When news broke about the Toronto Maple Leafs’ pursuit of Arizona Coyotes assistant to the general manager and goalie coach Sean Burke, I naturally began to read about him, and prepare a piece.
Almost immediately, I stumbled across news reports from 1997 and 1998 on Burke’s history with domestic violence, stemming from having allegedly beat his wife several times, tearing out her hair. In my story, titled “Who is Sean Burke?”, I wrote the following in the second to last paragraph.
In 1997, Burke’s history with domestic violence was made public. Consequently, when he was with the Vancouver Canucks, he was required to attend a six-month domestic violence program after pleading guilty to charges for abusing his wife. He was sentenced to 18-months probation.
On social media, I made it a point to mention the same. It seemed obvious to me that this was relevant, not only in his candidacy for a position as an executive (domestic violence is linked to aggression, dominance and judgment, three things that would impact an executive), but also as telling of hockey, a violent sport, and a community that didn’t inhibit his progression as an athlete or executive.
Others didn’t see it in the same way I did.
The responses that followed, from white men, included “Does this affect his knowledge of hockey?”, “Are you suggesting this should be a factor?”, “It’s been 18 years since this happened. Presume nothing since. Not a factor.”, and “why are you reporting something reported on almost 20 years ago?”
From women, the responses included “well that’s disturbing,” and “thanks for mentioning this – it’s important to know but probably won’t be talked about by the media.”
As a privileged, white, 20-year-old, I quickly began to notice that other people, like me, were responding in the same ways. I mentioned the trend I saw in my replies on Twitter.
Among the responses that followed, again, included “Very racist and inappropriate”, “Why are you pointing out the colour of people’s skin? What does that have to do with anything?”, “what does being white have to do with anything?”, and “White privilege is a useless concept, only used on university campuses and not viable in real world.”
This disturbed me, although I was glad it was being discussed. Not only was the contrast in the responses striking, but I again felt it was relevant to discuss that the responses were strictly from white men.
One user questioned whether I would have mentioned colour if all the responses were black men. But I didn’t, because there weren’t any. Maybe because the hockey community is predominantly white. Maybe because the underprivileged are more likely to be sympathetic with the victim, or more likely to be afraid of standing out. Either way, it was a discussion worth having.
But really, it’s not my discussion at all, so I reached out to women in the hockey community.
Katie Esmonde, a lifelong Leafs fan-turned blogger who studies kinesiology at the University of Maryland, is one of the co-authors of “It’s Supposed to About the Love of the Game, not the love of Aaron Rodgers’ Eyes”: Challenging the Exclusions of Women’s Sports Fans.
As a blogger, Esmonde has found it frustrating to see the concerns of marginalized groups brushed aside as “not a big deal”, or unreasonable “outrage,” particularly when people are “harassed and bullied by people who were never the aggrieved group in the first place,” she said.
“A theme in my writing as well as the writing of many others is the importance of understanding that given your particular positionality (whether it be a straight, white man, or otherwise) your view of the world will always be partial; there are perspectives that you do not have the same access to because you do not share in those experiences,” she said.
Similarly, Esmonde points to privilege as being influenced in this same way, as being “conscious.”
“You have only your experience in the world, so it is very difficult to see that not everyone shares your experience or moves through the world with the same ease,” Esmonde said. “If you are a man, for example, it is unlikely that you will experience the fear of facing sexual violence, if you are white, you may not be aware of the ways that whiteness is an asset when applying for many jobs.”
“Because of this, those who have the greatest degree of privilege are those who are most likely to deny its existence,” she added.
In the debate surrounding domestic violence and hockey, Esmonde points to Dr. Michael A. Messner, a leading sports sociologist, and his theory of the “triad of men’s violence” (violence against women, other men, and themselves) present in sports and athletes.
“He argues that these three types of violence are connected through misogyny, homophobia, and a suppression of empathy to opponents and outsiders,” she said. “These cultures tend to be dominated by men; women tend to be absent (officially absent from the team, unofficially absent within the management structure) which allows much of the misogyny to continue unchallenged.”
