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Failing the 37%

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A look at social responsibility and the growing presence of women as NHL fans

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Hockey faces the same ethical challenges as other businesses in our society, challenges that influence appropriate courses of action in light of social pressures and expectations. As society changes, business leaders are forced to deal with ethical issues they're not necessarily educated to handle. Part of this change is technological and involves social media; part of it is social and involves an increasingly diverse population. The guideposts have shifted from ethics that are reactionary to ethics that are proactive. Business is no longer expected to react to ethical problems once they occur; it's expected to prevent them from happening as much as possible. This has turned money-making endeavours into institutions that are involved in shaping and re-shaping society.

Gary Bettman is on record as saying that sports can be a "vehicle for positive social change." During his time as Commissioner, the NHL has been proactive on environmental issues with NHL Green—an initiative spearheaded by the Oilers' Andrew Ference. It has also taken steps to help fund the fight against cancer. However, the NHL has failed to be proactive and has remained disastrously reactionary in dealing with sexual assault and domestic abuse and has failed to speak-out against party culture and drug use, which frequently leads to sexual violence.

Bettman has further gone on record as stating the "rookie education program has played a significant role in teaching the players about domestic violence."  However, if the NHL is offering a significant amount of education to players in the area of domestic violence and sexual assault, the results aren't appearing in a significant way related to the NHL's policy of proactivity on social issues.

The last several years have also seen the NHL take a step forward in how it relates to the LBGTQIA community. There has been a focus placed on incorporating the You Can Play Project into the fabric of the NHL. Each NHL team has contributed to the campaign since its inception, and as a result, there has been a change in the way the media handles LBGTQIA issues. Outsports is a dedicated facet of the SB Nation network for issues surrounding sports and LBGTQIA community. While mainstream media has made a commitment to the LBGTQIA community, no such commitment is currently in place for women.

The NHL needs to acknowledge the different needs of men and women as fans and participants in hockey culture. Men and women are not the same and can't be treated as if they are. Not only is this an ethical matter, it's a business consideration. As hockey has transitioned from being a male sport to a male and female sport, the NHL's growing demographic of women deserves to have their concerns addressed by the league. It's fantastic that SpiderMable can rescue an Oilers' Captain, but in a very real sense, it's the NHL who needs to rescue SpiderMables everywhere: how NHL players treat women affects how men treat women.

Despite acting in the Voynov situation, the NHL acted only when charges were laid, ignoring the ramifications for women until the point where the situation reached critical mass, assisted by a similar situation occurring in the NFL creating a media furor.

The NHL suspended Voynov, but there was very little done to increase awareness, education, and help players understand both what constitutes sexual assault and how to conscientiously deal with situations involving these types of accusations and those involved. The NHL seemed to believe that one reactionary tactic discharged their responsibility to face a looming social issue in a positive manner.

The NHL's inaction around Patrick Kane has conclusively proven the NHL has not grown in understanding. If anything, the NHL has dealt with this situation in a more reactionary and short-sighted manner. Implicit support for Kane has many upset with the NHL and questioning the commitment it has made to being both a leader in facing women's issues and creating positive change. The inaction of the NHL in relation to Patrick Kane is indicative of hockey's general apathy to taking a proactive stance.

These issues aren't just found at the NHL level. The Gatineau Olympquies faced two separate incidents of sexual assault during the 2014-2015 season. Though no charges were laid, the team had players under investigation in both Quebec City and Gatineau.  Despite claims the accusations would be treated seriously, the QJMHL has yet to release any further information on how it intends to hold players "more responsible for their actions." If no actions are taken, it seems unlikely a change in attitude will occur.

The University of Ottawa suspended its men's hockey team when two members were charged with sexual assault.  In fact, part of the team's commitment to change involved firing the head coach of the team for failing to report the allegations to the authorities. If such actions are going to be excused by those in positions of authority, it seems only natural they will continue. While the University of Ottawa can be commended for taking actions to try to correct the situation, it has also been condemned for the "tarnishing of reputations" of players not directly involved in the assault.  Making the decision to make sure the situation will not be repeated is an action that should be lauded, not condemned.

Social expectations change and behaviors are expected to change as well. As recently as 1910, domestic abuse was perfectly legal in the United States. Now it's cause for deportation and suspension from the NHL. Likewise, in more recent NHL history, alcohol, drug, and prescription medication abuse were tolerated. These tolerances shifted when societal pressure to shift them was exerted. The NHL felt the need to conform to social expectations.

