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Hockey controversies and the misattribution of victimhood

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Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

A huge thank you to @GrinWithGuilt and @mutatio42 (Gunnar Carlsson) for their helpful comments and edits on earlier drafts of the article. Thank you for being generous with your time and your wonderful brains (that sounded much more zombie-like than I'd hoped).

As someone who writes about hockey and social issues, I’m very rarely left wanting for material. And with unprecedented access to the players’ thoughts and opinions through interviews and social media, it is easier than ever to realize that your favourite player may hold a perspective that some (including you) may find unsavoury.

When a public remark is made by a hockey player that might be deemed sexist, racist or homophobic, the reactions of hockey fans are often divisive. Some fans -- typically those who are members of the group that was slighted -- express anger that they are being made to feel like outsiders in the sport that they love. Many others, however, wish to dismiss the remark as harmless, and are worried that excessive focus on the comment will be harmful to the athlete’s welfare.

These fans are often skeptical of whether an issue is worth addressing, and do not usually appreciate when conversations about the athlete shift to demanding some form of accountability.

Ultimately, what often happens is that those that are doing the hurting somehow become cast as the victim. I believe this to be a misattribution of victimhood.

In this situation, the hockey player that committed the initial offense garners a great deal of sympathy from fans -- most of whom are not members of the affected group to begin with -- and may even be excused or informally pardoned by those fans. The player is not expected to acknowledge the impact of their words or actions on any potentially hurt groups.

Because of this lack of acknowledgement, what has already transpired continues to linger in the minds of many people, who disagree whether a resolution was satisfactorily reached and whether the matter is truly settled. Many of those fans feel alienated from hockey because their identity is continually marginalized. Any efforts to seek redress, unfortunately, are hindered by the emerging victimhood of the player.

The reasons for their supposed victimhood are multiple. They are perceived to be victims because people assume that they hold (or held) discriminatory attitudes, perhaps based on a poorly worded remark that is not indicative of their true feelings. Or they may be thought to be victimized because they are being unfairly maligned when they did not intend for their words to be perceived as discriminatory.

This happened with Morgan Rielly, when his defenders suggested that he did not actually mean to imply that women are weak with his remark that he didn’t want "to be a girl" about the Leafs’ recent setbacks.

A similar incident occurred this week after the Leafs selected London Knights forward, Mitch Marner 1, as the fourth overall pick in the 2015 NHL entry draft. Shortly after his selection, some unfortunate tweets were unearthed from 2012 where he used a homophobic slur and another where he accused a friend of being gay with a pejorative connotation 2.

In the Twitter discussion that ensued, many of those acknowledging Marner’s wrongdoing were accused of bullying Marner. The bullying of LGBTQ people, however, was discussed considerably less.

This focus on the athlete rather than the impact of their remarks is a mistake.

Somehow, accusing someone of saying something homophobic, sexist or racist becomes worse than actually saying something homophobic, sexist, or racist. And acknowledging that what was said was wrong is perceived as unfairly lampooning someone’s character.

I understand that the response that often ensues may hurt the athlete responsible on a personal level. I also suspect that many of the defenders are doing so because they have have said something similar in the past. No one enjoys being called out for something that they did, particularly if said incident occurred in years past. No one likes it when many people are angry with them.

However, this is not where the focus needs to be.

First, this misattribution of victimhood elides the fact that you can hurt someone or a group of people without meaning to. Intent is not as important as impact. And in the case of individual athletes like Rielly and Marner, it turns far-reaching, society-wide, systemic and institutional issues like homophobia, racism, or sexism (as well as other issues) into a referendum on whether this one individual is a good person or not.

This is generally a very unproductive conversation. It’s great if an athlete is a good person, but again, this does not mean that their actions do not cause damage. Nor does it mean that their actions do not contribute to larger issues that desperately need our attention and action.

Perhaps Marner has since seen the error of his ways since his 2012 tweets, but again, Marner’s potential good character does not change the fact that homophobia is a pressing issue and that everyone 3 should take homophobic slurs out of their vocabulary.

