Gary Bettman understands what was wrong with last year’s “Katy Perry” chant in Winnipeg. He didn’t see it at the time, but he does now.
I know this because I sat at a table with him on Wednesday and discussed it.
He told me that he, the league and the Islanders were mortified when, just days earlier, an Isles employee tweeted a picture of Sidney Crosby that included blond pigtails and a call for fans to chant “CIN-DY CROS-BY” at him. He listened while I explained how team organists promote casual sexism by taunting opposing teams with songs like “California Girls” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” Our conversation was brief – maybe 10 minutes or so – but it felt meaningful and productive. It was far from perfect, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but my main takeaway was that, at least to some degree, the commissioner gets it. Whether that translates into action remains to be seen, but when I spoke he listened. And when he spoke, he said some things I found legitimately encouraging.
Some context: I began a change.org petition in October to demand the NHL suspend players who were under investigation for sexual assault or domestic violence. That petition has since garnered over 35,ooo signatures, which is why I was able to arrange a meeting with NHL representatives on March 18. Present at that meeting were Group Vice President for Communications John Dellapina and Vice President for Special Projects and Corporate Social Responsibility Jessica Berman. Director of Player Safety Patrick Burke, who is a co-founder of You Can Play, also dropped in for the early part of that meeting. The discussion was spirited and wide-ranging, and I came away with confidence that these people truly care about social progress, but that the league is working toward it much too slowly and quietly. I emphasized the importance of the NHL taking a public stance against sexism and misogyny in much the same way that it has openly opposed homophobia in conjunction with You Can Play. I also passionately advocated for taking accused abusers off the ice until the police investigations into their allegations were closed, but I wasn’t able to get much traction on that issue.
Four days later I got an email from Dellapina saying that Gary Bettman wanted to meet. It’s probably for the best that you can’t see someone’s jaw hit the floor through an email.
After some scheduling hitches, the meeting happened on April 6. The bulk of that 2-hour meeting included Dellapina, Berman and Ted Bunch, co-founder of A Call To Men, the organization that administers the league’s newly-instituted educational program to address issues of sexual assault, domestic violence, sexual harassment and sexism and misogyny overall. I’ll probably write more extensively about A Call To Men at a later date, but the bottom line is that I’m honestly inspired by that organization’s philosophy of promoting “healthy, respectful manhood” through education and collaboration between men. Bunch is an impressive and passionate figure and he and A Call To Men treat male violence against women as a men’s issue, and one which ALL men are responsible for addressing. A Call To Men is an independent entity that contracts with a range of organizations to run similar programs; its role with the NHL is to lead an hour-long meeting with each of the league’s 30 teams, and while I question whether they get enough time and ongoing access to players to fully drive home the message, I absolutely believe A Call To Men aims to teach these players exactly what they need to learn. If I understood correctly, Berman was in charge of vetting and selecting a contractor to run the educational program. In my estimation she got it 100% right.
Bettman dropped by more than halfway through the meeting and didn’t stay long. Initially he came across as polite but somewhat defensive, explaining at length why the NHL won’t suspend accused players unless the league has specific information that clearly points to a player’s guilt. He cited both legal and labor roadblocks that would prevent preemptive suspensions for accused players, and while I believe those obstacles can be overcome I also realized pretty quickly that Bettman doesn’t believe it’s in the NHL’s best interest to make the attempt. He and I heartily disagree on that point, but if his mind can be changed it’s going to have to be by someone with better persuasive skills than I possess. I sincerely hope someone more qualified takes a real crack at it, and I’ll gladly do whatever I can to support that effort.
For now, though, I want to focus on what came next: A discussion of the kind of casual sexism that contributes to a culture that views violence against women as inevitable and, to some extent, acceptable. I’m far from perfect and there were plenty of points I wanted to make and issues I wanted to raise that I just didn’t manage to get around to. But we did discuss the topic of “Katy Perry” and I asked, repeatedly, if he now understood why that chant was so alarming. He began with the same basic response he gave when Jesse Spector asked him about it at the time – that it had initially struck him as just another way for fans to taunt opponents, and that gender was less of a factor than Katy Perry’s status as not-a-hockey-player. He posited that a player with the last name “Bennett” might be met with a “Tony Bennett” chant because Tony Bennett, like Katy Perry, is a singer and not an athlete. I countered that that theory doesn’t hold water since it simply never happens that way. I asked him if he realized now that Katy Perry’s gender, and not her occupation, was the source of the insult. He said that yes, that’s clear to him now. I looked him in the eye when he said that, and I believe him. I think he sees the problem and I think he realizes than many of his league’s fans want and need to see him and the NHL address it. I came away with a good feeling about that aspect of our conversation – one which I hope is proven right by concrete action by the league in the near future.
In the meantime, I remain in contact with Dellapina, Berman and Bunch and I expect our discussions to continue. Our work is far from over, but right now I’m just encouraged by the knowledge that it is truly, demonstrably underway.