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Fans seek NHL's attention on the issue of violence against women

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Fans are fed up with the NHL's lack of response to the problem of violence being perpetrated against women. Almost 30,000 of them have signed a petition to let the league know.

The Los Angeles Kings handling of Slava Voynov's domestic violence issues is emblematic of a bigger problem in sports.
The Los Angeles Kings handling of Slava Voynov's domestic violence issues is emblematic of a bigger problem in sports.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

What can best be referred to at this point as The Patrick Kane Situation that dominated much of the NHL's offseason headlines has been resolved by virtue of Kane's accuser choosing not to participate in the issue for personal reasons, which removed the prosecuting authorities' ability to proceed with its investigation and possible resultant prosecution.

All of that is technically-correct-yet-foggy language that sums the matter up, yet doesn't offer the satisfaction of a true ending. That's because the matter didn't really end so much as it just kind of stopped being a matter. Unfortunately, this happens all too often in cases where a woman finds herself the victim of violence, whether it's sexual assault or domestic abuse. A variety of factors exist that often make it extremely difficult on various levels for women to pursue resolutions in these cases.

None of which means that there is no problem in sports or in society in general. Just because a case stops being a case for whatever reason, doesn't mean that nothing happened. As it pertains to the NHL, that does not sit well with a number of fans, male and female. Melissa Geschwind is from Dumont, New Jersey where she is a devoted Devils fan. She has launched a petition via Change.org, along with the social media hashtag #NotMyNHL. Her hope is to draw attention to a problem that (aside from all the clear and obvious negative social impact) threatens to impair her ability to be a fan of the game she loves. We asked Melissa some questions about the petition as well as circumstances like these that have become far too commonplace in sports.

RAW CHARGE (RC): Your petition states "We are petitioning the NHL to institute a clear, comprehensive policy of zero tolerance for players who commit acts of intimate partner violence or sexual assault. This would mean that the NHL would have suspended a suspected sexual abuser like Kane - with pay - until the police investigation was complete. It would mean that a team that violates the terms of a domestic abuser's suspension, as the Los Angeles Kings did with Slava Voynov, would receive a harsh, truly consequential punishment. It would also mean that a player convicted of such a crime would not be allowed to rejoin his team in any capacity until he has served his sentence." What would you say to those that would say that this violates an individual's right to be treated as innocent until proven guilty?

MELISSA GESCHWIND (MG): The first thing is "innocent until proven guilty" is a bit of a smokescreen in our society, That's because people are so accustomed to the term and they're so accustomed to a system that favors defendants that they fail to recognize that that's really only relevant in a court of law. The reason that courts have to be biased in favor of the accused is because we have given the government the particular right to take away people's freedom and lock them up. Since the country was essentially based on a distrust of government, the idea is to make it as hard as possible for the government as represented by the courts to take away people's freedom or deprive them of property. That's why 'innocent until proven guilty' is even a thing, because its purely a law enforcement and courtroom concept. Outside of that arena, its really not a relevant idea. Worse than that, every time we say that about somebody accused of something, the flip side of it is that we're also saying that the accuser is a liar until proven otherwise. So we are taking sides by saying 'innocent until proven guilty' even though I think people have come to think of it as a statement of neutrality. The flip side of 'innocent until proven guilty' is that means the accuser is guilty until a person is convicted if we're taking the court as the official word, and that's both inaccurate and deeply unfair to victims.

The other thing about due process: [former NFL running back] Ray Rice provides the perfect example of why you can not just assume that if the court declines to punish someone, that means they didn't do anything wrong. We happen to be in the unique position with Ray Rice of knowing he will never be committed of a crime that we're all certain that he committed. You don't get that very often but there was obvious preferential treatment there. He will never, ever stand trial for this crime. Again, this is not to say that everybody who gets accused is guilty; it's just to say that there's a reason to believe accusers even in the absence of the criminal justice system going all the way to incarcerating someone.

RC: Is player punishment as a means of curbing behavior the quickest, easiest answer to this problem?

MG: Everything we do with regard to these sorts of incidents, is we always center on the player. Not just the player that's accused, but his teammates, his team and it's inappropriate. For one thing, sports leagues don't exist for the purpose of the players. It wouldn't work that way. If it was just, "pay me to play hockey", that wouldn't happen. The central figures of this really need to be the people who are watching, paying and rooting for the teams. Although the results come out as being somewhat punitive, its a fairly minor penalty, all things considered, to say "we're gonna put you on paid leave until they manage to sort out the investigation". It's relatively light as far as punishments go. Otherwise, it's like we're going to almost actively ignore a major issue and just go ahead and send the message either that again, we're passively accusing the accuser of lying or that we don't think this is important. Yes, it's entirely possible that somewhere along the line you get someone who gets dinged in spite of not having done what they're accused of doing but if the worst thing that happens is you miss a few weeks or even a few months on the ice with pay, to send the message in the larger sense that, yeah, this is something that matters and we do not begin from the assumption that everybody who reports these things is lying, I think it's worthwhile.

RC: In your opinion, is this primarily a hockey problem, a sports problem or a societal problem?

