Merit Badges and Hockey Media

(Content warning: post and links discuss harassment, assault, sexual assault, rape, racism, sexism, and homophobia)

On the last Sunday in August, with an otherwise unremarkable slate of MLB games, Jake Arrieta threw a no-hitter and Jessica Mendoza was the analyst breaking down the action in the Sunday Night Baseball booth. Mendoza replaced former pro Curt Schilling, whose recent ill-informed twitter rant against Muslims resulted in his suspension for the remainder of the 2015 season.

That Mendoza is female and has no professional experience is groundbreaking. That we continue to evaluate what makes good play-by-play callers, analysts, and panel members based on how bloody their sock was when they forced a seventh and deciding game, if they won a championship at the highest level, or how funny their post-game interviews were, is not. It’s the same system that also erases Mendoza’s considerable playing credentials (softball gold in Athens in 2004 and silver in Beijing in 2008). It’s gatekeeping, pure and simple, and when it comes to NHL coverage, it’s designed to keep women, people of colour, and LGBTQ folks out and to erase the intersection of these identities in sports.

The elevation of the former player-turned-analyst (the variations of this include former coaches and general managers) in hockey media is tired and damaging. The blogging community and advanced stats movement has done much to discredit the worst aspects of this kind of analysis. But as the stats movement gained acceptance, many who rose to prominence replicated some of the worst aspects of the eye-test crowd.

Many of us believe we live in a meritocracy. That some combination of hard work and talent leads to success. That there are no barriers to what you can achieve if you want something bad enough. That more of these success stories happen to involve white, straight, cis men is mere coincidence for many of us. We believe this in part because we see this narrative playing out in hockey. We’re constantly reminded of can’t miss, generational talents like Wayne Gretzky, Sidney Crosby, and Connor McDavid or late round picks who worked hard to overcome some deficiency in their game, body type, or personality to succeed at the pro level. Less time is spent considering the inequalities in the system. What we talk about in more hushed tones is how economics – the price of minor hockey, equipment, and travel – culls the list before other factors enter into the equation. We celebrate advancements in the women’s game and the successes of programs like Title IX but overlook that female athletes – at every level – have less access to elite coaching, facilities, and medical care.

That the fans watching NHL hockey see generational talent on the ice and extrapolate and apply the same level of excellence to the analysts and panelists who explain, examine, and evaluate the game is equally problematic. There are barriers preventing many from accessing the game. Some of those barriers are in the booth and in the studio. The discriminatory ways some men who are paid to cover hockey act creates accessibility barriers for many who want to love the game.

Many fans persist in believing that those who are paid to talk and write about the games we watch are the most qualified to do so is verging on willful ignorance.

There is a place for former players, coaches, and GMs in sports analysis. Having played and worked in the industry they can provide unique insight into the mental strain of a losing streak or the ins and outs of the trade deadline. They can speak from experience on a variety of topics and some of the best analysts in the game have impressive NHL credentials. TSN’s Ray Ferraro provides among the best combination of an anecdotal player’s perspective with knowledge of current analytical trends. He also had over 400 goals in the NHL. There are others. But these broadcasts lack balance. How much of this perspective do we need? Regional and national broadcasts are full of former NHLers playing the role of analysts. Stars and scrubs, Hall-of-Famers and journeymen, All-Stars and healthy scratches, what matters is that these men once made it to the NHL.

It is a closed club, taking care of its members.

We rely so heavily on the former pro type precisely because of who it leaves out; hockey is still the whitest of the major North American sports and professional success remains elusive for women. The most prominent female voice on NHL broadcasts is Cassie Campbell-Pascall’s. For those watching in Canada, she is likely the only woman you will see and chances are it won’t be in the booth for a marquee matchup nor will it be at one of several intermission desks chalked full of former player analysts. While she saw limited duty in those roles for the CBC, she works as a reporter before games and during the intermission for Sportsnet. And yet on any given night when she’s on the broadcast, she’s the most accomplished former hockey player on screen. Sportsnet stars Glenn Healy and Nick Kypreos had long careers and won a Stanley Cup together with the Rangers in 1994 as the backup goalie and bit player respectively. P. J. Stock was a journeyman NHLer who played 235 games at the NHL level over seven seasons. Kelly Hrudy had a productive, if average, 15-year career in the league. This should not be read as a disparagement of these playing careers; on the contrary, making the NHL proves these men were among the very best male hockey players in the world at the time.

