Gary Bettman at the NHL's 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

A frequent element of the past decade of coverage of sexual abuse and abuse of power scandals across sports is how teams and leagues have initially looked to keep those situations as quiet as possible, then shifted to an approach of damage control and limitation of their own potential liability once allegations have emerged publicly. That happened to at least some extent with Penn State football, hockey coach Graham James, Baylor football, USA Gymnastics, LSU football, the New York Mets, and other cases, and it’s currently happening with investigations into the Vancouver Whitecaps and Canada Soccer/CONCACAF, the NWSL, the Washington Football Team, and the Chicago Blackhawks.

As that last link notes, one thing that is positive with the Blackhawks/NHL investigation is that it saw a full report released. That’s something we’ve sometimes seen in the college cases (partly thanks to access of information laws there) but rarely in the pro cases. And the Blackhawks’ case has also been additionally notable for victim Kyle Beach coming forward publicly to deliver raw and honest comments about those who let him and Brad Aldrich’s later victims at Miami University and at a Michigan high school down. That could extend to a lot of NHL figures (including Stan Bowman, Al MacIsaac, and Joel Quenneville, who have resigned, and Kevin Cheveldayoff, who has not) and NHLPA figures (including executive director Donald Fehr, also still in that role).

Amidst that, the conference call that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman (seen above at the 2019 Stanley Cup Final) and deputy commissioner Bill Daly held with media Monday was notable. But in many ways, it seemed to indicate a return to the patterns of behavior we’ve seen before in these investigations. Bettman’s call featured defenses of Blackhawks’ ownership and of Cheveldayoff, defenses of the league’s $2 million fine for the Blackhawks (well below what they’ve implemented for purely hockey-related matters, and with no accompanying hockey punishment), limited to no promises to help those already hurt, and limited promises of tangible actions to improve.

Here’s some of that, via Greg Wyshynski at ESPN:

Bettman said the NHL had not seen the report in any form before Oct. 25, and what the league knew about the scandal was from the allegations made by Beach in the lawsuit. He said the NHL was insistent that the Blackhawks facilitated an independent investigation and reserved the right to “override or pursue any other course of action” if the league was dissatisfied with the how the investigation was conducted.

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the Blackhawks gave the league a “heads-up” in December about Beach’s allegations from Chicago team general counsel about potential civil litigation. As for why the league didn’t take any action in the five months between the heads-up and Beach’s lawsuit being filed, Daly said it was because the Blackhawks said “there was no merit” to the claim.

…The league also was criticized for its actions after the report was released. The NHL fined the Blackhawks $2 million — a less severe punishment than some NHL teams have received for violating salary-cap or draft-combine rules, which resulted in losses of draft picks and financial penalties.

Bettman defended the fine, saying “people have debated the amount of the fine, but it was substantial by any measure.

“It sends a message to all clubs about how I view their organization responsibilities,” said Bettman, who also disagreed with comparisons to previous fines.

“The others had different context and different facts. This was to make clear that the way the Blackhawks organization handled the matter was inappropriate, even though ownership was not aware. It was also a message to the rest of the league that you have to make sure your organization is functioning properly on these matters.”

And here are some further takes on it from reporters on Twitter who were on the call, including TSN’s Rick Westhead (a key figure in the reporting here, and one who only got his question answered after Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic called for that):

The behavior of Bettman and the NHL in conducting this call also deserves some scrutiny. In addition to not initially taking a question from Westhead (which only makes sense as an attempt to further bury this story, given that Westhead and Strang have been widely acknowledged as the two key figures in reporting it) until LeBrun pushed for that, Bettman also made a weird implication about Mark Lazerus of The Athletic. Bettman’s “I assume you’re as surprised as I am” seemed to suggest that Lazerus should have been covering this in 2010, despite not being on the Blackhawks’ beat at that time.