MG: No, its absolutely a societal problem but I don't think that kind of policy works if you're talking about someone who works a typical, cubicle kind of job. The issue here is, they're asking people to cheer for these guys. And as much as everybody hates this term, they are, to some degree, making them role models and there's an emotion attached to that. There's a reason that the Collective Bargaining Agreement has built in the right of teams to censure these kinds of things, even in the absence of formal charges. That's built in because this is not a normal job. It's a societal problem in that crimes are a societal problem, but this particular approach.., You know, if John Smith at Cubicle Co. is accused of something, there's relatively minimal impact in taking him out of that company and continuing to pay him because very few people are actually affected by it, unless he's actually a danger to his co-workers, Obviously, this is much bigger. There is an impact here that he wouldn't have. As to whether its a hockey problem vs a sports problem, I wouldn't imagine that it's more of a hockey problem than anything else. But since hockey is my sport of choice and since the NHL has been so painfully unresponsive to all kinds of issues regarding women, that's kind of the area where I feel most passionate to get involved. But no, I doubt very much that it's worse in hockey than in other sports.

RC: What about the individual clubs' responsibility as opposed to the league as a governing body?

MG: You know, I would love to see the teams step up. I would love for it to be unnecessary for the league to identify a policy because the teams step up and it's just so clearly not happening. The answer is yes, I believe they have a responsibility to their community but they don't seem to agree. Kane is kind of the most easily identifiable figure so that's the picture that gets used. He's just been kind of the easiest thing for people to understand as a representation. Personally, I'm more appalled by the way the Kings have handled Voynov, from minute one to the present moment. I mean, talk about a breach of faith with your community. He was already arrested, got suspended and they try to sneak him on to the ice and the leagues response to that is to fine them a sum of money they definitely don't care about. And I didn't entirely understand this but in the course of his measured-in-days sentence, he was on what could be described as work release, where he went to skate as work release. I would imagine the Kings were somehow involved, otherwise I don't know how you can skate as work. And now, as he flees the country one step ahead of deportation, they still won't void the contract, which they're within their rights to do, because they want to retain him as an asset. This guy is convicted! There's not even a question here. How do you look at your fans and claim to have any sort of moral center with something like that? That just boggles my mind and If I were a Kings fan, I'd be out completely. If I were a Blackhawks fan, I think I would be too, but the Kings, no question about it. That's disgraceful..

RC: What would you say to someone who attributes this to the behavior of so-called 'Alpha Males' and that a certain amount of aggression should not only be tolerated but encouraged?

MG: Well, for one thing we have plenty of females playing these sports. I don't think you have to be.., you might have to be aggressive to play sports, you do not have to have that spill over into your off-ice life. I don't how much you've dealt with players, but I spent some time as a sports reporter. By and large, the enforcers were among the most thoughtful, reasonable and intelligent players on a team's roster. Stu Grimson has a law degree. It is possible to compartmentalize that part of your self into your job in much the same way, You know, you come home from any other job and are not still doing that job. Where that becomes a more legitimate danger is if you have guys taking substances that heighten the aggression and that's a whole different set of problems. Ironically, That's sufficiently against the rules that the league would actually punish it!

RC: Your petition has close to 30,000 signatures. That represents more than enough people to fill any arena in the NHL. Has the level of response surprised you in one way or another?

MG: I started this as a voice crying in the wilderness, or more accurately one of a number of voices all equally not being heard. To be honest, I started it because I was so sick of trying the same things and not having them work. 'Let's try something else and assume it won't work', not because I didn't think it was an idea that would appeal to people but because my social media reach is negligible. I have less than 500 Twitter followers. I can not crack that number. The best reach that I have is that I have one or two people with decent followings who will re-Tweet my stuff but that's all I have. Yeah, the response has been incredible and a part of that is the Change.org people and I had no idea when I started that this would happen. They've got people whose job it is to identify what they think are worthwhile and potentially successful petitions and grow them. They set up interviews and cross-promote campaigns that are similar. But yeah, it's been incredible and very gratifying. Honestly, if we get one word from Gary Bettman acknowledging that there's a problem, I'll consider this a success.

RC: Do you think that's likely, or even possible, when it's all said and done?

MG: At no point in the early going did I think far enough ahead where I thought that might be a possibility. It really started out of frustration with nothing else working. The expression I used with friends was, "I'm emptying the quiver. Here's something I haven't tried yet". So I don't know if there were contact if it would involve me or if it would somehow just involve the petition itself. It's been important and I've told the Change.org people, one of the things I've said over and over is, I want this to be as little about me as possible. I will do interviews, I will try to spread the word as best as I can. I'll be an advocate for it  but I'm an advocate for that, not the other way around. I guess the best hope for that is getting enough people writing about it, getting the highest profile looks that it becomes impossible to ignore or that people start asking questions. That's been one of the things that's been incredibly frustrating, especially as a former journalist, is watching people not ask the questions. And of course, (Bettman) is never going to answer a question he doesn't want to answer if nobody asks him. So yeah, if we're getting to enough people that it's worthy of getting to his level, that would be fantastic. Yeah I hope, not necessarily that I personally hear from him, but I just hope somebody does.

When I started, my dream was if I could just get 3000 signatures, That would represent 100 fans per team. It's not a market share, but its something. Look, for each of your 30 teams, 100 people are fed up with it. For me, boycotting wouldn't be about sending a message because I don't have a message to send. I don't spend enough money with them for it to be worth their while. It would be more that it stops being fun for me. I guess that's the selfish side of it; I don't want it to stop being fun. I really like NHL hockey and I don't want to stop enjoying it.