Rather, that when it is a question of hiring men to be on air talent, the parameters are malleable, the qualifications varied.

On the other hand, Campbell-Pascall’s playing résumé lacks only professional experience. She is, quite simply, one of the most decorated athletes in international hockey. She is the owner of 7 world championship medals, including 6 straight golds (1994 to 2004), in addition to 3 Olympic medals. She is the only player, male or female, since the 1998 Winter Olympics (when NHL players first played and women were first allowed to compete in the sport at the Olympic level) to captain her team to two straight Olympic gold medals. No other player has won two golds as captain let alone consecutively. Simply put, she has a playing record no other woman can match.

This is the standard that has been set for female former players who want a whiff of this type of post-playing career.

It will be at least another six years before we find out if another woman meets this criteria and should she achieve this legendary status, she’d still have to meet traditional standards of feminine beauty and female sexuality. While there is some variety in the masculinity presented on NHL pregame and intermission panels it’s still limiting and restrictive. These gendered restrictions are magnified for women. The varied way women present is not represented in sports media and those deemed too masculine never have a chance. There are lots of reasons past women’s hockey greats never got a shot on NHL or international broadcasts not the least of which is not everyone wants to make the move to broadcasting once they’re done playing. But some former players are erased because they’re black, or too masculine, or a lesbian.

Success continues to be defined by male achievement.

Success in hockey is further defined by white, straight, cis male achievement. That this is the norm is unquestioned. That those definitions will change to suit the needs of the hockey establishment is predictable. We ask why TSN, NBCSN, and Sportsnet don’t have more women as panelists, analysts, and play-by-play announcers and the responses usually revolve around issues of qualification. What we don’t ask enough is what qualifies men to be on these programs. What we don’t ask enough is why these networks don’t invest more time, training, and money in female broadcast talent. What we don’t ask enough is why we let these networks off the hook. Rogers winning the national NHL contract in Canada was an opportunity to employ more diverse on-air talent but it wasn’t taken. Too many of us gave them a pass, believing that after a few seasons of having the national contract women would just sort of magically appear, as if Sportsnet hasn’t had years to cultivate and promote female talent.

Mainstream broadcasters are failing fans. It’s problematic to have so many white, male, former pros on broadcasts because it creates a situation where there’s a lack of diversity: of opinion, perspective, and experience. Representation matters. Seeing women in the game and as part of hockey broadcasts helps create space for female fans and roles for women in hockey. It makes a difference.

The blogosphere created an opportunity to shake up the longstanding conventions of hockey media. Networks like Yahoo and SB Nation provided platforms for a plethora of new voices and the analytics movement coincided with this rise to prominence. But hockey blogging on mainstream sites such as Yahoo, SB Nation, and Bloguin operates from the perspective of white, straight, cis men. That’s not to say that there aren’t talented writers offering diverse perspectives at those sites just that those perspectives are not appreciated, supported, or cultivated across those networks and by those networks. In terms of diversity, the promise of the blogosphere has yet to be realized.

Blogs and analytics promised accessibility and knowledge. The two factors that are supposed to level the playing field. Advances in statistical analysis were supposed to make up for not having 40 years of experience watching the game. Ideally, anyone who reads advanced stats primers and with time, moves on to more intermediate pieces, should be able to participate in this new conversation. There has been a lot of good. Our collective understanding of hockey has been improved, expanded, and enriched because of the groundbreaking and thoughtful work of bloggers and stats folks. We have numbers to point to that indicate all third liners are not created equal. We’ve got graphs that illustrate that the title defensive defensemen is a bit euphemistic and that Marc Methot looks pretty good on his own merit. Fans and those in the game alike are understanding the game in different ways and have new language to talk about hockey.

