Last week, news broke that Nashville Predators forward Austin Watson would see his 27-game suspension stemming from domestic violence charges dropped to just 18 games. Watson pleaded no contest back on July 24, stemming from an incident on June 16 at a Franklin gas station, in which multiple bystanders witnessed an altercation between him and his girlfriend. News of the suspension’s reduction drew ire from the NHL, which released a statement saying the league was “disappointed” in the decision of arbitrator Shyam Das, who cut Watson’s suspension by a third.
Watson’s case started a conversation around the merits of domestic violence policies in major sports leagues. As many have mentioned, unlike other major men’s sports leagues, such as the NBA, MLB, or NFL, the NHL has no official domestic violence policy, instead handling each case on an individual basis. And while it may be true that a constitutional policy is the first step toward holding certain athletes accountable, ultimately, it is important to understand Watson’s case in the bigger picture.
A wider problem at hand
Male athletes in North American professional leagues enjoy the benefits of power, wealth, and celebrity. This can certainly deliver positive benefits, such as being idolized by young children just starting out in sports. However, in a patriarchal society like ours — where a woman is killed every six days by her intimate partner in Canada — male athletes who commit acts of domestic violence and sexual assault often find themselves above the law.
Because for every LeBron James, opening a school centred around equity and opportunity, there’s a Ben Roethlisberger or Patrick Kane, who have been accused — multiple times, in Roethlisberger’s case — of sexual assault. When you consider how government officials Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump, and Rick Dykstra have all been accused of sexual assault, none of whom faced punitive sentences but actually career advancements following accusations — the bigger picture becomes clear: power and status allow men to be above the law in our misogynistic, patriarchal society.
Patriarchy breeds the value of prioritizing men’s careers over women’s lives and safety; we can see this clearly in a collective yet unfounded fear of false accusations, and the framing of domestic violence or sexual assault as more damaging to the man’s life than his victim’s. Watson’s case illustrates this well.
Jenn Guardino was found bloodied and with a bruised heel, and told police that Watson “sometimes gets handsy”; Watson actually admitted himself that he caused scratches found on Guardino’s chest the night of the assault, and witnesses further testified that they saw Watson “swat” his girlfriend to prevent her from exiting the vehicle.
Despite all this, Guardino apparently urged police not to “say anything,” for fears his career would be jeopardized. Alarmingly, she released a statement days after Watson’s suspension reduction apologizing for the incident, claiming it was “not an act of domestic violence,” and that “Austin Watson has never, and would never hit or abuse” her.
Survivors have every right to choose how they heal from abuse — including, if they wish, to forgive their abuser. But it is also important to remember that survivors defending and protecting their abusive partners is a symptom of a broader problem of misogyny and gender-based violence in our society.
Sports are just a microcosm of this, and there are plenty of examples that exist — Janay Palmer calling NFL player and husband Ray Rice’s assault against her a “mistake,” for instance. It is imperative that the NHL, like other sports leagues, hold their players who commit such disgusting and terrorizing acts of violence accountable. Female fans comprise a sizeable majority in most of the major men’s professional leagues, making up about a third of NHL viewership and nearly half of the NFL’s.
How should they feel when they see these athletes commit such acts of violence against women unpunished — with very little support offered to the people who look like them?
An honest assessment
The NHL is the only one of the four major men’s sports leagues without a policy or “standard of conduct” addressing domestic violence. They instead opt to evaluate cases of domestic violence individually. In this regard, it would be beneficial for the NHL to move forward and catch up.
However, men’s professional sports leagues need to be honest with themselves, and if they are serious about paying more than lip service to tackling the problem of domestic violence, they need to move beyond performative policy and take more proactive initiative.
Consider the NFL, for example. This is a league that, despite having a formal policy, employs 44 players who have been accused of sexual or physical assault.
Consider the fact that it took until 2014, with surveillance footage showing Rice knocking his fiancée unconscious in an elevator, for commissioner Roger Goodell to implement a policy — and even then, Goodell’s original punishment for Rice was a mere two-game suspension. It was only after backlash from the public that he was compelled to do something.
What good is a domestic violence policy when it carries no weight of punishment, no rehabilitation efforts to prevent the problem in the future, and no support for the survivor? Perhaps, though, we should not expect much of a league that takes peaceful, anti-racist protesting as a more offensive act than physically endangering women’s safety.
NHL fans, consequently, need to reflect carefully on the merits of a domestic violence policy and what effect it might actually carry. Recall the case of former Los Angeles Kings player Slava Voynov. Voynov served two months in jail after a domestic violence charge back in 2014. His contract was terminated and he was effectively returned to Russia following the charges.
However, he is now considering a return to the NHL and was granted a roster spot in this year’s Olympics. NBC commentator Mike Milbury reflected on the situation as an “unfortunate incident [that] left the Los Angeles Kings without a great defenseman.”
How insulting to Voynov’s spouse Marta Varlamova, who said it was not the first time, with an officer noting that her “blood [was] all over the bedroom.” If an incident like that — where an athlete actually serves concrete time in jail for an assault — does not warrant a commitment to the NHL toward tackling violence against women, I question the merits of a league policy implemented now, four years later.
So all this begs the question: what would be an effective strategy for going beyond words and springing into action? Sports leagues like the NHL must be better at actively combatting and preventing situations of domestic violence by education and empowering male players to be more aware of what constitutes abuse, as well as its widespread prevalence, and this can be done, as exemplified by the BC Lions of the CFL.
The Lions’ Be More than a Bystander program is a collaboration between the team and the Ending Violence Association of Britsih Columbia, “aimed at substantially increasing understanding of the impact of men’s violence against women.” Guided by an advisory group of women, the Lions players use their “status and public profile” to educate others on the subject, through school visits, public ads, and other acts of outreach.
Ultimately, this is not just an NHL problem, and policy — much like laws in our legal system for the general population — will not be a one-step solution to significantly addressing domestic violence. Policy is certainly a start, but more importantly, an urgent conversation must be held about the widespread problem of violence against women in our society — and furthermore, the lack of accountability imposed on the men who do commit such violence.