The deeply depraved sub-culture of North American sport

Photo: Colourbox


Comment by Laura Robinson
Comment: Ice hockey and football have much to answer for, writes Canadian journalist Laura Robinson in her comment piece on new revelations of hazing and sexual abuse in North American sport. Under the glittering surface a depraved subculture is still not being addressed properly.

It’s been quite an autumn for North American sports—at least team sports played by boys and young men. In October Canadians were shocked—though they shouldn’t have been—when they heard the details of a sexually, physically and emotionally abusive hazing ritual carried out on five first year players on the Neepawa Natives junior hockey team in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. 

The dust of this debacle had not yet settled when the most venerable of sporting and academic institutions—Penn State University—announced the firing of senior and most worshipped American football coach, Joe Paterno and college president Graham Spanier after they did not follow up on information alleging assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky employed by Penn State for twenty-nine years, had raped a ten-year-old boy in the showers of the fabled Littany Lions’ locker room of Penn State.

Tim Curley, the university’s athletic director and its vice-president Gary Schultz have been charged with perjury. Curley testified under oath that in 2002 Mike McQueary, a new assistant coach who said he witnessed the rape, had not told him about any sexual activity between Sandusky and the boy, while Schultz testified the allegations reported to him were “not that serious.”

Sandusky is alleged to have continued to sexually abuse boys for years, using his status as a football coach and the Second Mile Club, the foundation for at-risk boys he created through his position at the university to obtain easy access. He faces 40 counts, while most recently two more alleged victims have come forward, one of whom is from Sandusky’s family.

Football, in the small town of State College, Pennsylvania (also referred to as ‘Happy Valley’) would be the perfect lure; boys would be attracted to football’s mythological status and that mythology also covers a litany of depraved behaviours. 

Americans are as blind to football’s secret sexually violent subculture as Canadians are to its hockey counterpart. Predators can act with virtual impunity as administrators see sport revenues far more easily than they do sexual abuse. American universities in the National Colleges Athletic Association draw in billions every year from team sport revenues, mainly through TV rights, ticketing and alumni who are more prone to donate if the football team wins.

To the north of the U.S., Canadian junior hockey franchises are worth millions, and generate millions through endorsements, TV rights, tickets and sponsorships. But most importantly athletes in both the NCAA and junior hockey are unpaid. The bodies of boys and young men are seen as commodities; something to be traded, bought, sold and judged for its physical merits by older men. Should anyone be surprised then that the Natives internalized their own objectification and abused the youngest on the team, or that a sexual predator would be right at home in a football culture such as this?

The toxic mix of the locker room’s sexually assaultive subculture, commoditized young male bodies, and administrations that are deaf, dumb and blind to everything except money guarantees the re-enactment of this story for generations. Americans continue to believe their country is better for, in fact cannot exist without, football while Canadians have not faltered from worshipping at the ice-rink, no matter how clear the evidence is of deeply rooted depravities.

Humiliation in the locker room
The Natives story broke in late October after a 15-year-old rookie player and his father went to authorities when the player disclosed to his father that he and other rookies were told they must do a strip-tease dance in the locker room and would be scored by senior players. Those with low scores had to perform push-ups with their genitalia dipping into ice-water with each push-up. The rookie in question refused and so was made to strip and parade around the locker room with a large plastic water bottle holder tied to his scrotum. Players added weight to the holder by tossing towels on top.

After the player and his father told the local junior league, Manitoba Junior Hockey League (MJHL), what had happened, he was forced to apologize to the team and administration for publicly disclosing the event. The MJHL ‘investigated’, fined the team $5,000 and suspended players between two and five games, depending on their role in the hazing. Captain Danil Kalashnikov was out for five; assistant captain Shane Harrington and player Richard Olson were out for three, while the rest of the players present in the locker room received two games each.

The suspensions did not have to be served concurrently. Hockey Canada is the sport governing body responsible for hockey in Canada. Their Regulation R4 states, "Any player, team official, executive member of a team, club or association, or any other CHA member, having participated in or condoned any incident of hazing, shall be subject to a suspension of not less than one (1) year. Notwithstanding the prescribed minimum suspension of one (1) year, in the event that the Branch would consider that such suspension would create undue hardship, given the circumstances, it may impose a lesser penalty, if it has received approval from the CHA Officers." 

Did the MJHL receive Hockey Canada’s approval of suspensions that lasted from two to five games? If so both organizations need to explain why suspending these players for a year—not a couple of days – is undue hardship. Wasn’t the undue hardship experienced by the brave player who broke the silence and spoke out? 

