I slept on it, and I’m giving Gary Bettman the benefit of the doubt.
I know, I know. But hear me out on this.
I started out angry, like so many people did. I saw Bettman’s comments about the “Katy Perry” chant and I was furious that the man in charge of my favorite sports league could be so ignorant, condescending and just plain wrong. I saw it as another sign that the NHL doesn’t care about its female fans, that Bettman and the league he leads still view us a second-class citizens whose comfort is, as ever, not nearly as important as the right of male fans to behave however they please. It was easy to interpret Bettman’s response as an effort to brush aside a problem he didn’t feel like dealing with at best, and an outright dismissal of women’s concerns at worst.
There’s another possibility, though: Maybe yesterday really was the first time Bettman had ever been forced to consider the misogyny inherent in gendered insults.
If it seems impossible, consider how loud that chant was in Winnipeg. Did every voice deriding Perry really belong to someone who believes women are inherently inferior to men? Did the women who joined in – and there are always women who join in – do so out of a sense of self-loathing or submission? Or did they just think it was a funny play on Corey Perry’s name without giving any thought as to why calling a man by a woman’s name is, and long has been, viewed as an insult?
One of the biggest challenges we face in fighting sexism and misogyny is the absolute pervasiveness of casual sexism in our culture (and just about every other culture). The notion that women are weaker, less intelligent and less capable than men manifests itself in wage inequality, rape and domestic abuse apologists, harassment, workplace discrimination, etc. etc. ad infinitum. Gendered insult are both an effect and a cause, part of a self-sustaining cycle so insidious that its very omnipresence helps render it almost invisible.
So it is possible that Bettman never gave a moment’s thought to the larger implications of “Cindy Crosby” or “the Sedin Sisters” before Jesse Spector asked him about the Katy Perry chant. That’s not to say it’s OK that Bettman hasn’t been paying attention – it surely is not. But if we take him at his word (something that’s admittedly not easy to do with someone who comes across as smarmy and insincere almost all the time, but still) then there’s no sense in dwelling on his prior ignorance. What matters is what he does now that his eyes are open.
He’s off to an inauspicious start, with the insta-dismissal of Spector’s question and his comparison of using gendered insults to calling goalies “sieves.” But that’s a fairly common way for people to react the first time they’re told that something they’ve heard and/or said all their lives is offensive. There’s a tendency to laugh it off on the assumption a term can’t simultaneously be harmful and widely accepted. Bettman was on the spot and his first reaction was bad, but it was not necessarily unforgivable.
The true test begins today, now that he’s had some time to process the issue. Maybe he’ll live down to expectations and ignore or deny the sexism that plagues his league, but I’m willing – eager, even – to allow for the possibility that he might surprise us. Bettman has the power to force change, if not in fan behavior then certainly in how the NHL and its member clubs model behavior for the fans. No more silence from the NHL when fans or, even worse, analysts insult players by comparing them to women. No more “Big Girls Don’t Cry” from arena organists when opposing players head to the penalty box. For the love of god, no more cheerleaders and ice girls. If he chooses, Bettman can help transform the NHL into a more inclusive and welcoming league.
If he really is a sexist, or a willfully ignorant cynic, we’ll find out soon enough. For now, instead of giving in to our collective instinct to deafen him with boos let’s encourage Bettman to earn our cheers. Let’s give him the chance to learn, grow and, if we’re really lucky, lead.