Reputation management: the strange case of Sean Avery

Let me begin by saying I’m not a hockey fan and that I neither watch spectator sports nor do I greatly value athleticism (sorry, it’s the truth). When men have talked to me about how they were ‘almost there’ with their six-packs, I used to think they were on their way to a party with a few (not enough!) beers. When I found out they were referring to their bodies, I was flabbergasted.

I remember reading a Liam Lacey review of the Tina Turner biopic in which he praised Angela Bassett’s performance but then said her biceps were distracting. I thought this was a ridiculous and inappropriate comment till I saw the movie and realized he was right – the one untrue note was the difference between Bassett’s superb physical conditioning and the prevailing norm of the 60s and 70s – which wasn’t the bodybuilder standard. Watch a few movies from the 70s with scenes from strip clubs and you’ll see what I mean – jiggle didn’t always used to be anathema when evaluating female anatomy.

So I don’t have any particular reverence for Sean Avery, his athleticism or his fascination with fashion. I did, however, happen to catch his interview on the news the first week in December, in which he asked (rhetorically, I hope), what it was with other NHL players wanting his ‘sloppy seconds.’ And now he has a six-game suspension as a result of those remarks.

In fact, the influential Don Cherry foresees and advocates a trade for Avery.

When you think about it, the six-game suspension is a little odd. Avery certainly hasn’t committed any kind of criminal offense, on or off the ice. A six-game suspension is a major penalty (true hockey fans will no doubt have done a comparison study on suspensions and the offenses that led to them by now; Sporting News lists one example of an on-ice offense that was penalized much less severely). I caught myself wondering if the suspension was either fair or appropriate.

And then I started to think about a couple of other things, like the way little boys (and, increasingly, girls) look up to hockey players. If they don’t want to be policemen or firemen or astronauts or basketball players, little boys, particularly little Canadian boys, may well list ‘NHL hockey player’ as their first choice when asked what they want to be when they grow up. I also started to think about the strategic corporate philanthropy in which professional sports organizations participate. Some of it is hockey camps and baseball camps and football camps for inner-city children. But there’s a also a whole subset of activities like visiting sick children in hospitals that occurs.

And when I thought about that – about the responsibility of living up to being a role model for children and representative of both his team and his league – the suspension made sense. If you have a double standard that favours your sex while condemning anything but monogamy (or celibacy) for the opposite sex, if you’re continually accused of making off-colour and even racist remarks, if you get into loud verbal altercations with fans as well as other players, you can’t really be a role model, can you? You can’t really be much of anything but a liability.

Here’s the thing though. Avery’s a creation of the hockey system that produced him. For him to have achieved a two thirds majority in a 2007 poll of 283 NHL players who were asked who was the most hated player in the league, for the suspension to include compulsory anger management evaluation and potentially counselling as well as the six-game suspension, Avery’s problems aren’t of recent making. Surely someone in the OHL must have noticed he wasn’t exactly a team player, no matter how many hat tricks he’s racked up. Or at least, not exactly a team player unless the team was all-white and all Anglophone. (Hard not to giggle at the description of the dispute between Avery and Brian Hayward detailed in the Wikipedia article, especially at Hayward’s line about Avery’s having spent three years in eighth grade.)

So we have an odd case here of a corporate entity, the NHL, moving swiftly to protect its corporate reputation by condemning the actions of a product of its own system. Unfortunately this incident doesn’t make anyone look good. It’s an odd combination of too little, too late on the part of the NHL while it is also a rather draconian punishment that does nothing to address the endemic and systemic issues of sexism, inappropriate aggression, and violence rather than sportsmanship and true athleticism rampant in professional hockey. The distinction being made between remarks made while on the ice during a game and those made to the media is rather strange. And it makes me wonder what, precisely, the NHL is doing to help its players deal with stardom they may be poorly equipped to handle. I think a little media training is in order. Repeat after me: the journalist is not your friend. There is no such thing as ‘off the record.’ If it bleeds, it leads.

Update January 27, 2009: New poll indicates a bare majority of Canadians are opposed to on-ice fighting – this shortly after a 21-year-old OHL player died as a result of hitting his head on the ice during the course of a fight.

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About ruthseeley

Ottawa born, Toronto educated, lived in the Lower Mainland and southern AB for more than a decade. Geographically, I get around a bit (at least within Canada). Passionate about community, democracy, and good books. Fond of the Oxford comma.
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