We live in a society today where more and more women are breaking into the world of sports at various levels.  Women are working for teams.  More women are becoming sports reporters.  More women are working in the league corporate offices.

While women are making great strides in becoming a part of the sports culture, supporting a sport they love and enjoy, there are still matters that need to be changed in this male dominated culture.  Women are becoming a huge part of the fan base across all major sports.  So when they see how a league reacts to violence against women, you hope that the sports league you support will take the appropriate action.  When they take no action or the wrong action, you are left to ask whether this is the kind of sport you want to continue to support.

When you see the sexist culture of the boys club rallying to support a player that is accused of rape and ostracizing the victim, you have to ask yourself: ‘Is this the sport you want to continue to support?’  When you see the league doesn’t do anything but continue to let the accused play while he’s being investigated, you have to ask yourself, ‘Is this the sport you want to continue to support?’  When players under criminal investigation for domestic violence still show up for work, you have to ask yourself, ‘Is this the sport you want to continue to support?’

This is the question that many female fans across the NHL have been asking themselves this season.  Can fans continue to support a league that is undermining their own belief system?  There should be a Zero Tolerance policy when it comes to violence against women.  That is a policy the NHL currently does not have in place…and many fans want to see that changed.

Melissa Geschwind, a New Jersey resident and Devils fan, started a petition on Change.org asking the NHL to take violence against women seriously.  Currently, the petition has over 29,000 signatures.  It needs a little over 5,600 more signatures to reach 35,000.

Melissa has agreed to do an interview with Inside Hockey to talk about the petition and the changes being proposed.

Can you tell us a little about your petition on Change.org?

 

I started it because it seemed like it could be a way to get the NHL to listen to concerns that a lot of us had been voicing for a long time. Basically, it tells the NHL to demonstrate its support of victims of sexual assault and domestic violence by defaulting to believing them when they come forward. The actual demand is for any player under investigation for this kind of crime to be suspended, with pay, until the investigation resolves – something which is expressly permitted by the collective bargaining agreement.

 

It takes a lot of courage to become a spokesperson and represent a group that wants to be heard in creating change in a male dominated culture.  You’re met with a lot of backlash, criticism, sexism, and nasty comments from fans.  What made you decide to be the person that helped to create the change in the NHL as it concerns violence against women?  What adversity have you come across since you started this petition?

 

I didn’t decide to be “the” person, and I’m definitely not “the” person.  There are a lot of women, and some men, working to bring about change in how the NHL treats women overall.  I just got frustrated one day with not being heard, and thought I’d try a different method than the writing and social media commentary many of us were already engaged in.  That the petition gained traction is a wonderful thing, but that doesn’t make me any bigger a part of this movement than anyone else. The goal is what matters, not the individuals trying to reach that goal.

As for backlash, I haven’t gotten it nearly as bad as many, many other women.  I get some stray nasty comments but it’s nothing compared to what I’ve seen thrown at others. It helps, I imagine, that I’m a pretty small fish. Plus, I never read comment sections, so I guess it’s possible that there’s a lot of vitriol concentrated there that I just don’t see.

 

What did you think of the NHL’s new player education initiative on domestic violence and sexual abuse?  What do you think the league should be doing to better their initiatives?

 

I think it’s great that the NHL is taking steps to educate its players, and it’s especially encouraging that the league seems to have expanded its initiatives. There’s an obvious – if somewhat surprising – need for education on the meaning and importance of consent, and on the fact that being in a relationship with someone doesn’t entitle you to lay hands on that person.

Even the best educational programs can only do so much, though. Some players might genuinely not know that these behaviors are wrong, and those are the ones who stand to gain from education. Unfortunately, there are also men who already know what they’re doing is wrong and don’t care, or who will never accept that women deserve to be treated as fellow human beings. That’s why education can only be one part of how the league addresses these issues.

 

Do you think maybe the answer to changing the NHL has to deal more with evolving a male dominated culture into an actual business that recognizes that their customer is not just male, but also female, and  should accordingly make better strives at representing both demographics?  Perhaps that first step is in hiring women in executive positions.

 

The beauty of progress is that there doesn’t need to be a ‘first step.’  The NHL should hire women for executive positions AND it should discourage violence against women AND it should eliminate sexist elements from its broadcasts and in-game presentation. There’s no reason it has to do these things one at a time.

But yes, I think having women in positions of influence would help accelerate progress in other areas, because women are more likely to recognize where the problems are. The men currently in charge have proven to be very tone-deaf about issues of sexism and misogyny, so new voices are definitely needed.