The quality of the MJHL’s investigation was called into question when it was revealed by four players that assistant coach, Brad Biggers, was in the locker room at the time, a detail players had managed to ‘misspeak’ when the MJHL investigated. Biggers denied his presence at first, but soon resigned, while the MJHL hired a “retired law enforcement” professional to commence a new investigation. The head coach, who was in the arena, but not in the locker room, was also forced to resign on October 30, despite, he says, reporting the hazing incident immediately to the MJHL and the RCMP (Canada’s national police force). He says he will commence legal action against the owners of the team and the league. 

No charges to be laid
The player who disclosed what happened now plays for an American team in Nebraska, though he is only fifteen. On November 29, the RCMP announced that no charges would be laid.  

“We were disappointed, no big surprise there,” said the mother of one of the players. “The information we were given was there wasn’t enough evidence to prove it was forced or he was restrained in any way. It renewed our conviction that legislation be put in place to protect victims, to give the RCMP something to enforce so that behaviour doesn’t continue.”

But one wonders what actually does constitute a sexual assault in Canada. The player says he was ‘forced’ to perform and that other players tied the water bottles to his scrotum. If he “went along with it” as other players claim, could that be because he was surrounded by over a dozen senior players in an enclosed area like a locker room? Had he not “gone along with the ritual” he believed his punishment would have been ever worse.

Canadians need to visit these issues in ways that question male dominated organizations and justice. Organized hockey and the RCMP are both designed as male hierarchies. Men in decision-making roles have extreme amounts of power over others. Not surprisingly, the senior players mimicked this model during hazing through the sexualized denigration of rookie players.

We need a serious and critical analysis of what ‘consent’ means in a sexualized environment when those with all the powerful harm those without power. (Presently the B.C. Missing Women’s Commission of Inquiry is investigating how dozens of women could be reported missing to the RCMP outside of Vancouver, and how the RCMP either refused to investigate or bungled the cases they purported to investigate. Eventually parts of the women were found in the soil of a pig farm some off-duty RCMP officers are alleged to have ‘partied’ at. At the same time women RCMP, from high-ranking officers, to constables have come forward with stories of institutionalized sexual harassment and assault within the police force, including times when they were supposed to be investigating the pig farm murders. A national hotline has now been set up for female RCMP by Vancouver’s Battered Women Support Services).

The blind spots for ice hockey and football
The response from the Natives team president, Dave McIntosh, to the team’s debacle speaks to the blind spot Canadians have for hockey. "Everything about it hurts," said McIntosh. "You feel a little bit of betrayal; why do you do this volunteer work – you try to elevate Neepawa by putting together a junior hockey club, and to be under the microscope like this – on the front page of newspapers instead of sports – it's a little discouraging."

Why is the game of hockey seen as a form of elevation? There are no studies that show a correlation between playing hockey and a subsequent ‘elevating’ of those who play or watch. 

The Natives’ hazing incident joins the list of hundreds of reported (and unreported) hazings, sexual assaults by players and administrators, not only of rookie hockey players but of girls and young women, who, according to hockey lore, ‘consensually’ allow multiple members of the team to use them for sex—after the players have given them so much alcohol, they are no longer conscious.

It comes on the heels of a summer when three former ‘enforcers’—NHL hockey players whose job it is to fight—committed suicide, while a fourth, Bob Probert died of heart failure after decades of drugs, alcohol and violence at forty-five. Any critique of this crisis goes out the window as soon as the season commences.

And even though State Town, Pennsylvania continues to have a circus-like atmosphere, as two judges recused themselves from hearing the case because they could be seen as having ties to the university or Sandusky, like Canadians, most Americans have returned to worshipping their favorite game. 

What’s worse is the student behavior at Penn State to the announcement of Paterno’s firing. Thousands ransacked public property, angry that ‘JoePa’ as they called him, would no longer coach ‘their’ team.

“Right now, I’m not the football coach. And I’ve got to get used to that,” said Paterno earlier in November from the front step of his house to dozens of students—some of whom cried—and then shook hands with them. The irony of watching students partially tear apart a university because those who should have protected children from the heinous crime of sexual abuse and did not were fired is doubly ironic given the team’s slogan.

Paterno was known for the ‘moral motto’ he apparently expected from his players: “Success with Honor”. Paterno later said he realized he should “have done more” about the reported rape, and not just sent the information up the university food chain, where it obviously and conveniently was buried. But when the story burst on the international scene, it went way beyond the confines of the university.

