The Reasonable Fan's Dilemma About How To Cheer For The Chicago Blackhawks
The Chicago Blackhawks hit the ice at the United Center on Wednesday for morning skate, loosening up their legs and shoulders and knees and arms before their season opener against the New York Rangers that evening. The team's superstar winger, Patrick Kane, was there, even as the investigation into a sexual assault allegation against him continues.
I was there, too, setting the scene for SportsCenter as the defending Stanley Cup champions prepare for their third banner-raising ceremony in six seasons. The topics of the day promised to be the new faces on the team, the players lost to trades and free agency, and the challenges the team has faced dealing with the accusations leveled against Kane.
As a fan, it was my first deep dive into hockey in months. The investigation into Kane, one of the brightest stars in the game and a hockey deity in Chicago, has turned a summer of celebration into weeks of avoidance. I had been following along gleefully as each player took his turn with the Cup, celebrating at hometown houses, rinks and bars. Then, in early August, news broke that Kane was being investigated for a possible sexual assault near his hometown of Buffalo, New York. I've struggled to care much about Blackhawks hockey beyond Kane ever since.
No charges have been filed against the 26-year-old, and yet it has felt insensitive to read up on the rookies likely to make the roster, or watch clips of the new guys who came over in trades.
It just hasn't felt right to pretend as if nothing happened, or to try to focus on the X's and O's of hockey. I had watched from afar as NFL die-hards defended Ray Rice right up until the video proof of his assault on his then-fiancée, Janay, was made public. I had cringed as Jameis Winston's lawyer publicized the name of his accuser, and Florida State football fans defamed and attacked her via social media. Now, the player in question was a guy from my team, and not just any guy -- a bona fide superstar.
Almost immediately, folks on Twitter and Facebook accused me of not saying enough about the case because of my very public Blackhawks fandom. Still others accused me of insinuating Kane was guilty because of my refusal to shout down the accusations. Even as I continued to preach the importance of respecting both parties by waiting for all the facts to come out, I knew that couldn't last long.
The reporters tasked with producing stories about cases like this one have a tough job. They can't repeat over and over, "We have to wait for the facts to come out. We have to be patient." Those wise words neither satiate the curiosity of fans nor appease the demands of an editor. Refusing to react to leaks and well-sourced information in favor of patience merely sends voracious readers to fringe websites where facts don't matter, the protection of the alleged victim is of no consequence and being wrong over and over again carries with it no penalty.
There's no satisfaction in waiting, so we're all left clamoring to make sense of the limited information we have. Some fight to educate people about the nuances of rape investigations and the damage done by victim shaming. Others pin on faux detective badges and attempt to solve the case from afar, as if watching it on television. And the worst of the bunch pick apart the accuser and blindly support Kane, as if they were at his home the night of the alleged incident. When it comes to the athletes and sports we love, the desire to defend and protect is powerful, and it can be very dark.
As fans, we don't truly know professional athletes. Not like we think we do. O.J. Simpson had us all laughing in "The Naked Gun." Ray Rice was a community leader and anti-bullying activist. Darren Sharper was one of the most charitable ex-pros around. Heck, the night before the 1999 Super Bowl, Falcons player and professed devout Christian Eugene Robinson was arrested for soliciting a prostitute on the same day he was awarded the Bart Starr award for outstanding character on the field and in the home and community. (Robinson, who maintained his innocence, apologized for failing to "maintain the high standards for myself," and charges were dropped when he agreed to a pretrial diversion program.)
When it comes to the athletes and sports we love, the desire to defend and protect is powerful, and can be very dark.Sarah Spain
What do we, as fans and reporters, really know about Kane? Certainly not enough to be sure nothing illegal happened that night in suburban Buffalo. Of course, we can't be certain Kane is guilty, either. When it comes to sexual assault cases, we (rightly) work hard to protect the identity of an accuser, but the accused isn't afforded the same treatment. This is troubling, and yet it is not an easy fix.
There is a great deal of damage that can be done to an innocent person who is publicly tried before accusations against him are proven false. And yet, to single out rape defendants as the only alleged criminals whose names remain anonymous would be to send a message to victims and juries that rape accusers are not to be believed. And, as victim-turned-advocate Jill Saward told the Guardian in 2013, "we know that rapists rarely have one victim. ... If the name of the suspect is made public, it brings out other victims." (See: Sharper, the allegations against Bill Cosby.)
As with many sexual assault cases, the truth about that night at Kane's house may never come out. The case may drag through our legal system, to no real resolution. Kane could walk away with no charges. That may be because he's innocent, and it may be simply because they couldn't find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Those two things are not always the same.
As a Blackhawks fan, I'm at a loss. I would never ask someone to denounce his or her team because of the alleged criminal actions of one player or the inaction of a front office handcuffed by a lack of conviction or indisputable proof. But I also understand those who would feel a pit in their stomachs cheering on Kane without knowing for sure that he's innocent. And I get that many feel the Blackhawks and the NHL are sending a message that they don't care about female fans by allowing Kane to play while the investigation rolls on.
As opening night at the United Center looms, I have no more clarity than I did months ago. I'll cheer for my team, I know that much. I'll cheer for the ones I think, but cannot truly know, are good men, and maybe not so much for those I think, but cannot truly know, are not.