Sometimes, like in the Voynov case, the NHL may be called upon to make a decision to the benefit of the society in which it exists. There remained some dissent around the terms of Voynov's suspension, despite the general consensus it was the correct choice for the NHL to make. The NHL didn't back away from this dissent, instead using the opportunity to make a commitment to the society in which it exists to uphold the rights of victims of domestic abuse. Unfortunately, this is a commitment the NHL has failed to honor in a meaningful manner.

From the level of major junior, through the NHL, and even in the less well-publicized arena of Canadian university hockey, there is a problem in regards to the protection of women's rights and the education of players regarding sexual assault. Despite being the preeminent vehicle for professional hockey, the NHL has shown no commitment to altering what evidence is quickly showing to be a rape culture. If the NHL, and its component parts - including the Chicago Blackhawks—are unwilling to admit this is a societal problem then change seems unlikely.

While not solely of the NHL's creation, the NHL has helped to expand and normalize rape culture by valorizing an accused rapist in this instance and simply outright refusing to address the concerns of women in others. If women are concerned about their safety while attending games, it's more profitable for the NHL, over the long term, to deal with these concerns before they become larger issues.

Recently, with the support shown by the NHL for the choice made by the Chicago Blackhawks to provide Patrick Kane a well-publicized and prominent platform from which to extoll his innocence, no consideration has been provided to victims of sexual assault. It may be difficult to explain how the NHL expects to create social change for women while mired in controversy for being unwilling to take even minimal steps to extend the same protections to the woman who reported the incident as extended to Patrick Kane's right to profess his own innocence.

Despite a social expectation that groups who have experienced traumatic situations will be treated with a base level of dignity and care, the Blackhawks provided Kane with a platform unlike any his accuser will receive. This expectation is outlined in the US's Crime Victim's Rights Act and Canada's Victim's Bill of Rights. The first right listed is the right to be "reasonably protected from the accused." This doesn't even take into consideration that the culture surrounding professional hockey has been indicted several times for incidents involving sexual assault.

For fans of the NHL, it should not be unexpected to see the League's policy and actions reflect social norms. This is especially true when the League Commissioner has proclaimed the NHL to be proactive in matters of off-ice conduct. The NHL, and the teams that are a part of it, are then responsible for acting in a way that confirms this commitment and makes it more than simple words.

With as many as 68% of those who have experienced rape being unwilling to report the situation to the authorities, it's not difficult to believe a victim of rape or other form of sexual assault was presented with the implicit and explicit support of the NHL, Chicago Blackhawks organization, team mates, and a section of Chicago fans for Patrick Kane.

The message this sends, correctly or not, is the NHL does not care about women, crimes committed against woman, and despite words from the League Commissioner, women are less important to the NHL than the protection of the reputation of one NHL superstar. If there remains much doubt of the importance of women to the NHL, simply look at the way Ice Girls are treated by their respective teams.

In allowing Patrick Kane to profess his innocence publicly, taking no position on the sexual assault accusations leveled against Mike Riberio and Drew Doughty, remaining silent on the domestic violence accusation against Seymon Varmalov, and the delayed actions around Voynov's domestic violence situation, the NHL has failed to take a proactive stance on violence against women. In taking a wait-and-see approach, the NHL has communicated a tolerance of violence against women that feeds into growing concerns about the rape culture found in professional hockey.

If the actions of the NHL and the Chicago Blackhawks are viewed from a distance, it's quite logical to say they are more concerned with the rights of the accused than those of the victim because their overzealous presentation does not align with the societal expectation for protection of victims. In saying this, it's also logical to understand how this remains an issue for women. It's difficult enough, and requires great strength, to come forward with an accusation of sexual assault due to fear of being publicly humiliated, derided, and vilified. The actions of the NHL have simply made it more difficult for any subsequent victims of NHL stars to feel comfortable with reporting any incidents of sexual assault.

Despite promises to educate players on the issues surrounding domestic abuse and sexual assault, the NHL has made no statements of new initiatives taken to promote either the safety of women or the education of players around issues of sexual assault, domestic abuse, and acceptable behavior. In fact, what the NHL does have on offer seems to be lacking in the extreme.

How can the NHL expect to be a vehicle for positive change if it cannot be bothered to spend any time actually educating its players about what constitutes sexual assault and domestic violence? If players continue to believe a rapist is a man in ski mask, how can the NHL make progress in eliminating the culture of entitlement and misogyny that has grown around the sport?  Furthermore, the NHL can't hope to educate foreign-born players as to the North American ideas around sexual assault and domestic violence, if it doesn't bother to actually speak to the issue.

