I’ll admit my first reaction last night when I saw that Austin Watson had been suspended 27 games for pleading no-contest to a misdemeanor domestic violence charge was, “Well, at least they did something.” Such is my weariness and the way my expectations have been beaten down, not just by the NHL’s, but really all sports’ handling of such things. Honestly, I don’t envy anyone who has to come up with what the right number should be for this charge. There’s many who are incensed that it’s barely more than Nate Schmidt got for his sneeze’s worth of a banned substance, but that’s actually negotiated with the NHLPA and has a standard.
It goes two directions from there. The first is that there are those who think Watson and anyone else caught up in a domestic violence charge should immediately be banned, fired, tarred, feathered, whatever. And believe me, I understand that impulse. Playing in a professional league is a privilege and there’s certainly an argument to be made it should be taken away much easier than it is today.
But various survivor’s groups have said that really isn’t a solution, partly because loss of income doesn’t help anyone in the long run and is a factor in the fear of coming forward for women to report such things. Second it can make a woman or partner an even bigger target for someone who’s already shown to be violent, which can lead to somewhere much worse. I can certainly see the problem.
The second is to mock or spew venom at the NHL for not having a standard, domestic violence policy, and this is obviously understandable, too. Except the standard policies in the NFL, MLB, and NBA haven’t really satisfied anyone either. And I’m not convinced a bad policy is better than none at all. That’s a discussion that could go on forever, but for the only the optics this is probably something the NHL should hammer out with the NHLPA tout suite.
There’s also the small complaint that the players’ union is filing an appeal. And while I could just settle for the usual, “That’s just what unions do,” at some point they have to draw the line as well. It’s one thing to file an appeal to a weird, flimsy failed drugs test or an on-ice suspension. This guy swung at his wife and mother of their baby, and whether or not that’s what they’re actually doing the optics are that the union is taking the side of a wife-beater. Some cases you just let slide by and tell that union member to sit down and swallow this one.
What I do know is that as long as hockey players stop going to school around 7th grade, and their entire social world is developed inside a hockey dressing room and around a hockey team, this is almost always going to be a problem that they’re going to have to deal with.
I don’t know what the answers are to any of these questions, but I do know what I worry about most, even though it’s not the most important component.
When Watson returns to the Predators’ lineup, currently scheduled for December 3rd against the Sabres, we know that he will get a standing ovation from the Bridgestone Arena faithful. This doesn’t really make them any worse than every other fanbase. We’ve already seen this in town with Daniel Murphy and up the road a bit with Josh Hader just in the past couple months. However, next time any media member tries to proclaim that there’s something special about Preds fans, you’ll know there isn’t.
I know it’s not the biggest problem, but it’s the one that seems to wound the most. It’s what I never got over with Patrick Kane at Notre Dame, and we could pick any one of hundreds of instances where this has happened with a player and that team’s fans. Oh, I’m sure some dimwitted Brewers fan would try and tell me, for instance, that what they were really doing is showing Hader that they support him in his attempts to evolve and become better from what he had done and was.
But that’s horseshitt. They know it, we know it. What it is is putting being a fan above all else, that no one really cares what these guys do away from the field as long as they can strike out 38% of the hitters they see or be a decent penalty-killer (if that’s what Watson does and that’s up for debate). When Preds fans salute Watson in December (or November on appeal), it won’t be to show support in his rehabilitation into a non-piece of a shit, if he even does that much. It’ll be a thumb in the nose to his suspension at all, because he’s a player on their team. And what he did to that woman won’t matter, and certainly her emotions won’t either.
And mostly out of ignorance rather than maliciousness, what it will be is a thumb in the nose to any Preds fan, hockey fan, or anyone who is a survivor of domestic abuse or anyone close to one. That their feelings, their history, the damage caused doesn’t matter as much as the Preds winning a hockey game. And there will be Preds fans who feel this, and they’ll feel helpless to say anything because nothing will change and they will fear being drowned out by the masses.
We can figure out the standards and suspensions at some point soon. What the Predators and NHL can do now is find a way to avoid the above scenario. Watson doesn’t have to be booed by his home fans. I feel like it should be greeted by nothing but silence, out of respect to those in yellow who have had this heinous scenario in their lives and also as a patient approach to force Watson to earn the adulation back through demonstrated progress, contrition, learning, and evolution.
I don’t know how you go about that. A concerted campaign by both team and league to illustrate the horrors of this. Perhaps Watson himself doing an ad or speech on the jumbotron, though that would probably just garner applause, too. Some sort of regular press-release about the details of the case and the reasons for the suspension, so it doesn’t fall out of the memory or news cycle. Maybe that’s harsh, but it doesn’t feel like it’s too much so. Perhaps Preds fans themselves could start a campaign to makes this happen, but I’ll just go ahead and assume they’re too busy trying to figure out yet another way to keep Hawks fans from buying their tickets.
There are obviously loftier goals we should be reaching for when it comes to professional sports and domestic violence/sexual assault. And we shouldn’t stop. But for right now, this one, small, attainable step should be something we can accomplish and sharpish.
So the next time a team acquires an Aroldis Chapman or Roberto Osuna or Watson or Mike Ribeiro (never forget), their fans aren’t spurred to cheer even louder because every other fandom is disgusted. That only polarizes and hurts.
Let’s just aim for silence. It doesn’t seem that far away.