Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault in the sports industry.
There’s ample research that shows sexual abuse is rampant in sports, and the National Hockey League is quickly becoming a prominent case study.
In May 2021, former NHL player Kyle Beach filed a lawsuit against the Chicago Blackhawks for mishandling his report of sexual assault 11 years earlier. Soon after Beach disclosed what Blackhawks video coach Brad Aldrich allegedly did to him in May 2010, the team’s senior staff met to discuss actions. However, nothing came of the meeting.
Instead, then-coach Joel Quenneville expressed more concern about firing Aldrich in the midst of their playoff run than Beach’s allegations.
That year, the Blackhawks went on to win the Stanley Cup. Their management waited three weeks to take action against Aldrich. After the team quietly forced him to resign, Aldrich reportedly went on to assault a Blackhawks intern, a Miami University student, a summer hockey camp intern, and a high school hockey player in the 3 years following Beach’s report.
“I think it’s really disconcerting when you find that when a disclosure does occur, that things are not done to hold people accountable who have been abusive, and that things are not done to ensure that the person that comes forward feels safe,” said Dr. Anita Raj, the director of UC San Diego’s Center on Gender Equity and Health. Raj has previously conducted research on sexual violence prevention in sports.
Unfortunately, Beach’s experiences are not isolated. In fact, they point to much larger systemic issues in the athletic world. From 2019 to 2020, 13% of athletes reported experiencing a form of sexual abuse as a child through their involvement in sports, according to the Census of Athlete Rights Experiences.
“Often in sexual violence, particularly against younger people, someone has authority over another person being able to use that authority to do this,” said David Lee, evaluation and research director at Raliance, an organization dedicated to ending sexual violence in one generation.
In particular, Parent and Demers highlight the power of coaches, who are often seen as parental figures to athletes, in their 2010 study on sexual abuse in sports.
Many youth sports organizations — and USC — now perform background checks on coaches, trainers and volunteers. Members of USA Hockey are also required to complete the Safe Sport Program that provides education on how to protect minors from misconduct, and Title IX safeguards athletes at the collegiate level.
Jerry Toy, head coach of USC’s ice hockey club, has undergone both background checks and Safe Sport training. While he believes these measures are still flawed, even these limited protections disappear at the professional level.
“No sports organization is designed with it’s purpose to be able to do sexual violence prevention,” Lee said. “They’re trying to train athletes. They’re trying to win. So this is going to be a topic that falls to the side if you don’t have someone who is going to be saying this is an important part of what we do.”
Laura*, who co-hosts the hockey podcast Ms. Underestimated, has lost hope for someone in the hockey world playing that role. Ms. Underestimated has been on hold for the last few months, in part due to her disappointment in the NHL.
“We were interested in the humanity of hockey, and after a while, the humanity of it is the part that started to turn us off,” Laura said. “Your dogs can be so cute, but they’re not cute enough for us to ignore you going to the White House, right? They’re not cute enough for us to ignore Auston Matthews dropping his pants in front of a [security guard] and then getting away.”
The NHL’s lack of institutional change in light of these controversies is punctuated by their failings last Tuesday, after law firm Jenner & Block released their independent investigation report into Beach’s allegations against the Blackhawks. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has garnered criticism for protecting the 2010 Blackhawks assistant general manager, Kevin Cheveldayoff, and for chilling freedom of press at his recent press conference by refusing to call on journalist Rick Westhead.
“You have to look at something and say, ‘Is this something that can have an impact?” Laura said. “And the answer is, I don’t think so. I don’t think so when it’s systemic.”
However, Lee believes that although sports creates environments that increase the risk of sexual violence, it also plays a strong role in its prevention.
“Just think of youth sports and the millions and millions of children who are involved in youth sports,” said Lee. According to Lee, sports teaches the value of teamwork, which could be instrumental to spurring institutional change.
Perhaps the hockey community working toward changing its culture looks like the Boston Bruins watching Beach’s TSN interview with Rick Westhead together. Maybe it looks like Taylor Hall of the Bruins, Anders Lee of the New York Islanders and Tyson Barrie of the Edmonton Oilers using their platforms to openly condemn sexual assault in the NHL.
After all, “We are such a small community,” said Toy. “And this Kyle Beach [lawsuit] is another one of those galvanizing things.… It’s put us together again as a hockey community, so we’re going to fight for each other.”
Hopefully, this is just the beginning of that fight.
* Laura asked Annenberg Media not to use her last name out of privacy concerns.