Beyond that issue, the offered education needs to deal with the issue as it actual is. It's time to stop pretending there isn't a systemic problem. If hockey players are taught there is nothing wrong with the way they act, there is no reason to encourage them to change the way they behave. It seems that's more an education in how not to get caught.

From 2012, the NHL has faced allegations against five players - Doughty, Varlamov, Voynov, Riberio, and Kane - and in only one situation has the NHL acted. If the NHL were a company responsible for something other than professional hockey, it would have tarnished its reputation.

While the NHL is not alone in its public failures to consider women's rights - the NFL has also recently come under attack for similar reasons and professional tennis and soccer have also suffered from incidents involving women this summer - it hasn't learned from these failures. The NHL still cannot point to one aspect of their policies that clearly relate to dealing with matters of domestic abuse and sexual assault. Everything they have done so far has been reactionary.

The NHL must have the foresight to consider factors that may not affect the immediate bottom line but have far reaching consequences. The NHL, in its rush not to condemn one of its star players, has instead chosen to alienate fans who are women or sexual assault survivors.

In this situation, no matter how unpopular it may have been, consideration was owed to a vulnerable group in society. The protection of those less able to protect themselves is a cornerstone of not just the societal norms and mores but of legal precedence as well. Policies such as affirmative action exist to create equality for groups of people with less advantages and protections as society sheds no longer acceptable norms and patterns of thought. Instead of consideration, this group was instead treated as lesser entity and afforded no dignity or consideration.

It's extolled in our society that each person has the same value and is entitled to protection in the same manner. While this ideal is not always fulfilled, it's what is outlined as right. In treating women as a less important group, the NHL and the Blackhawks have again failed to honor this social expectation.

What the NHL needs to understand is that its profitability is not above public perception. The NHL's ability to market its product and create revenue is tied to both reputation and marketability.  The backlash generated by condoning Patrick Kane's declaration of innocence has been immediate and virulent. The NHL can't continue to act in a manner that violates the current understanding of appropriate conduct involving sexual assault and domestic violence cases and hope to come out unscathed. These situations can no more be the cost of doing business than a giant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico can be the cost of doing business for British Petroleum (BP).

And just as BP was expected to go to great lengths to limit and repair the damage done in the Gulf of Mexico, the NHL needs to begin to demonstrate an understanding of the social realities in which it exists. It's supported in part by women. Whether this support is demonstrated through ticket sales, merchandise, or the ability to successfully sell advertising during televised games, women help to create revenue for the NHL. If the NHL wishes to retain and grow this potential source of revenue, it would be an astute move not to completely alienate them.

Many other companies which provide services to large groups of people in public spaces - such as arenas - have placed a greater value on preventative measures in regards to the possibility of sexual assault occurring. The Edmonton Transit System (ETS) currently has launched a comprehensive advertising initiative condemning sexual assault in all its forms and providing options for immediate response if required. Yet the best the NHL can do is to speak to the need for change while undermining the process with action.

During the 2014-2015 playoffs, the Calgary Flames organization had to request that women attempting to celebrate the team's success be able to do so free from harassment. Burke's comments on the Kane situation however outline the reasons why so many women feel unsafe in hockey culture.

In this culture, it seems the bodies and dignity of women are always going to be second; their concerns ignored or answered with rhetoric proclaiming that Patrick Kane hasn't been found guilty of a crime and therefore doesn't deserve to be punished. Beyond that, treating the woman making this accusation as a lair is not conducive to providing an unbiased environment for the rest of this situation to be  conducted in. In doing so, the NHL ignores the fact it alienates the women who love the sport every time it excuses violence against women. It sends the message that women are not welcome and not important and helps to expand the rape culture that already plagues hockey.

The NHL has lost the opportunity to show the world it meant to be proactive in this case, instead displaying a carelessness which is both insulting to women and tone deaf to the growing social concerns around the issue of sexual assault. The NHL must realize that change is not a bad thing in all cases, and without proper care and attention, it will never be able to capitalize on a market which has the possibility of growth. If hockey is just a business, and willing to ignore the society of which it's a part, at the very least it shouldn't be willing to ignore the possibility of growing the league's profitability in female demographics. However, it seems that the NHL is content to operate in a manner which ultimately may be a costly for both it and the women who love the league.