Second, the misattribution of victimhood wrongly equates the personal pain of the perception of appearing racist, sexist and/or homophobic, with the pain of someone who experiences racism, sexism, and/or homophobia.

Personally, I would hate it if someone thought that I was homophobic. However, if we solely focus on the pain and discomfort that one person may feel upon being accused of homophobia, we are not addressing issues such as bullying, violence, housing discrimination, employment discrimination, and other issues that are associated with being a member of the LGBTQ community. It is a mistake to think that the use of "gay" as an insult and hateful homophobic words do not contribute to or legitimize discriminatory practices.

Ultimately, conversations about systemic issues are displaced when the focus becomes the athlete’s perceived pain. And furthermore, those who speak out about these issues and who are often negatively impacted by the statements are positioned as the offenders or instigators.

I would also add that in the case of individual athletes, their potential suffering caused by those angered by their remarks is typically inflated. With the benefit of hindsight, we know Morgan Rielly was not run out of town. He is just as loved as a Maple Leaf as he was before, and the remark is never mentioned anymore (except here…). And nothing happened after Peter Holland posted some insensitive and ultimately transphobic tweets 4 about Caitlyn Jenner.

I do not bring this up to suggest that they should be castigated on a continued basis. But rather, the athlete's potential suffering (that never really materializes) seems to cause a lot more concern than the very real suffering that we know occurs as a result of being a member of the marginalized groups that were impacted by those statements.

Instead of positioning the person or people who caused harm as the victims, we need to re-focus our attention. Let’s talk about how words matter, and how the use of homophobic, sexist, racist, and other forms of discriminatory language hurts people. Let’s address the ways in which discriminatory beliefs have a devastating impact. Let’s talk about what we can do to address these larger issues.

Too often, these basic points get lost.

And ultimately, the love of an athlete and asking him or her to be inclusive of everyone should not be mutually exclusive.

1. If you're really interested in seeing the tweets, they can be found here. I'm not sure if they have been deleted or not.

2. Homophobia is a pervasive problem that obviously does not begin or end with Mitch Marner. The following remarks are for everyone: Casual homophobia is not a victimless crime. The use of homophobic slurs and using "gay" pejoratively contribute to an environment where LGBTQ-targeted violence and homophobic discrimination can flourish. I hope that anyone that uses these terms or contributes to these problems can learn from their mistakes. But the fact that a person has learned from their mistakes does not mean that they never caused any harm in the first place. Homophobia should not be seen as a harmless phase that young people go through as they grow up. I'm sure if you were to ask people who were bullied in their youth for their real or perceived sexual orientation, few would say that the damage disappeared once the people responsible for the bullying learned their lessons.

3. Discussions of reappropriating oppressive terms are outside the scope of this post. My address to "everyone" does not include this type of reappropriation.

4. Holland deleted a tweet where he was using incorrect and harmful pronouns for Jenner.

Edit: This is Achariya. I've disabled comments at present. There were good discussions and difficult ones going on, and until the staff has time to spend 100% attention on moderation, it'll be very difficult to leave comments open. Thank you for understanding!

Edit 2: Emily (Gunnar Carlsson) here. I've gone through and deleted a lot of comments. We decided it was best to delete the entire thread that started this mess. Of course, doing so also meant deleting some good comments. This is unfortunate but I think it was the right call.

From this point forward, we will be heavily moderating the comments here after they re-open. Anything that is derailing or makes members of the community feel unsafe will be deleted. If you disagree with this article, disagree civilly.

We (the contributors) have been having some conversations internally about what we can do to keep the comments from devolving like this again. Expect some more explicit community guidelines in the future. If you have any issues with this, you know where to find me.

Edit 3: Achariya again. Comments closed permanently, and a bunch of comments have been hidden. Thank you for thinking through this issue with us. Feel free to DM me on twitter @tanyarezak with any questions.