These are all good things.

Yet I worry that the conversation about analytics in sports generally, and in hockey specifically, is the latest appeal to male authority. That the way we talk about advanced stats in particular is the most recent way of enforcing male regulation over the dominate dialogues in sports. In our search to wrestle control of dominant hockey narratives from establishment higher authorities like the Cherry-Healy-Milbury talking heads, we’ve found a new truth and installed another patriarchal order. We have new hockey experts and some use their knowledge to dismiss and control as effectively as mainstream hockey media uses their connections to enforce certain conventions. As if searching for the one “right way” to talk about hockey isn’t in itself an appeal to male authority. We think the stats movement is so new, so fresh, and so different that we don’t question enough whose voices it has given prominence to.

There are important voices in the stats community whose excellence extends beyond their ease with spreadsheets. Good men and women who will discuss, debate, and reflect on the issues facing the game beyond the numbers. But there are others, so many others, who never discuss issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia in the game, online, and in our hockey media. There are valid reasons for deferring, there are valid reasons for staying quiet. But too often this silence is reflective of something else. You don’t have to look hard to find stats authorities mocking people on hockey twitter for being “upset” but never addressing sexism in hockey. You can probably think of more than a few examples of prominent stats men who belittle and insult women online, disregard valid critique, and participate in the erasure of the work done by female stats bloggers and female hockey bloggers more generally. Some are deliberately inaccessible in their writing and think the most pressing issue in hockey is that their work isn’t universally accepted and appreciated.

Because so many believe we live in a meritocracy we have elevated many new voices because they possess superior, analytical minds. We have new authorities.

But in too many ways, the underlying framework remains the same. It’s easier for many fans to see and identify discrimination when an abrasive, physical, former player type says something offensive like Curt Schilling or Don Cherry. It’s much harder for us as fans to admit that stats bloggers, whose work we admire, sometimes say the same things. That their entry into the conversations about the game is intellectual and not anecdotal further shields paid stats bloggers from legitimate criticism about failings on issues of equality. Because they should know better we expect that they actually do. Advanced stats are just like any other power structure and we need to look at who controls the narrative.

The analytics movement is failing where the talking heads failed before. There is still a refusal to talk about the most difficult issues in the game, a preference to keep mainstream topics about the on ice product. The problem is when the analytics movement gained the official seal of approval, when bloggers started to be hired by NHL teams, newspapers, and media outlets, expectations were raised.

I expect hockey media (traditional media as well as paid bloggers) to not shy away from issues of violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, sexual assault, mental illness, substance abuse, as much as I expect them to tweet every detail about ongoing labour negotiations and shot suppression rates. Both are part of the game. Both are part of your job.

But too often those in positions of authority obfuscate when a difficult and complicated issue such as sexual assault or domestic violence comes up. It’s the “Patrick Kane situation,” the “Voynov circumstances,” and the “Varlamov incident”. Change starts with using clear and precise language.

They got away with it for a long time. Players and media alike.

Many fans in the silent, and not so silent, majority agree with paid hockey media’s take, with paid hockey media’s cowardice: hockey is supposed to be an escape and we should just talk about the game.

Two incidents in the past two days highlight both the problem and potential ways forward in hockey media. On Wednesday ESPN/TSN insider Pierre LeBrun wrote about how the Los Angeles Kings handled Slava Voynov’s assault conviction and two drug possession cases during the 2014-15 season. Except he didn’t. He started with this instead: “The NHL is not accustomed to headlines involving arrests and court dates.

That’s normally for other sports leagues.”