One of the most frustrating aspects of this is that we know the NHL is capable of positive change when it wants to be. The league has come so far on issues of racism and homophobia that I honestly can’t understand why it seems so resistant to improving how it views and treats women.

 

With the petition starting a conversation, what do you propose the NHL should ultimately do when dealing with violence against women committed by players?

 

Make a meaningful statement that violence against women – and, for that matter, all sexual and/or domestic violence – is unacceptable. That starts with the league actively assisting in investigations whenever authorities ask. During those investigations the league should suspend (with pay) the player or players in question, even in the absence of formal charges, to show solidarity with accusers rather than implying that they’re unreliable or venal. Any player who is convicted of one of these crimes must be suspended indefinitely pending punishment. The league needs to take these actions swiftly and affirmatively rather than doing everything possible to avoid them.

I’m asking the league to remember that its responsibility is to its fans and communities. Domestic violence and sexual assault are a scourge, and the NHL needs to recognize that it’s in a position of influence and start doing its part to eliminate them.

 

What about youth hockey?  Shouldn’t the conversation begin at a much earlier age?

 

It absolutely should, and there are smart, passionate people working to make that happen. We really should be educating all children about things like equity and consent. We don’t even realize all the ways we tacitly teach them the exact opposite of what they should be learning – and one of those ways is by casting aspersions on women who come forward as victims of violence while celebrating the men they accuse.

 

If your concerns from the petition go unheard by the NHL, what will happen next?

 

If need be, I’m going to hand deliver the petition to the league office in New York City to make it impossible for the NHL to continue ignoring us. If that happens, I don’t expect to be there alone.

 

Besides signing the petition, what pro-active things should fans do to get their concerns heard?

 

Communicate with representatives of your team. Tell them that you don’t want to root for a club that protects and promotes men who commit acts of violence against women. Urge them to stop using cheerleaders and half-dressed ice girls and to stop tolerating sexist chants. You’re their customer, and you have more power than you realize. Some teams have owners or executives who are active on social media, so start by going to the source – sometimes they actually listen.

 

Has the NHL reached out to you to discuss the petition?

 

Not yet. I really hope that changes soon.

 

Over these last few years, I’ve heard many fans tell me that their  love for the game is gone.  They stopped following the NHL because they have become disgusted by it.  The All-Stars voting was an example of how the fans are saying CHANGE needs to be made.  Do you feel that if your concerns aren’t heard that you’ll be breaking up with the NHL like other fans have done?

 

I’ve thought about this a lot. I’ve been a Devils fan for over 30 years and it would be very, very hard for me to walk away. Still, I considered it. Ultimately, I’ve seen just enough progress to believe that we can reach our goals if we remain persistent. I can understand why people lose their taste for the NHL and I respect anyone who just can’t tolerate it anymore. For me, though, I’d rather stay and fight.

That said, at this point the NHL gets very little of my money – I don’t subscribe to Center Ice, I don’t buy merchandise and I attend very few games. So I haven’t walked away as a fan, but I’ve pulled way back in terms of material support. What should really frighten the league is how painless it’s been for me to do that.

 

Is there anything else you want to add or discuss?

 

“Innocent until proven guilty” is purely a legal concept, not a guideline for life. The court system has tremendous power to take away a person’s freedom, so it must do everything possible to safeguard against the chance of doing so erroneously. But society at large does itself a disservice when it defaults to always believing the accused, because that carries with it an assumption that the accuser is lying or mistaken. We’re conditioned to think that way and it has proven very harmful, especially when it comes to crimes like sexual assault and domestic violence, which are very underreported and underprosecuted. I’m not asking the NHL to presume an accused player is guilty, but I am asking it not to presume that player is innocent. Acknowledge the seriousness of the allegation and remove that player from the ice until the investigation ends, because to not do so is to present him as a hero (which is how we tend to view professional athletes, much to the financial benefit of leagues and teams). Let people know that these issues matter more than winning or losing a hockey game.

About The Author

Michelle Kenneth has been with Inside Hockey since 2007 as the beat reporter for the New Jersey Devils. She is also part of the IH team covering the New York Rangers. Since 2007, she's covered the Stanley Cup Finals, NHL All-Stars, NHL Awards, Winter Classic, Stadium Series and the NHL in Europe. You can follow Michelle on Twitter @MichelleKenneth and on her blog: michellekennethhockey.wordpress.com.

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