Outburst by Blackhawks exec highlights need to challenge culture of abuse in sport: U of T's Simon Darnell


(Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Chicago Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz has been critized for his angry outburst at a town hall meeting last week, berating reporters for asking about the organization's response to a sexual assault scandal. 

Simon darnell
Simon Darnell

Wirtz cut off the team's CEO, his son Danny, while he was answering a reporter's questions, and said: “What we're going to do today is our business... I think you should get onto the next subject.”

“We're not looking back on 2010, we're looking forward. And we're not going to talk about 2010," he added, referring to a law firm report published last fall that documented failures made by the Blackhawks after their former player, Kyle Beach, reported he was sexually assaulted by a coach during their 2010 Stanley Cup run. 

Wirtz later apologized to fans and the media for his behaviour at the town hall, saying he had “crossed the line.”

Simon Darnell, an associate professor in the University of Toronto's Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education and the director of the Centre for Sport Policy Studies, recently shared his thoughts on the NHL controversy.

What did you think of Rocky Wirtz’s outburst?

Like most people, I was shocked and then kind of disgusted. It seemed, on first blush, that the Blackhawks were going to use the press conference to assure people that the team was committed to making sure that the kind of abuse endured by Kyle Beach would never happen again and that there was, at the very least, a structure in place to ensure that players can come forward if they suffer any kind of abuse – or know of any – while serving as members of the team. And it appears that Danny Wirtz and team President [of Business Operations] Jaime Faulkner were prepared to answer those questions, though we will never know for sure now since they were shut down by Rocky Wirtz. So, to have the owner of the team interject and shut down the discussion at such a crucial time for the rebuilding of this team and the rebuilding of confidence in this issue within the NHL, was really shocking and deeply troubling. 

It served to dismiss the pain and suffering of Kyle Beach, and really the pain of many other athletes and people who have suffered abuse. Wirtz was effectively making a claim that the issue is somehow now over and done with. In reality, the only person who gets to decide that this issue is closed, or that there is nothing left to discuss, is Kyle Beach himself. In the meantime, the ethical and organizational responsibility lies with Wirtz and the Blackhawks to ensure that this never happens again on their watch, and to keep the conversation going so people are aware of this issue and of the need for vigilance and change. So, I really did feel a sense of cruelty in his attempt to shut down even a modicum of continued discussion on the topic. 

What did you make of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s response after he came to Wirtz's defence and said his comments were borne of frustration? 

In some ways I was even more disappointed and angry with Bettman than with Wirtz. Really, Bettman gave Wirtz a pass which sends a strong message that from the NHL’s perspective, this isn’t a big deal, or certainly not one that people in positions of authority within the league have any real responsibility towards or interest in. It was a really strong example and reminder, at least to me, that Bettman works for the owners, and not the other way around. His loyalty is obviously to protecting the owners more than the players and to ensure that profits are maximized even at the expense of the human beings involved. That professional sports in North America have always operated this way doesn’t make it any easier to process when we see it happen again. 

What message does this send to the world of hockey?

I think this all sends a terrible message to the sport of hockey because it says that despite all of the ongoing efforts to make the sport safer and more inclusive, when it comes to the highest levels of authority within the richest, most prestigious league in the world, there is still a real resistance to naming the problem, which in turn puts in jeopardy the changes needed to make the game more inviting and healthier. I think all of us who care deeply about this sport should remind ourselves that Gary Bettman and the NHL owners are not the stewards of hockey. They are the overlords of a cartel that just so happens to control, through a monopsony, the labour of the world’s best hockey players.

What are the implications for safe sport?

This whole mess speaks to the ongoing work still to be done to ensure the rights of athletes and all participants in sport, and to challenge the cultures of sport that enable abuse and silence those who call for change. This is at the core of the work we do in the Centre for Sport Policy Studies. It also is, I am proud to say, a central research thread across the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education. Our students and alumni, like Joseph Gurgis and Erin Willson, who just became the President of AthletesCan, are leading the way here. And we need to back them up with our resources and our courage, because we clearly cannot rely on the leaders of professional sport to do this work, to seek the reforms or to make the changes that we need in sport so that no one else has to suffer. 

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