In reality, the NHL is quite adept at handling headlines involving arrests and court dates. The league has always been able to bury this type of controversy. After the initial breaking news, the NHL keeps assault and rape out of its popular talking points thanks to accomplices in hockey media like LeBrun. Insiders need access to management and players, and staying quiet about the criminal behaviour of NHLers keeps the cliché post-game quotes and trade rumours coming. The NHL Media Tour went this week in preparation for the upcoming season and it took several minutes for anyone among the assembled media to ask Commissioner Gary Bettman about the biggest story of the offseason: Patrick Kane’s rape investigation. LeBrun and his colleagues are more than happy to promote the NHL as the last bastion of good guys in professional sports. When talking about how LA’s “tight-knit” community rallied from these “distractions”, LeBrun deferred to Drew Doughty, neglecting to mention the defensemen’s own prior rape investigation. Doughty’s distortion of the Kings organization was in keeping with the tone established by LeBrun: “Because we are such a good organization and do have a very good image, it’s unfortunate”.

What’s unfortunate was how deliberately deceptive LeBrun was. What’s unfortunate is how full of shit Doughty was.

What’s unfortunate is how many examples we have of this behaviour. Beat reporters obscuring the truth, players falling back on their “team first” training. We get more examples every week. Just ask Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith.

What’s truly unfortunate is how the real victim, not Slava Voynov, not Dean Lombardi, and certainly not the Los Angeles Kings, continues to be an afterthought, so frequently erased.

It is a closed club, taking care of its members.

Yesterday, noted numbers guy Rob Vollman tweeted about a piece he’d written for ESPN where he asked a “panel of prominent hockey numbers guys to rate this year’s summer signings”. And he meant “guys” literally: of the 28 prominent hockey minds surveyed, all were men. To Vollman’s credit, when asked why he didn’t included any of the numerous female stats bloggers in the community he addressed the issue immediately and admitted he asked only one and should have done more to address the gender imbalance. This is a good start but must be followed with concrete action.

Paid hockey media can continue to close its eyes and cover its ears but writing about and discussing issues of discrimination in hockey is only going to increase. The voices demanding necessary change are not going away, but are gradually swelling and your mute button will only work for so long.

A familiar refrain from men in positions of power in the mainstream media or at prominent blogging sites is a variation of “there aren’t a lot/any good writers who are …” or an exasperation at where to find writers who aren’t white, male, straight, and cis. For those making such statements success continues to be defined by male achievement and male standards. There are many terrific female hockey bloggers, one needs to look no further than the collection of talent behind the soon-to-launch The Victory Press, a site for excellent writing on women’s sports. There are skilled writers of colour covering hockey as well as tremendously capable LGBTQ bloggers. If you’re a site manager, editor, or prominent hockey voice and can’t find diverse voices you claim to seek, you’re part of the problem.

The problem is you.

Maybe your site is poorly moderated. Maybe your decision makers are sexist, racist, homophobic, or transphobic on twitter. Perhaps you post insensitive or offensive editorials, with little thought and no follow up on why your work is problematic. Maybe you’re a stats writer who’s worked hard and achieved mainstream success and is now more interested in maintaining the status quo then listening to the legitimate criticisms of the biases inherent in your work. There is a tendency to separate issues of representation from issues of discrimination or outright abuse. But the lack of women, people of colour, LGBTQ folks, and their intersecting identities in mainstream hockey media helps perpetuate discrimination in the game.

If you want to have a diverse site or diverse contacts you must be actively involved in and committed to creating inclusive environments. Women, PoC, and LGBTQ folks are tired of being left hanging by those with more power in the hockey community. Who wants to write for an editor that won’t have your back when an important piece draws the ire of those who want to keep online hockey spaces the stronghold of white masculinity? Who wants to visit a site that posts offensive material and exploits female labour? Not me.

The stats community still occasionally spars with the more traditional eye-test crowd. But both are oblivious to their similarities. Far too many in each group are working to keep hockey media a white, straight, cis male preserve.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Andrew. Bookmark the permalink.

1 thought on “Merit Badges and Hockey Media

  1. Pingback: Senators News & Notes | eyeonthesens

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