An “extraordinarily angry” Arne Duncan, U.S. Education Secretary, spoke about “absolute moral, ethical and legal responsibility” anyone who is involved in education has to protect children. “If a blind eye was turned towards it, or if the allegations were somewhat buried or not taken seriously … you’re giving the abuser more opportunities to hurt more kids,” Duncan said. “I just can’t fathom that.”

The alleged ‘proactive’ stance against abuse
Canada and the U.S. came together in an odd sort of way over the Penn State scandal after former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy spoke out in support of the alleged victims, affirming Duncan’s insistence of moral obligation.  In 1996 Kennedy disclosed that he had been a victim of his hockey coach’s sexual abuse for his teen-age years. That coach—Graham James—was sentenced to two-and-a-half years, and then coached in Spain for many years. He is presently being investigated for more sexual assaults.

Since then Kennedy stared down his own addictions and now works to educate the Canadian sports world about abuse. Kennedy told the American media,  “Canada is recognized by the IOC and around the world as being very, very proactive when it comes to dealing with abuse, and we should be proud of that — we’ve come a long way. It’s huge, because there was a time we didn’t want to even look at these issues. It all stems from the Graham James situation, and hockey has taken the leadership role. The U.S. is 14 years behind.”

“The whole idea is to empower the 98% of good people, not to catch the 2% of bad guys because that’s like finding needles in a haystack,” Kennedy added. “I don’t think we’ll ever stop abuse from happening, but we can stop it from being institutionalized. With education, we can police ourselves.” 

Many cases of hazing and sexual assault
The problem with Kennedy’s analysis is he has no proof at all that Canada’s ‘proactive’ stance has addressed abuse. The complete disregard by the MJHL of Hockey Canada’s rule on minimum suspensions of one year is a perfect example, as is the fact that hazing is as Canadian as maple syrup for hockey players, despite being banned for several years.

Team president McIntosh reported that his players told him what they did to the fifteen-year-old happened on every hockey team. They saw it as normal.

There have also been many cases of sexual assault in Canadian hockey that resulted in charges or convictions in the last two years. Toronto, Calgary, Hamilton, Montreal and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia all saw hockey coaches charged with sexual assault in the past year, while two coaches have been arrested for possession and creation of child pornography, a former NHL player has been charged with domestic violence, a hockey ref has been charged with sexual abuse and as the Penn State scandal broke, in Erie Pennsylvania—the same state, the sexual assault trial of hockey players Jordan Tibbett and Kyle Just commenced.

A nineteen-year-old female university student went to police after the hockey players allegedly sexually assaulted her. Tibbet is from Indianapolis while Just is from Arnprior, Ontario and was in the United States on a hockey scholarship. They have both been suspended from Mercyhurst College, but Just was welcomed home by his old team the Pembroke Lumber Kings in Canada. “Kyle was a solid citizen and we know his character, so we trust he will remain strong and get through this difficult situation," coach and general manager Sheldon Keefe said. 

Ignoring hard evidence
Kennedy, and the entire hockey world, has managed to allow all of this to slip by. They continue to ignore hard evidence that shows male sexual assault victims are at a higher risk than non-victims of becoming victimizers—and he knows better. 

In 1992 I started investigating the ‘rape culture’ of junior hockey after the uncle of a girl who had alleged a gang rape by the Swift Current Broncos in 1989 told me her story.

When I arrived in Swift Current in January 1993 she was just getting out of counseling. Not coincidentally, at the same time this girl was victimized coach Graham James was sexually abusing the players—including Kennedy.

The perverse sexual culture James taught his players was re-enacted on girls. Over the next six years a number of girls came forward to tell me about the abuse they or others suffered at the hands of Broncos players. 

It was not difficult to find similar stories in Canada which resulted in my book, “Crossing the Line: Violence and Sexual Assault in Canada’s National Sport.” Players are deeply scarred by the sexual abuse they endure in hazing or by being abused by their coach and learn this vicious, humiliating style of sexual relationships as a norm.

When I did my research it was common for senior players to tell the rookie players they were their ‘bitch’ for the week. Rookies are the ‘designated female’ in the locker room food chain. What could be more humiliating in the all-male locker room than being ‘reduced’ to a fag/girl? 

Hockey and football have much to answer for.

Laura Robinson is a Canadian freelance journalist and author.

Use of cookies

The website uses cookies to provide a user-friendly and relevant website. Cookies provide information about how the website is being used or support special functions such as Twitter feeds. 

By continuing to use this site, you consent to the use of cookies. You can find out more about our use of cookies and personal data in our privacy policy.