Less than two months after a woman came forward accusing Chicago Blackhawks player Patrick Kane of sexual assault, and with the case still ongoing, he was back on the ice for preseason training camp. By allowing Kane to participate in preseason training camp, it has become very clear that the league is either not willing or not able to treat the matter with the seriousness and respect it deserves.
New information in the case was released on Sept. 23, when the victim’s lawyer, Thomas Eoannou, stated that the alleged victim’s rape kit had been tampered with. The Erie County Commissioner of Central Police Services has issued a statement claiming that no evidence is currently out of their possession, suggesting that the compromised rape kit bag that has turned up is a fake. According to NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, Kane’s status at camp remains unchanged despite recent developments.
These revelations came almost one week after an initial press conference where the Blackhawks announced that Kane would be attending the team’s preseason training camp despite the sexual assault allegations. The way that the press conference was handled has been described as “tone deaf” and a “baffling display.”
Members of the Blackhawks organization have been almost flippant about the matter. In Kane’s statement, he declared his innocence and apologized to his family, teammates, the Blackhawks organization and fans for causing a “distraction.”
The team’s captain, Jonathan Toews, referred to the rape investigation as a “non-factor” that would not distract the team from its focus on training. He said of the investigation that “you stay together as a team, you support your teammate or teammates who are maybe going through a rough patch.”
The use of the terms “distraction” and “non-factor” indicates exactly how this matter has been handled by the Blackhawks and the NHL. Hockey is the priority, and endangering the product is unacceptable. The safety of the alleged victim? Just a distraction. Educating players and fostering a culture where sexual violence is condemned? A non-factor. There is hockey to be played and money to be made, and addressing a player’s behavior and the allegations against him are not a part of that equation.
It is disturbing that the Blackhawks gave Kane a platform to proclaim his innocence, and in the process, posit that the accusations have been fabricated, all while he is still being investigated. It is just as disturbing that important members of the NHL community support the player, from Chicago Blackhawks President John McDonough, who confirmed Kane would attend training camp, to Calgary Flames President Brian Burke, who publicly lauded the league for not suspending Kane. Sports outlets such as ESPN ran Kane’s press conference — giving him an even louder voice — but did not do the same for Eoannou’s.
By failing to suspend Kane while he is being criminally investigated for sexual assault and allowing him to cast aspersions onto this accuser in a press conference, both the Blackhawks and the NHL have set a dangerous precedent for players going forward, and sent an alarming message to fans that accusers are not as important as players.
Details of the case are slowly emerging. Reports state that on Aug. 2, Kane invited two women to his Buffalo-area home after meeting them at Buffalo’s Sky Bar nightclub on the night of Aug. 1. The accuser alleged that Kane followed her into an empty room, overpowered her and raped her. The rest of the events are recounted by the Buffalo News.
The alleged victim’s body showed signs of physical violence. A Buffalo grand jury has been called to review the case and vote on whether there is sufficient evidence to charge Kane, but that has since been postponed to later in September. Recent leaked results from the rape kit suggest that DNA evidence was collected from under the alleged victim’s nails and on her shoulders.
The league has already set the precedent for suspension with pay before a player is charged. In October 2014, the league suspended Slava Voynov pending an investigation of domestic violence, citing Article 18-A.5 of the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement as their rationale. The article reads:
18-A.5 Criminal Investigation. A Player subject to Commissioner Discipline for Off-Ice Conduct may seek a reasonable delay in such proceedings in order to retain and seek the advice of counsel in the event his conduct may also be subject to a criminal investigation by any governmental authority, or in the event of an ongoing civil proceeding where the Player has been named as a defendant. The League may suspend the Player pending the League’s formal review and disposition of the matter where the failure to suspend the Player during this period would create a substantial risk of material harm to the legitimate interests and/or reputation of the League.
Outside of the league, in a case similar to Kane’s, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended by the NFL after an investigation of sexual assault led to no charges.
By refusing to suspend Kane even though there is enough evidence to warrant an NHL investigation into the matter, the league is sending a negative message. Suspension is well within their power, and the league’s lack of action is an implicit statement of support of the player. By supporting the accused, the league is perpetuating beliefs that false rape accusations are common — in turn perpetuating a culture in which accusers do not come forward due to fear and a sense of futility.
The Blackhawks revealed that they spoke with Kane’s attorney before allowing him to attend camp, but it is uncertain what other conversations have taken place between the league, the Blackhawks and Kane. The Blackhawks organization, NHLPA and NHL did not respond to requests for comment. Pending the league’s formal review, Kane has the right to due process. Suspending Kane with pay and preventing him from attending training camp does not violate those rights. It is also within the rights of the NHL to suspend Kane before charges are laid, according to section 18-A.5. Suspending Kane with pay is not the same as deciding that he is guilty. Instead, it means that the league is taking criminal investigations into sexual assault allegations seriously.
Suspending Kane is not a cure-all. Prevention is always better than punishment. Many more steps need to be taken to address this cultural issue, such as a potential domestic violence/sexual assault prevention program for the players that was discussed by Daly. Also, the off-ice conduct model announced recently by the LA Kings could be implemented league-wide. Furthermore, change needs to be implemented at all levels of hockey.
But allowing Kane to attend camp sends a message to the accuser that she does not matter. It sends the message that sports and those that play them are more important than properly addressing serious charges.
If the NHL wants to repair its relationship with female fans, the league needs to send the message that sexual assault allegations will be handled seriously and properly, regardless of who you are or how many Stanley Cup rings you have.