A pair of problems for hockey.

Photographer: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

NHL's Rape Education Flunks the Test

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
Read More.
a | A

For all the talk in sports media about athletes' violence against women, we don't hear much about how leagues and their players discuss such matters. Turns out, that's probably because there isn't enough chatter.

Yahoo Sports' Greg Wyshynski has a column up about the education and seminars the National Hockey League gives to its players on domestic violence and sexual assault. I suppose we should give the league credit for trying, but from the looks of it, these programs are wholly inadequate, merely glossing the surface of a pervasive issue that's dominated the headlines in the last year. While the league and the union bring in experts to talk to players about everything from nutrition to identity theft, according to one player, "there’s not a whole lot of conversation about" sexual assault.

The NHL does address violence against women in its rookie camps, but most of the lessons deal with the financial and lifestyle considerations of transitioning to the pros. Law enforcement officials try to "scare straight" players by detailing their experiences with, say, athletes caught driving under the influence, and presenting a short video on a different issue each year. The NHL told Wyshynski that the video has never covered violence against women -- an oversight one veteran explained away by basically saying they can't cover everything.

Wyshynski's overview says a lot about where the league places domestic violence on its list of priorities: Somewhere far below driving while texting.

In another preseason seminar, a group of doctors informs players about the NHL's substance-abuse policy and the alcohol and drug counseling services available. One player tells Wyshynski that domestic violence is addressed, kind of. "It's tough to get guys to pay attention," he says. The rookie program is an excellent opportunity for these doctors to explain the links between mental health issues and domestic violence, the power-driven thought processes behind sexual assault, and the oft-misunderstood mentality of victims that often causes them to remain in a cycle of abuse. 

Instead, the player says, "They really just skimp through it. They don’t really go into depth with the actual repercussions."

It's also unfortunate that the league doesn't bring in abuse victims themselves to tell their stories to players, along the lines of retired players relaying their own cautionary tales of blowing all their money or battling substance problems. Some players Wyshynski talked to agreed that hearing a first-hand account of abuse or assault would resonate more with players than an unemotional presentation by a behavioral expert. Wyshynski also suggests it would be helpful to have the wives and girlfriends of these players attend these seminars, so they, too, could benefit from education and better recognize the signs and patterns of abuse.

But one player told Wyshynski that he doesn't see the value in hearing about sexual assault from a woman who's experienced it. "I don’t know if that would help. Honestly probably not. I don’t think it would. I think every guy in the locker room knows it’s not OK and I don’t know … I don’t think it would," he said. 

That very statement demonstrates exactly why it's important for the league to step up its education efforts on this layered and complicated issue. The NHL has long taken a "hands-off" approach to educating players on sexual violence, as it has historically on concussions, leaving the onus largely to the players who "should know better." That's no longer acceptable.

Sure, players are probably aware that blatant examples of assault, such as drugging and raping a woman at a bar, are wrong. But sexual assault most commonly occurs among people who already know each other, with a victim who may or may not have at some point expressed sexual interest. Players need to be taught that consent is a moving target, and that women involved with professional athletes have unique concerns to consider when facing abuse, including being in the public spotlight and usually financial dependence on a highly paid partner.

Rape isn't simply about sex -- it's about power. And there are at least two senses of entitlement that tend to be heightened among pros as compared to the average man. One is the expectation that simply being a famous athlete will confer unwavering support and defense from both your team and the league -- an idea that's slowly eroding, but has been all-too-true in the past. The second is the sense that rich and powerful men are entitled to a woman's body in itself. Both these manifest themselves in the way fans immediately rush to defend their favorite player when they are accused of sexual assault, most recently with Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks and Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls: "He doesn't need to rape anyone; he can get any woman he wants." 

A major question is why teams don't do more to educate players on all this, if only from a business standpoint. You'd think step one in any company's public-relations strategy would be, "Avoid rape scandals."

Most experts agree that education and prevention are the most effective tools in cutting down on abuse, yet the leagues tend to focus on discipline and punitive deterrents. Suspensions surely are easier to understand as part of policy than outreach initiatives and survivor seminars, and make for headlines that imply leagues and teams take such crimes seriously. In the post-Ray-Rice world, fans would rather see a player's head on platter than any legwork toward actually reducing violence.

At the end of the day, the emphasis on discipline before prevention rests on the assumption that prevention isn't entirely possible. But this is just the same old fallacy that there's something perversely "natural" for men to target women in this way. It's "Boys will be boys" in a lace-up jersey.

Leagues have a stake in countering their image as a haven for abuse, and we all have a stake in making sure sports become a safer place for women. There have been encouraging signs of progress, from MLB's new domestic violence policy to the more hands-on education approach the Los Angeles Kings have promised to take following defenseman Slava Voynov's felony domestic battery charge. Hopefully that mentality will spread to the rest of sports and to society at large, with sexual violence prevention added to sex-ed curricula throughout the country. Knowledge really is the highest power we have.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net