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Under the Surface: Sexual Harassment and Assault in Sports

The sexual harassment and assault that pervades the realms of politics and entertainment are present in the sports world too.

2017 NHL China Games - Los Angeles Kings v Vancouver Canucks Photo by Yifan Ding/NHLI via Getty Images

Over the past several weeks, there has been a reckoning for powerful individuals, virtually all men, who have allegedly committed sexual harassment or assault. It began in the world of movies with Harvey Weinstein but soon expanded beyond that to include politics and the rest of the entertainment business. The rest of the entertainment business except for sports. The laundry list of people accused of sexual harassment and assault seems to include wealthy and powerful individuals from every facet of life except sports. Why is that?

It isn’t because abuse and harassment are not occurring in the world of sports. Sadly, it is all too prevalent. Minnesota sports fans should be particularly aware of that fact as it was only two years ago that Star Tribune reporter Amelia Rayno, at the time the beat reporter covering the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team, added her own account of being sexually harassed by U of M Athletic Director Norwood Teague to two others (Teague resigned as a result of the allegations). Rayno has since moved on to cover non-sports related material for the Star Tribune.

Five minutes of searching would reveal allegations of several sports figures including players, coaches, and team managers embroiled in sexual harassment or assault allegations in the past few years. Those searches would also reveal that, much like the cases brought against political and entertainment figures, legal cases are infrequently decided against the alleged harassers, if formal charges are made at all.

Yet it seems that there may be a positive tidal change in which the position and privilege of powerful individuals no longer shelters them from the consequences of their actions. Brave women and men are coming forward with their stories and casting light on the inappropriate and illegal behavior of predators. However, the spotlight has not yet brought the abuse and harassment going on in sports to the fore. At least not yet.

This isn’t because the victims of sexual harassment and assault committed by sports figures are not as brave as those in the other cultural realms. It is because, at least in part, it is even more difficult for them to go public. This article in Sports Illustrated explains that experiencing sexual harassment is ubiquitous for female sportswriters, and combatting it means risking their very livelihood. Backlash from players, teams, and management for reporting behavior was the consistent fear mentioned by those interviewed for the article. When sources are no longer willing to speak with you, for whatever reason, it makes it difficult for a sportswriter to do their job. Rayno explains her own thought process to stay quiet and work around the behavior during the time before she ultimately went public:

It was my decision to make and I chose what I believed was self-preservation. I didn't want my career interrupted because of a powerful man's misdeeds. Making a formal complaint could have resulted in me losing access at the university. It could have forced me to take another beat, perhaps out of sports; to change my career path in a way I never planned.

In the end, she did end up speaking out against Teague’s actions, and shortly thereafter she moved out of covering sports. She has stated she is happy with the change, but it also shows that her concern with the ramifications of going public were well-founded.

Players can be victims too and at all levels. In 2015-16, a Canadian teen hockey player was sexually harassed by an opponent. Her attempts to report the boy’s actions resulted in no action being taken. Eventually she left that league (after that same player speared her in the ribs and slammed her head in the ice) and another opponent sexually harassed her. This time, thankfully, her new league had a sexual harassment policy and dealt with the offending player. In 2011, a UConn female hockey player alleges she was raped by a male hockey player. After reporting the crime to school officials, she was advised to change schools and was kicked off the hockey team for fear she would bring down the rest of the group. Hope Solo recently accused former FIFA president Sepp Blatter of sexual harassment during the 2013 Ballon d’Or awards.

The NHL is no exception to sexual harassment and assault scandals. Mike Ribeiro, Evander Kane, and Patrick Kane have all been accused of sexual assault. In the former case, the allegations were brought by Ribeiro’s nanny. In the latter two, women the players met outside of any hockey-related activity made the claims.

Regardless of the legal results of those cases, two things are clear. First, sports figures, whether highly-paid athletes, coaches, or front office personnel, have power and wealth that can be abused. The disparity of power, be it physical, monetary, cultural, or otherwise, is a central aspect of sexual harassment and assault. Opportunities for predators are prevalent in the realm of sports. Second, when these accusations are made, the public outcry is divisive and includes contingents that are hostile to the alleged victims.

Those two facts make an already challenging situation even more so for victims to seek justice. While much of the burden on improving this situation, and preventing sexual harassment and assault from happening in the first place, rests with the NHL, the teams, and the players themselves, there are some things that hockey fans can do too.

  1. When an incident is first brought to light, don’t rush to claim that the accuser is lying. First off, it’s rare for victims to lie about being sexually harassed or assaulted. Second, it is an unjust view of the incident. The accused should be presumed innocent until proven guilty and the accuser presumed honest until proven to be lying. Acting in any other way is contrary to how our justice system is meant to work.
  2. Unless you are a law enforcement officer or other judicial representative involved with the case, DO NOT involve yourself with the case. DO NOT harass anyone involved with the case (like doxxing the accuser). Basically, just stay away from the case and all parties involved with it.
  3. Understand that sports aren’t immune from bad actors any more than politics or entertainment. It is tempting to pretend that our favorite pastime is somehow exempt from these terrible situations, but it isn’t. Understanding that and holding the NHL (and other sports leagues) accountable to creating and maintaining a safe environment for all people is important.
  4. Lastly, consider visiting The White Ribbon campaign or End Violence Against Women International and learn more about what you can do to make the world a safer place for all women.

Sports can be a wonderful break from the disappointing and terrible events we read about in the news day after day, but it can also be a source for those same stories. That can change, in time, but we have to work for it and demand that the NHL and other sports leagues do the same.