It’s often said that professional sports are an escape from real life, but that’s not exactly right. For those who make their living in that world, they are a replacement for real life.
You are an adult in the adult world with adult problems.
The pros you watch on TV live instead in perpetual childhood. Owing to their physical talent, their responsibilities have been reduced to being very good at recess.
Whenever the real world intrudes on them – they miss a plane, get divorced, need someone to pick them up from jail – an adult appears and makes that problem go away.
Who could blame some of those adults from writing themselves into the fantasy? What is sports but a bunch of athletes pulling together in order to be the best at playing games. When faced with a goal this trivial and all-encompassing, other considerations become secondary.
Why do so many players become coaches or executives once they age out of sport? That way, no one ever needs to grow up.
It’s in that context that we might view the continuing train wreck that is the Chicago Blackhawks’ decision to play down a 2010 complaint of sexual abuse made by one of their young players.
Then-Chicago GM and current Chicago president Stan Bowman has already resigned. Then head coach and current Florida coach Joel Quenneville met with commissioner Gary Bettman on Thursday afternoon. By Thursday evening, the Panthers announced that he’d resigned.
Which means are looking grim for then assistant GM and current Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, who will meet Bettman on Friday.
The commissioner is by trade, as well as temperament, a lawyer. Figuring out the difference between what’s right, what’s fair and what’s expedient appears to be tilting toward the side of eliminating all traces of the transgression.
The only reason we’ve got this far is because of a lawsuit. That’s the point at which actual adults, ones not indoctrinated in the holy mysteries of sport, got involved. That in turn led to the release this week of the results of an investigation into the matter.
The issue isn’t figuring out who did what. Once they’d heard, second-hand, that minor-league player Kyle Beach had what he described as a coercive sexual encounter with Blackhawks video coach Brad Aldrich, nobody did anything.
Chicago brass kicked the can down the road to the team’s HR director, but only after waiting several weeks until the playoffs ended. That official gave Aldrich a choice – be investigated or quit. He quit.
Aldrich was still allowed to tour around with the Stanley Cup that summer. Three years later, while working another hockey job, he was convicted of sexually assaulting a high-school student.
To say that people failed in their responsibilities and that that failure led to an awful outcome is not debatable.
What is at issue is who knew what when.
Unsurprisingly, no one seems to have known anything. The big hitters in the Chicago organization did once get in a room to discuss it, but everyone came away with a different memory of what was discussed.
Team GM Bowman thought Aldrich had tried to get into bed with Beach. He also remembered that Quenneville waved it off as a distraction.
Team president John McDonough recalled that “something embarrassing” had happened to Beach, but didn’t remember anyone saying what it was.
Assistant GM Cheveldayoff remembered that Aldrich was accused of fraternizing with players, and feeling scandalized that that was going on.
The murkiest recollection of all was Quenneville’s. He arrived late to the meeting. All he could tell investigators about the conversation was that “an event happened without saying what happened” and that “something may have happened.”
Eleven years is a long time. Recollections get fuzzy. But if someone told you that one of your colleagues claimed he’d been sexually assaulted by another, that would make an impression.
But you and I are working from the perspective of normal people in normal jobs.
The sports world is abnormal. Everyone in it is reminded 24 hours of the day how special they are, and how vital what they do is. Their sense of mission would make an astronaut blush.
If every time you walked into a restaurant, a ripple went through the room and kids started coming up for autographs, you would also have a skewed opinion of your place in the world.
It’s not hard to imagine that sense of self-importance eliminating any consideration of Beach’s claims. He wasn’t just accusing a low-level team cog of a crime. He was intruding on the Blackhawks’ make-believe world. He was putting the whole fantasy at risk, and for what? So that they could create a big distraction and lose the series?
Eventually a cover-up, this started out as a co-ordinated effort at purposeful misunderstanding.
No one bothered to deny something had taken place. Instead, like children, they acted as though they either hadn’t heard anything or couldn’t comprehend what they’d heard.
“An event had happened.” And then they were quickly back to the really important stuff – playing games.
So what’s the solution?
Firing people may make the league feel less guilty, but it won’t unwind the clock so that Aldrich doesn’t end up working at a high school.
You can say you’ll change the culture, but that would require changing more than one culture. It isn’t just forcing the people in hockey to adjust their priorities, but rejigging the priorities of all fans of hockey. It would require us to imagine a world in which athletes and their abettors do not feel so special that they exist outside the normal rules. I’m not sure that sort of social engineering is within the NHL’s remit.
Maybe the quickest, most effective way of ensuring the real world has a toehold inside the Peter Pan environment of sports is the appointing of a responsible adult inside every franchise. Someone who doesn’t care about winning games. Someone who’s there to protect all the hockey types from their flawed instincts on human interaction.
The trick would be keeping that person from falling under the sway of the sports cult. That’s why there was an HR department there in the first place. Look how well that worked out.