Oh, and while Bettman claimed the NHL’s now looking at ways to improve reporting and support throughout hockey, he wouldn’t commit to funding counselling for Aldrich’s high school victim, and he diminished the experiences Sheldon Kennedy faced from James because that wasn’t in the NHL. Kennedy himself criticized that:

And Bettman also provided a whole lot of “We have to move forward the best we can,” again with few specifics:

On one level, Bettman’s responses here are in keeping with what to expect from him given his past behavior. He’s repeatedly denied a link between hockey concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), even after a lot of science backing that and even after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell admitted that for concussions in their league in 2016. And beyond that, Bettman came to the NHL commissioner role in 1992 based largely on his legal work for the NBA, including serving as their general counsel. It’s perhaps not particularly surprising that even almost two decades later, his public statements still seem to be crafted with an eye to limiting lawsuit exposure and limiting what he firmly commits the league to.

But it’s worth asking if that’s really the best approach for the commissioner of a major sport in 2021, especially with the growing evidence we’re seeing of systematic sexual abuse coverups across sports and the growing outrage about that, and about leagues’ inactions. There’s a case to be made that a taciturn, liability-limiting approach to public relations has some value when it comes to sports leagues’ business decisions, even  controversial ones like expansion and relocation. And the NFL may wind up wishing their owners had more of that approach given how their St. Louis relocation lawsuit is going.

There are cases where that approach is more questionable, like the aforementioned fines for the Devils and Coyotes around hockey operations decisions. Those have taken wide criticism for the league’s limited communication around those action. And a more transparent and specific approach may have been seen as fairer, but may also have exposed the league to future issues and consistency questions.

But cases of sexual abuse and organizational cover-ups are significantly different and significantly more serious than anything in business operations or hockey operations. And they provoke substantially more fan anger. And that’s for good reason; first, there are criminal offenses involved. And it’s worth keeping in mind that while much of the recent focus has been on Beach, Aldrich received an actual criminal conviction in 2014 with the high school student; a huge question in all of this is if that could have been avoided through better reporting from the Blackhawks and USA Hockey.

And second, abuse is often life-altering for the people involved. This isn’t about who a team trades for, or a referee’s call, or any sort of league business decision; it’s a much bigger deal for the affected people than any of that. And there’s a strong argument that saying “We have to move forward the best we can” while not actually addressing much of the past and not providing a tangible plan to avoid this in the future isn’t really enough.  (And this also seems like poor cost evaluation; surely, committing to paying for counselling for John Doe 2 would have cost less in the long run than the negative PR the league received Monday alone for not making that commitment.)

What’s also disappointing about this response is that it seemingly would have been easier for Bettman to take a harder line than many, because, at this point, this is still primarily about one franchise and not the league. The investigation did not find any evidence of NHL officials being notified about Aldrich in 2010, and the people with other teams who have come under fire here (Cheveldayoff and Quenneville) were directly with the Blackhawks in 2010.

Compare that to the NWSL, where the issues spread across teams, and where there was clear evidence of league officials being notified and not taking action. That eventually led to the exits of commissioner Lisa Baird and general counsel Lisa Levine following player protests that cancelled a weekend of matches. The NHL (at this moment) doesn’t seem to have anywhere near that amount of exposure in the league office, so a harder line on the Blackhawks and a firmer commitment to actually fix league policies and procedures going forward might have been possible. And yet, that didn’t happen.

The question of where things go from here is going to be about fan reaction, but only indirectly. Bettman doesn’t need to directly please the fans; he’s been regularly booed at NHL events for years, including Stanley Cup presentations, and like many commissioners, he’s a useful-at-times villain for the owners to point to. But Bettman does need to please his bosses, the franchise owners. And a low-by-comparison fine with no accompanying on-ice punishment and no accepting of league liability may seem good to those owners for the moment.

But if enough fans make it clear to enough owners that this isn’t an acceptable league response, and that the support of those owners and teams may dry up unless things improve, there’s a chance of at least some firmer action here. Yes, that may be a long process; keep in mind that the current Blackhawks’ saga started with reports that the team thoroughly denied, and that it only made it to the public view thanks to the dogged reporting of Strang, Westhead, and others, as well as the actual legal action from Beach and John Doe #2.  But there is seemingly some momentum for at least some change building here now. And that momentum may illustrate that decision to again go to a liability-limiting and promise-limiting approach was a big misstep from Bettman.

[ESPN; photo from Winslow Townson, USA Today Sports]

Resources for sexual assault survivors can be found at https://www.rainn.org/, or at the free and confidential National Sexual Violence Hotline: 1-800-656-4673.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He previously worked at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.