In August, Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane was accused of raping a woman at his Buffalo-area home. Although formal charges will never be filed against him, the NHL still should have suspended him at the time.
But this isn't about Patrick Kane.
It isn't about convicted spousal abuser Slava Voynov, who remains property of the Los Angeles Kings even after he fled home to Russia one step ahead of deportation, either. Nor is it about Mike Ribeiro, who starred for the Nashville Predators throughout the duration of a now-settled civil suit regarding his alleged sexual assault of his children's nanny.
This is about the fans.
This is about the lifelong Blackhawks supporter who happens to be a rape survivor, and whose team has spent months celebrating a man accused of that same crime. It's about the kids sitting a few rows away who don't fully understand what Kane might have done, but who know it doesn't matter because the Jumbotron keeps reminding them that he's a hockey hero. It's about the Kings fan who believes it's his right to hit his wife and the Predators fan who is pretty sure the father of the children she babysits keeps brushing up against her on purpose, but who is absolutely sure she should just keep her mouth shut about it.
Approximately one in three women will be the victim of intimate partner violence and one in six women will be the victim of rape or attempted rape within their lifetimes, yet we have a culture of assuming that when a woman reports abuse or assault, she is lying. When institutions like the NHL refuse even to acknowledge the existence of serious allegations, they reinforce the notion that the world is populated with women trying to make a buck off accusing a rich, famous man of rape. We know this isn't true - studies show that just 2-8 percent of sexual assault allegations are false - but if an athlete has a high enough profile then we might be tempted to assume that his case is the exception, that we somehow "know" him and know that he would never do such a thing. The deck is stacked against any victim, and that much more so when thousands of people are emotionally invested in the life and career of the abuser.
Kane's case never got beyond the investigation stage, so some people believe the NHL would have overstepped by punishing him. They are wrong. Section 18-A.5 of the league's collective bargaining agreement with its players gives the NHL express permission to suspend Kane and others like him even in the absence of formal charges, and that's what it should do whenever a player comes under police investigation for domestic violence or sexual assault.
A suspension with pay wouldn't have deprived Kane of his livelihood or of his ability to get back on the ice the minute the investigation ended. Ultimately, Kane would have been fine. But this isn't about Kane.
This is about sending the message that violence against women is a legitimate, serious problem. It's about not being downright hostile to victims and, in so doing, teaching fans to follow suit.
On a personal note, I have rooted for the New Jersey Devils since I was first introduced to hockey over 30 years ago. My love of the game has helped shape my social life and even led me to a career in sports journalism. But now, like many others, I find myself questioning my continued allegiance to the NHL, which has ignored all commentary on their players' track record of violence against women. So I've launched a petition on Change.org calling for these important changes, and we've already collected over 27,000 signatures. Our campaign, along with the essays, articles, social media campaigns - like the #NotMyNHL hashtag that trended on Twitter the night the Blackhawks raised their 2015 Stanley Cup banner - all go unaddressed.
It has to stop. We need institutions like the NHL to stop shielding players who are accused of these crimes, because that shield doubles as a weapon against past, present and future victims.