, it would account for 0.12 per cent of their 2018/19 revenue.

It might not be feasible to expect the NHL to cover these financial costs entirely. However, the NHL will continue to incur tangible and intangible costs by allowing players to remain vulnerable.

The cost of safe sport extends far beyond a balance sheet.

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