After Friday’s press conference by Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving, the NHL must have hoped the Bill Peters mess was in the rear-view mirror.
That’s the way it would have worked not so long ago. Crisis arises. Efforts are made to manage said crisis. The crisis does not want to be managed. Someone comes out and emotes. Someone else gets fired. On to the next.
But Akim Aliu, the person who launched the crisis, apparently has other ideas. He is still due to speak to the NHL some time in the coming days. According to Sportsnet, Aliu has acquired the services of the same U.S. law firm that represents Colin Kaepernick.
Aliu is a 30-year-old guy who never quite made the big time. But from the NHL’s perspective, he is – in this moment – one of the most powerful people in the sport.
Every time he chooses to speak, it will be news. He doesn’t need to call a press conference. All he needs is a Starbucks Wifi connection and a keypad.
This media dance can go round and round for as long as Aliu likes. There will be his reaction to his meeting with the NHL. Then there’s the reaction to the reaction. There’s his lawyer getting on a talk show to blast someone about that reaction, creating more reactions. It’s a nuclear accelerator for media.
Kaepernick is still front-and-centre, and it’s been nearly three years since the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback played a down. According to reports, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been reduced to begging teams – any team – to hire Kaepernick, just so the league can get him off its back.
There are now hundreds of potential Kaepernicks or Alius out there giving sports leagues nightmares. Every player, every locker-room guy, everyone who’s brushed glancingly against the inner workings of The Show and had a bad experience.
For pro sports, the past few years have been a time of exponential growth, but it’s starting to feel like they are entering a period of decline. The money’s drying up, viewers are defecting and it’s now an open question whether the centre can hold. Ten years from now, we might be talking about the early 21st-century sports bubble.
One of the emerging sub-themes in that larger story is the sports whistleblower. One person now has the power to unsettle the entire operation.
Just in the past few weeks, we’ve seen several organizations undermined by aggrieved former employees.
U.S. runner Mary Cain wrote a first-person essay in the New York Times about her unhappy experience at Nike’s Oregon Project, a group of athletes put together to promote U.S. long-distance running. She described being browbeaten by her coach into starving herself right out of athletic relevance.
Nike tried massaging away the problem with expressions of sympathy and a promise to investigate.
“I was the victim of an abusive system, an abusive man,” Cain said.
The Oregon Project is dead. Between Cain’s allegations and doping charges, its promotional value – the only reason Nike funded it – has vanished. Now the question is how far inside Nike HQ the infection will spread.
Pitcher Mike Fiers decided to tell reporters how his former team, the Houston Astros, stole catcher’s signs from opposing teams.
Major League Baseball responded with – you guessed it – promises of a thorough investigation. Everyone else rolled their eyes.
From the perspective of a sports executive, the Fiers example is both the least and most worrying.
On the one hand, no one cares about sign stealing. It’s do-anything-to-win stuff, which is on-brand for pro sports. It can be brushed off with an apology and a fine.
But on the other, this particular call came from inside the house. Fiers still plays in the bigs, for Oakland.
Twenty years ago, the idea of a pro dishing this sort of dirt while still bound by the Athletes’ Code of Silence was hard to imagine. That player would face ruthless blowback from his colleagues – shunning at best; being driven out of the sport at worst. There was no more grievous sin than snitching on the brotherhood.
Evidently, Fiers isn’t worried about that. That’s new. If you’re one of the people in charge, that’s terrifying.
Because everyone has a story to tell. Somewhere along the line, they have either had something terrible done to them or have seen something terrible done to someone else. These stories are widely known. Gossiping is amongst the things professional athletes do at an elite level. But they have traditionally kept it in-house.
Right now, that code is breaking down. It’s starting with excavations from the past. Aliu was racially abused by Bill Peters a decade ago. Cain had been out of competitive running for a few years.
But what happens when this new openness to accusation seeps into present time? You needn’t necessarily have played a role in bad behaviour to find yourself caught up in it. Just knowing these stories is now dangerous.
Hence, then-Carolina GM Ron Francis’s quick correction after the team’s former owner said he’d never heard about Bill Peters striking players on the bench. Francis wanted to be damn sure people knew he had.
This is what happens during a decline. People are freed to break the old rules and spread around the blame. They haven’t got anything to lose anymore.
The immediacy of social media encourages snap decisions. It’s not like you have to find someone’s phone number and then tell them your story, never really sure if they in turn will tell it the way you want. Everyone is their own publisher.
All it takes is one tweet to create a shockwave. Those shockwaves are self-reinforcing. Once someone does it and their world doesn’t collapse, others are encouraged to follow suit. You can see the pattern emerging.
For a lot of years, sports was close to certain that most of its dirty business would be kept within the family. That stops working when people begin to wonder what the rest of the family has done for them.
And there is nothing more uncontrollable than a family at war with itself.