CHICAGO -- Chicago Blackhawks training camp opens Friday in South Bend, Indiana, and star forward Patrick Kane will be there, stirring up a debate on sexual assault, competitive sports and the line between legal rhetoric and normal conjecture.
And oh yeah, there will be a celebration of the return of the defending Stanley Cup champions. When is that banner-raising again?
The only story that matters in the opening of the Blackhawks' season is Kane, who is being investigated for an allegedly sexual assaulting of a woman at his home in suburban Buffalo, New York, in August. He hasn’t yet been charged with a crime, but details have leaked out from Buffalo.
A grand-jury hearing for his case was postponed, but it is scheduled to start again in the coming weeks. That doesn’t make Kane guilty because, again, he hasn’t been charged with a specific crime or crimes.
Regardless of your feelings on the case -- most of which would be based on Kane’s checkered past and, more specifically, on journalism from Buffalo media -- it’s inarguable that Kane brings a dark cloud with him to South Bend.
Kane is accused of a horrible crime, a murky one full of “he said, she said” rhetoric that feeds into our worst stereotypes and prejudices -- a crime that often goes unpunished.
Without more details, I’ve been careful not to “columnize” on this story, but the question before us is less ambiguous: Should Kane be joining the Blackhawks while this case remains undecided?
There is no universal answer. There are precedents for each side, yes or no. There are valid opinions for each side, yes or no.
My opinion is that Kane shouldn’t be there.
It’s unfair to his teammates, who have no part in this case, and it’s unfair to the fans, who don’t know how to feel about Kane -- given the dearth of information about the night in question -- but still love the Blackhawks.
Kane is expected to be at camp. He is on the training-camp roster, and a team spokesman told reporters that everyone on the roster is expected to be at camp, which will be on Notre Dame’s campus for the weekend “festival” before returning to Chicago to resume preseason practice. The Hawks’ first preseason game is Tuesday.
The argument for Kane practicing as normal is a cold one. Either way, the Blackhawks have to deal with this “distraction.” If he’s not there, teammates have to deal with questions about their support of him, which will be parsed on Twitter and in sports media. If he’s not there, fans still have to deal with Kane’s presence as the case lingers.
As a Pittsburgh Steelers fan in my off-time, I can relate to the mental gymnastics of supporting a team starring an athlete who had been accused of sexual assault.
If Kane suits up now, it will be a tempest. But if the case goes away, even without any clarity, the scrutiny will fade and in some circles disappear as he continues to shine on the ice. We've seen it happen before.
It’s always important to remind ourselves that professional sports teams are an entertainment product, nothing more. But you can’t dissociate their unique relationship with their fans and their city.
While I have strong feelings on the right of labor, an employer that relies on public support has the right, and maybe the obligation, to be extra vigilant. Athletes are role models, and teams should do more than pay lip service or boast to friendly media about how moral they really are. But then there is the reality of their business, which doesn't always align with our lofty ideals.
The Kane story, like others of its ilk, engenders arguments about fairness or the legal process that are tough to confront because we just don't have enough information. It turns some hockey fans into amateur or substandard legal experts and turns off others altogether. These kinds of stories are important; just look at how the NFL domestic-violence cases have changed the national conversation. But I can understand why some fans have cognitive dissonance.
What makes these kind of opinions difficult to finalize is that sexual-assault cases involving famous athletes don’t always get held up to the light. I have a sense that we’ll never know the truth of what happened that night. I fear it will get settled one way or another without clarity. I want clarity. I want to see a police report and interview transcripts. That’s why I’ve abstained from writing about Kane until now. I want some facts.
The Bulls open their training camp on Sept. 28, and there’s no chance he doesn’t show up. But that is a civil case, and Kane’s is criminal. Not to make light of Rose’s accuser, but there is a difference, if only semantically.
I’ve never been one to judge someone by their off-field proclivities. Kane’s past antics and nightlife reputation have nothing to do with sexual assault, a heinous crime. But some people are connecting the dots. Life is not a court of law. The court of public opinion doesn’t have to hold firm to any presumptions of guilt or innocence. That’s just how it works.
Now, back to the issue at hand: Should Kane be there when the Blackhawks open camp, given he hasn’t been charged with a crime? Again, I say no. But I can make the opposite argument, given this case might linger for months, maybe a season.
This shouldn’t be the Blackhawks’ call. It should be the NHL’s decision, though I’m guessing the team is desperate for clarity as the rest of us.
The NHL commissioner, Gary Bettman, has the ability to suspend Kane indefinitely. There is precedent on both sides. In 2013, the NHL didn’t suspend Semyon Varlamov, the Colorado Avalanche goaltender who was arrested for allegedly hitting his girlfriend.
But it in 2014, the NHL did suspend Kings defenseman Slava Voynov, who was arrested for allegedly hitting his wife. He was suspended for the entire season and was recently released after a short jail sentence. Facing deportation proceedings with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Voynov has decided to return to his native Russia.
Many in the Blackhawks' front office hold themselves to a higher standard than their peers, thanks to the wild success of the organizational makeover that took them from laughingstock to near-dynasty. Three Stanley Cups give you plenty of self-confidence.
In truth, the Blackhawks are just like any other sports organization, trying to balance between good business and good behavior.
The Hawks could write something to the effect of, “While we love and support our teammate Patrick Kane, we don’t think it’s appropriate for him to participate in team activities without more clarity on his legal situation. The Blackhawks take sexual assault very seriously. This is a societal issue, and we know that as a professional sports team, many look to us for leadership. Any charge of sexual assault is a serious issue, and we hope for a timely conclusion. For now, hockey season has begun.”
Of course, life is not that simple. So for now, Kane is back with the Blackhawks. It’s a complicated, scary, unhappy story and, frankly, you can feel however you want about it, at least until we learn more information.