With a hiring of the magnitude of Sean Burke’s, and the history prevalent there, this support system and lack of women is evident, not only in theory but in practice. For Esmonde, it’s important this be talked about.
“When people say that it doesn’t matter if someone has been abusive, or worse, they suggest that it is victimizing them to bring this up, it creates a sense in hockey fan communities that violence against women does not matter,” she said.
Esmonde argues that using having not been there (present when the abuse took place) or that you don’t know all the facts is an excuse and a “deflection tactic to avoid ever dealing with the uncomfortable fact that there are men who beat up women.”
“Most of the time, no one finds out about it because it goes unreported,” she said. “The fact that he paid a fine and went to counselling puts him in the minority as an abuser.”
Achariya Rezak, whose father is caucasian-American and mother is Thai, was born in Bangkok, moving around as a military child before growing up primarily in Hawaii.
She took an interest in hockey as a graduate student in Boston in 1995 because of Paul Kariya, a half-asian player.
In 2003, she took a step back from hockey because she was deeply concerned about player health, as Kariya was forced to leave the game with concussion issues. In 2011, she moved to Florida and began to follow the Lightning.
While she’s admittedly “probably not the most typical hockey fan,” she fell in love with the game for the same reasons as everyone else.
“I tend to throw myself whole-heartedly into the things I love,” Rezak said. “To me, being a fan means that I am unable to NOT follow hockey every day, immerse myself in the media, write about it, listen to it, watch it, and feel absolute joy when I get to discuss it.”
Still, being a woman in the hockey community hasn’t come without some unwarranted slack.
One Thanksgiving, her father-in-law found her watching hockey and spoke with her husband of his surprise.
” ‘Oh, I bet she knows about winning and losing and the players, but she doesn’t know the rules of the game or anything,’ he said to my husband when I wasn’t around,” she said.
This isn’t the only time she’s encountered these attitudes either.
In February of 2015, when she revealed she was half-asian on a hockey blog she visits, one commenter replied, “”is everyone here have their balls cut off? she is ASIAN from HAWAII??? WE WANT INAPPROPRIATE PICS OF YOU Achariya!!WE WANT INAPPROPRIATE PICS OF YOU Achariya!!WE WANT INAPPROPRIATE PICS OF YOU Achariya!!WE WANT INAPPROPRIATE PICS OF YOU Achariya!!WE WANT INAPPROPRIATE PICS OF YOU Achariya!!”
On Friday, she stumbled across a tweet from a fellow Lightning fan that read “Girls who think they know hockey #goaway” and felt the need to respond, replying “Nope. The women who know and love hockey will never go away.”
Instead of Burke’s story, Rezak points to a more recent story surrounding the domestic abuse charges linked to Los Angeles Kings defender Slava Voynov as equally problematic.
As with Burke, Rezak points to the reports from police reports that suggest Voynov’s abuse of his wife happened repeatedly.
“When the LA King practiced with Voynov even after he had a court date set, it sent a clear message that player skills and ‘the team’ were far more important than Voynov’s alleged abuse,” she said.
Rezak questions how women fans of hockey are supposed to respond or if supporting the team gives implicit approval to the abuse.
“It’s hard for women anywhere to speak up about this without opening themselves up to abuse themselves,” she said. “That’s the most ironic part, and shows that this culture of perpetuating abuse has filtered into the fanbase as well.”
With Sean Burke, the history it remains relevant, Rezak said.
“Burke’s history is an irrevocable part of his life, and cannot be forgotten — it became part of him the second he raised his hand against Leslie Burke,” she noted. “It’s important to talk about so that women know that organized hockey is not condoning domestic abuse, and important to talk about openly so that everyone understands that domestic abuse was never okay and will never be okay, and is never forgotten.”
Responding to the Twitter comments, and white privilege, she points to a John Scalzi blog post her husband frequently quotes.
“If life was a computer game and you were rolling a character, the straight white man would be the easiest difficulty level there is.”
“How is Leslie Burke doing,” she asked. “I raise this point because it is probably the last one on the minds of most hockey fans — and I have to ask, where are those fans’ priorities?”