Although if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook you will know that I am a sports fan, I don’t write very much about sports on here (or ‘or anything, lately’, some of you will have pointed out, with a certain amount of justification) because it isn’t that kind of blog and honestly the lasts thing the internet needs is more Sports Opinions. However, I’m giving you one today anyway, and only partly because it gives me something to write about.
For people who are not sports fans, the attraction is often hard to understand, in the way that nearly any fandom that you’re not a part of can look incomprehensible from the outside. But basically, the appeal of watching sports is that it is entertainment: watching a hockey game or a 100m sprint or a gymnastics competition is watching a story that you don’t know the end of yet. Human nature being what it is, we can find our heroes and villains in the story, hope for certain outcomes. Sometimes you get them, sometimes you don’t. Things happen in these real-world stories that if you tried to put them in a fictional one, people would insist they are ‘too unbelievable’.
That’s the main reason why I watch, anyway, overlaid with other ones that we don’t need to dig into today.
As you will also probably have been unable to avoid noticing if you follow me on social media, this spring and summer my favourite hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens, gave us a heck of a story. They kind of scraped into the playoffs, which meant a first-round matchup with the arch-rival Toronto Maple Leafs (forever the villains in the Canadiens’ story). The Leafs were one of the teams favoured to win the Cup, so this was not predicted to go well. Montreal won the first game, which was fun, but then lost the next 3 (of a best of 7 series) and things did not look good.
But then the Canadiens won the next 3 games in a row to take the series and eliminate the Leafs. This was already a great story (for Montreal fans), but then they won the next round. And the next round, against another Cup-favourite team, enabling the Canadiens to reach the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in 28 years. Now, at this point ‘reality’ reasserted itself, and the Canadiens did not end up winning the Cup, but (again, for fans of the team) it was still an amazing, exciting ride that was perhaps especially appreciated as it came in what we hope are the latter stages of the pandemic.
The Montreal Canadiens told a wonderful story.
Then some time passed, and we got to last week’s NHL Entry Draft. With their first-round selection, Montreal took a player who had taken pictures of a girl while they were having sex, and distributed them to his teammates. He was found guilty and paid a small fine in Sweden, and had said (however we choose to assess the sincerity of the statement) that he did not want to be drafted this year because he didn’t deserve it. The Canadiens picked him anyway.
The Montreal Canadiens told a terrible story, an all too familiar one, where the violation and abuse of women is something to be forgiven and forgotten, especially if you happen to have a highly-marketable skill. ‘Good at hockey’ was a more important factor in deciding whether or not to add this person to their organization than ‘sex offender’ was. What a horrific message to send to the women and girls who are fans of the team, and hockey in general. What a horrific message to send to young men, also – that if you abuse women, it doesn’t matter if you’re good at hockey. We knew society sends this message, or ones like it, all the time, despite constant calls for change and commitments to change.
Lots of people have responded to criticism of the pick with comments on the age of the young man and calls for him to get a ‘second chance’. As far as I can see he’s still on his first chance, though – aside from the fine, the consequences for him have been a couple of awkward conversations with the press as he continues his express ride to the best hockey league in the world. His abuse of a young woman hasn’t even slowed him down. Of course he has a right to live his life and earn a living, but playing pro hockey in the richest league in the world? That’s not a right, but it is something the Montreal Canadiens insisted on handing him.
Meanwhile, we know that his victim will wrestle with this for the rest of her life, and doesn’t ever really get that ‘clean slate’ everyone seems so eager to give to her abuser. ‘Move on and let the kid play hockey’, except she doesn’t get to move on. The story our society is telling when we decide that doesn’t matter very much because someone is a marketable athlete isn’t a very good one at all.
There’s a decent argument to be made that our society gives sports, and athletes, far more prominence and influence than they should reasonably have, but have it they do, and as much as the organizations and owners love to exploit the wonderful stories sports can tell to sell tickets and merch, they should also think far more than they do about the negative stories they allow themselves to be part of, with the behaviours that are tolerated and rewarded if they can lead to some goals, strikeouts, or first downs.
Where does this leave me with the Montreal Canadiens? I honestly don’t know. There’s still time for them to rescind the pick, but no indication that they actually will do so. I stopped being a fan of the NFL when I found it impossible to continue giving my support to the culture and institutions around pro football. I don’t know if I’m there yet with the NHL, and the Canadiens, but they have decided to tell such a terrible story, and it killed the joy from the wonderful one.
Thanks for reading.