On Sunday morning, as his network reeled from the latest ugly comments made by his marquee star Don Cherry, Bart Yabsley, the president of Sportsnet, scrambled onto Twitter to deliver his very best impersonation of the British actor Claude Rains.
In the classic Second World War drama Casablanca, of course, Rains plays Louis Renault, a Vichy police captain who, under pressure from his Nazi overlords, shuts down the nightclub belonging to Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here!” Renault tells Rick. A café employee runs up and hands him a wad of cash. “Your winnings, sir,” the employee says. “Oh, thank you very much!” Renault replies.
On Saturday night, as part of his annual Remembrance Day tribute to Canada’s veterans on Hockey Night in Canada, Cherry ranted angrily that, in Mississauga, where he lives, and downtown Toronto “nobody wears the poppy.” Jabbing his index finger repeatedly toward the camera, he said: “You people love – they come here, whatever it is, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you could pay a couple of bucks for a poppy or something like that. These guys pay for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price.”
In his statement posted on Sunday to the Twitter account of Sportsnet PR, Yabsley seemed as stunned as Capt. Renault: “Don’s discriminatory comments are offensive and they do not represent our values and what we stand for as a network. We have spoken with Don about the severity of this issue and we sincerely apologize for these divisive remarks.”
Is it possible that Yabsley, who was appointed Sportsnet president only last March, hadn’t been read in on the Cherry file? Or that he’d always found something else to do on Saturday nights during the past 39 years, and somehow had just never caught Cherry on Coach’s Corner?
Because how else could he be shocked! shocked! to find that Cherry might say something hateful? Cherry’s offensiveness – and not just in his wardrobe choices – is the primary pillar of his brand.
In 1998, during CBC’s coverage of the men’s Olympic gold-medal hockey game in Nagano, Japan, Cherry referred to Quebec nationalists as “a bunch of whiners," and complained that the freestyle skier Jean-Luc Brassard, of Grand-Île, Que., who had said he regretted carrying the Canadian flag in the opening ceremonies because it had affected his performance in the moguls competition, was “a French guy, some skier nobody knows about.” (Brassard had won the Olympic gold medal in the previous Winter Olympics.) Jim Byrd, who was then CBC’s vice-president of English television, told the media that Cherry was a commentator, “hired to express his opinions, which are invariably strong ones and not necessarily those of the CBC.”
Five years later, as the U.S.-led Iraq War broke out, Cherry castigated the Canadian government for refusing to send troops to the region. CBC executives reportedly gave him a mild warning to avoid talk of politics.
For decades, he has railed against Europeans supposedly displacing Canadian hockey players in North American leagues: the sports equivalent of the xenophobic “white replacement” paranoia now sweeping across Europe and the United States.
Cherry’s apologies have been rare and usually made only under extreme pressure – sometimes of the legal variety. On the opening night of the 2011-12 season, Cherry laced into three former NHL enforcers, calling them “pukes” and “hypocrites,” for suggesting the league’s fighting culture – of which Cherry is the greatest cheerleader – had caused the substance-abuse problems of fellow tough guys. It took more than a week, and the threat of a lawsuit from the three former players, before Cherry apologized.
On Sunday night, almost 24 hours after his “you people” comments, nobody had yet heard from Cherry. But his sidekick, Ron MacLean, who had sat in silence during Cherry’s rant and then concluded the segment with an oddly robotic thumbs-up, offered an earnest apology that included references to Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
Opening the broadcast of Rogers Hometown Hockey, of which he is the host, MacLean told viewers that Cherry’s remarks “were hurtful, discriminatory [and] flat-out wrong.”
“We know diversity is the strength of the country. We see it in the travels with our show, and with Hockey Night in Canada. So – I owe you an apology, too,” he said. “I sat there, did not catch it, did not respond. Kathryn Teneese of Ktunaxa First Nation once said, in any wrongdoing, the real key is recognition and acknowledgment. I wanted to let you know that first – and then you work on the relationship, so that it isn’t divisive, so that something can be a unifying event. Idle No More was a great lesson to all of us. Last night was a really great lesson to Don and me. We were wrong, and I sincerely apologize, and I wanted to thank you for calling me and Don on that last night.”
The air is thick these days with angst over what’s known as cancel culture: the fear that someone might say one errant thing and be sentenced by social media to permanent exile. But Cherry’s comments about immigrants on Saturday night are just the latest and most nakedly xenophobic incident in a long career of bigotry.
For Rogers, which owns Sportsnet, the decision on what to do with him will likely come down to a matrix of ratings versus outrage: as long as the former stays above the latter, he’s safe. And here in Canada, we don’t have a history of boycotting advertisers, so Labatt, whose Budweiser brand is the name sponsor of Coach’s Corner, may not say anything publicly. (Mind you, I tried getting hold of a Labatt spokesperson on Sunday and was met with radio silence, so the brewer is probably at least weighing its options.)
Still, you have to wonder: If these latest comments by Cherry aren’t going to prompt his bosses to cut him loose, what would?