The University of Ottawa hockey team was suspended recently as a result of being implicated in a sexual assault scandal while at an away-game in Thunder Bay on the weekend of Feb 1, 2014. Today, The Ottawa Citizen and CBC both published articles highlighting how terrible it is that this happened—for the hockey team. They couldn’t be bothered to even consider the actual rape victim in either of their articles or CBC’s video.
For clarity, I’m assuming that the guys in these articles are just as innocent of the sexual assault as they say they are. The hockey player in the CBC video wasn’t even in Thunder Bay. This is not the issue.
But even if they had nothing to do with the sexual assault and even if they were completely ignorant of the whole thing, these articles and the CBC video are absolutely inappropriate and morally tone-deaf to the situation.
Burns, who wrote an open letter to the president of his university, complains that his good name has been “smeared.” The players’ names have not been smeared. University-level hockey just isn’t that big a deal to anyone who’s outside of it. No one knows their names, and anyone who does will be close enough that they can defend themselves.
Somehow CBC wants us to simultaneously believe that the suspension has irreparably hurt the future of the young man in the video while we sympathise with the lack of closure that he must be facing, due to the fact that he’s going on to semi-pro hockey abroad in a couple weeks. (Wait, I thought his future was ruined?)
Anyway, it’s not like we’re living in a world where being the perpetrator of a sexual assault carries much stigma. (C.f. CNN’s coverage of the Steubenville rape case.)
Betrayed by the university
These hockey players say they feel betrayed by their university. The university did not betray them. The teammate who committed a sexual assault betrayed them. The university is taking an appropriate action by holding off on honouring a team that has been implicated in an accusation of sexual assault. Can you imagine being the victim of the assault and knowing that your school was throwing a party for the hockey team, or holding a special ceremony in their honour?
These athletes won’t get to go to a couple of parties, and they might have to settle for having their jerseys mailed to them rather than being presented at a big ceremony. These are emotional wounds that will heal in time, I’m sure.
Basically, these articles are about some star athlete who, in light of someone having been raped, decided to write a letter to the media, and rather than writing a single word about how terrible it is that someone was sexually assaulted, he complains about how unfair this all is to him. In four words, his letter can be summed up as: “But what about me?”
Even though he’s a big-man hockey player, this whole situation just isn’t mainly about him, and he should have the perspective to see that. No, it isn’t fair that he doesn’t get to go to these parties, and I can understand him feeling frustrated. But by writing a letter like this, he is turning the situation around to focus on the plight of the “poor star athlete who doesn’t get to go to a party,” when in the big scheme of things, that is nothing compared to a woman who has to go through life dealing with the fact that a member of his hockey team raped her.
Media ethics—or, how CBC and the Ottawa Citizen failed
If I was just meeting one of these hockey players and we were hanging out casually, and he was saying how he wished he could go to the athletic department party or have his jersey presented at a special ceremony, I think I would totally sympathise with him. That’s natural—he’s supposed to enjoy those things. That doesn’t make him a bad person.
The problem is that the guy is publicly demanding that he be given these honours, and that in the face of an ongoing rape investigation. And to make it worse, reading over Burns’ letter, it’s not clear that he understands or even cares that someone was raped. It’s not mentioned once. It’s not even an afterthought. The letter, and the articles by CBC and the Ottawa Citizen lack a certain perspective that should be present when considering the consequences of an investigation of a sexual assault.
Despite its handling by the Ottawa Citizen and by CBC, the Big Story here is not (or shouldn’t be) “rape complaint ruins party for innocent hockey players,” and the big moral concern isn’t that younger hockey players might be discouraged from playing. Trust me, kids will play hockey whether you throw fancy parties for them afterward or not.
The Big Thing that we should be worried about is whether or not this kind of story discourages victims of rape from reporting it, and what this says about how we view sexual assault. By taking the focus off the appropriateness of the university’s response and pointing toward the “terrible injustice” done to these hockey players, we are implicitly saying that one complaint of rape is less important than 26 guys being denied the chance to go to a couple of parties. I don’t think that is the message that CBC or the Ottawa Citizen wanted to send, and I don’t think that’s the kind of world I want to live in.