Douchebag Decree: The NHL Doesn't Care About Domestic Violence

Douchebag Decree

The mug shot of hockey player Semyon VarlamovVarlamov in hockey gear

If you don’t pay attention to the thrilling world of ice hockey, you likely haven’t heard about Semyon Varlamov (above), the star goalie for the Colorado Avalanche hockey team. Last Wednesday, Varlamov turned himself in to Denver police for domestic violence. On more sports fans’ radars is the news this week about Miami Dolphins’ guard Richie Incognito, who is accused of bullying a young teammate so mercilessly with racist and homophobic slurs that the player felt compelled to leave the team.

Both cases highlight the tendency of people to give athletes a pass for conduct that would be reprehensible in people not worth billions of dollars. But both media and management treated the two cases of abuse very differently. While Incognito’s bullying of a teammate has resulted in a tidal wave of bad PR and administrative punishment, Varlamov’s alleged harassment of his girlfriend has so far resulted in very little comeuppance.

Richie Incognito was accused of harassing his teammate Jonathan Martin, including leaving him a voicemail dripping with racist slurs and texting him sexist and homophobic insults. Martin left the team last week, sparking an investigation both into Incognito’s bullying and the culture of hazing in the National Football League as a whole. The New York Times, for example, pointed out that the practice of older players tormenting rookies is nothing new, and the New York Daily News reported that Dolphins coach Joe Philbin supposedly told Incognito to “toughen Martin up.” But Dolphins management quickly took a firm and immediate action against the player who threatened to “sh*t in [a new rookie’s] mouth.” Incognito has been suspended from the team, and he likely won’t return.

Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito? You’re a d-bag, dude.  (photo via Panic Button

Meanwhile, Colorado Avalanche player Varlamov is facing charges of second-degree kidnapping—a felony—and third-degree assault. His girlfriend, who according to USA Today had “bruises consistent with a physical encounter,” told police that Varlamov had “kicked her, stomped on her, dragged her around the house and threatened her.” Varlamov’s girlfriend’s attorney, a friend of the family, says this also isn’t the first time this has happened—Varlamov allegedly knocked her unconscious during a vacation the two took together last summer.

Incognito’s bullying resulted in heaps of bad PR and a near-instant response from team management. But after Varlamov turned himself in, the team goalie paid his $5,000 bail, traveled to Dallas with the Colorado Avalanche, and started in goal for them less than two days later. There’s been little commentary from the mainstream media about whether the incident is a reflection of hockey’s violent culture, or even much about Varlamov’s arrest at all. And none of his teammates have dared to challenge him publicly—though at least one player from another team has spoken up to suggest that the girlfriend is really the guilty party here.

“It’s just American laws are on the women’s side, that’s why they can go to the police for any little thing, complain and bring a lot of problems to men,” Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Fedor Tyutin told Russian publication R-Sport. “The only mistake [Semyon made] is he got together with this girl.”

Even in the game against Dallas, there were reportedly only a few scattered boos from the crowd during the first few minutes before the spectators seemed to forget what, exactly, the man behind the visiting team’s mask had been reportedly up to 48 hours prior. Varlamov skates on, apparently without much concern.  

“We’re all aware of what happened, but we just feel that he’s our guy. We have confidence in him and feel that it’s good for him to play tonight,” Avalanche coach Patrick Roy told the Denver Post on Friday morning. “Why wait?”

Why indeed, Patrick Roy, except maybe to suggest to players that they’re not immune from facing consequences just because they’re having a hot season? Or to show solidarity with an immigrant woman who is already facing accusations of, among other things, lying to sabotage Varlamov’s chances at making the Russian team in Sochi for the Winter Olympics? The blame’s not entirely on the Avalanche, though—NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has suspended players for off-ice conduct in the past, and he has yet to make a peep.

Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising, though, given that in general, professional sports organizations’ treatment of domestic violence is spotty at best.

After Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend and committed suicide last year, the NFL’s need to address players’ domestic violence issues burst into the limelight. During that time, several people pointed out that 21 out of 32 NFL teams employed a player with a domestic violence or sexual assault charge on their record in the 2012-2013 season. Many fans called for the NFL to tighten up its Player Conduct Policy, which has been inconsistent in terms of punishing players for crimes committed off the field, particularly where domestic violence is concerned. And then … nothing. Again. The policy didn’t change, and the media quietly moved on. Though some teams, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers, have employed a zero-tolerance policy toward players accused of domestic violence, others have employed a sort of aggressively blissful ignorance about their presence on the roster. Meanwhile, Commissioner Roger Goodell spent at least the past year saying basically nothing on the matter.

Although the NFL has arguably gotten the most press about players’ domestic violence issues, it’s not like America’s other major professional sports have performed all that admirably, either. A 2012 article in the Gender, Social Policy and the Law points out that neither the NFL nor Major League Baseball adequately addresses player misconduct around domestic violence issues. In fact, out of the four most popular sports in the United States, only the National Basketball Association seems to respond consistently respond to accusations of domestic violence, even if they happen in the off-season, with suspensions at the least.

In the case of Varlamov’s recent arrest, much of the arguments against vilifying or suspending him have hinged on the fact that legally, Varlamov is “innocent until proven guilty.” Given, however, that conviction rates of athletes are what lawyer Bethany Withers called “astonishingly low” in a recent New York Times op-ed, the chances of Varlamov ever facing legal consequences for his alleged crimes are slim. Using the court system as an excuse for basically ignoring Varlamov’s charges isn’t just ignorance on the NHL’s part—it’s pure cowardice. And until the NHL—and sports organizations as a whole—abandon that line of reasoning and start holding players to the same level of accountability about domestic violence that they do about, say, intra-team bullying, stories like Varlamov’s will continue to resurface.

But hey, maybe they don’t even care. After all, Varlamov is likely starting again on Friday. You know—like Patrick Roy said, why wait?

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2 Comments Have Been Posted

It's worth noting that

It's worth noting that Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy (widely considered to be one of the greatest goalies of all time) was arrested in 2000 on charges related to a domestic dispute while he was the starting goalie for the Avs. (The charges were later dropped.)

Hockey culture protects Varlamov more than his celebrity

Varlmamov is sadly 8-1-0 to start the season, and hockey players have the tightest-knit player's union and locker room of all the team sports. According to the locker-room "code" you're risking your safety on the ice and your place on the team by suggesting Varlamov shouldn't be playing right now (if he was Canadian, he'd be put on a pedestal by now as a "good Canadian boy who would never do something like that", but he's Russian so the Russian media's doing that.) The "code" also justifies fighting as well as players closing ranks around one another even when they are guilty of the most violent actions. Notorious headhunter Todd Bertuzzi, who is guilty of one of the most gruesome of all hockey cheap shots ever, is still playing and is still "one of the boys." And any discipline Varlamov faces from the NHL itself faces a lengthy appeals process.

The most important factor here to watch I think is Varlamov's worth to the Sochi Russian hockey team; Russia's Olympic Federation is going to give his acquittal more attention than the rest of their athletes combined. I think following this story to the end in both the Russian and North American media (which I'm doing) is worthwhile.

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