Dave Feschuk: Hockey players’ misogynistic chat is a form of violence that leaves scars

There’s a debate underway in the hockey world: What kind of discipline should be imposed on Brendan Leipsic, the one-time Maple Leaf and current Washington Capitals forward who has emerged as the sidelined sport’s social-media focal point this week?

The 25-year-old Leipsic, if you’re not up to speed, is one of a handful of hockey players now being seen in a justifiably unflattering light on account of the contents of their leaked group chat. The messages that have come to light are mostly too lewd for a newspaper. To give you an idea, Leipsic’s enthusiastic praise of the merits of cocaine probably amounts to the least shocking stuff in the chain. And it says something that the drug talk was clearly not what spurred the league office to issue a statement on Wednesday night condemning Leipsic and fellow group-chat member Jack Rodewald of the Florida Panthers for their “reprehensible” and “inexcusable” behaviour.

No, beyond the glorification of life under the influence of illicit substances, what’s truly jarring is the matter-of-fact deplorability of the manner in which this group of players talks about women. Among this circle of friends, women are degraded based on their appearance, not to mention their race. They’re referred to as sexual objects to be counted as statistics — “kills,” in the parlance of the bro culture.

Among this circle of friends, it’s apparently OK to fat-shame a teammate’s wife. It’s totally fine to engage in the mean-spirited belittlement of the appearance of another player’s girlfriend.

As the NHL rightly said in a statement, it’s blatant misogyny. And it ought to be taken seriously.

How seriously? For some help with the answer to that, I called Humberto Carolo, the executive director of White Ribbon, a Toronto-based group dedicated to engaging men and boys in the prevention of gender-based violence. And Carolo, when he took stock of the Leipsic incident, made a point that’s clearly not obvious to the members of Leipsic’s group chat, or maybe many men. Degrading women, he said, is a form of violence against them. Words typed by thumbs on a screen don’t have the physical impact of, say, the slap of a hand to a face. But words pack the undeniable power to hurt and to harm.

“This type of stuff, you carry it around for the rest of your life. It’s so hurtful, it’s so harmful,” Carolo said. “It gets into your psyche. It devalues you. It’s used to diminish you.”

White Ribbon was formed in 1991, in the wake of the Montreal massacre of 14 women. And most of three decades later, Carolo said it is a sign of the work still to be done that Canada is less than a month removed from the bloodiest mass murder in its history, one that allegedly began with a domestic dispute between the killer and his girlfriend and ended with 23 dead.

“We know that these so-thought innocent kinds of exchanges can lead to these kinds of bigger acts … So we need to speak out about these misogynistic attitudes,” Carolo said. “They may appear small but they are a part of a much bigger problem in our society.”

In recent years, the Maple Leafs organization has invited White Ribbon to address its players. Smart franchises run by forward-thinking executives realize that a case like Leipsic’s, though it has been the trending topic, doesn’t spring from nowhere. There’s a culture around the way men at their worst treat women. It’s not just a problem in sports, but in society, and it requires attention.

“It’s not just physical violence. It’s emotional, it’s psychological, it’s sexual, it’s financial. The kind of misogynistic language we see in (Leipsic’s group chat) is a form of violence, just as bullying is a form of violence,” Carolo said.

Let’s not pretend Leipsic’s group chat is some extremist cult residing in some previously undiscovered wilderness. The language they favour, as ugly as it is, often surfaces in the mainstream. Listen to Spittin’ Chiclets, the No. 1 hockey podcast in Canada, and you’ll hear talk of sexual partners tallied up as “kills.” Flip through the Instagram feed of Barstool Sports, they of the eight million followers, and won’t need to go far to find a commenter fat-shaming a woman. To Carolo, it’s a slippery slope.

“When we don’t pay attention to those kinds of behaviours, we essentially help to normalize them and make a part of acceptable behaviour,” he said. “So we need to consider it as violence and make a strong statement that it has no place in our private or public interactions.”

Leipsic’s apology, sent out Wednesday via Twitter, opened with what sounded to some like a rationalization. His friend’s account was hacked, he said. The conversations were intended to be private, he continued. But that only brings Carolo to another one of the points he makes when he speaks to young men about these issues. Never mind that we’ve come to the point in our relationship with social media that even a grade-schooler ought to realize that anything we communicate privately has the potential to become public. Carolo’s point is that the way men treat women privately shouldn’t differ from the way they treat them publicly.

“If people receive that kind of a comment in a private or public exchange, they need to speak up against it,” Carolo said. “They need to say, ‘Dude, this is not acceptable. This is disrespectful.’ ”

That, thankfully, has been the reaction from the hockey establishment. The Capitals, in a statement, called the group chat “unacceptable and offensive” and said the club would deal with the matter internally. Leipsic’s younger brother Jeremy, who was also a part of the chat, was dealt swifter discipline. The 23-year-old was released by the University of Manitoba’s hockey team on Thursday.

For Carolo, those stern reactions are signs we’re making progress as a society.

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“There was a time when these kinds of behaviours would come to the forefront and people would say ‘So what?’ ” Carolo said. “But we know that’s not acceptable anymore. And leagues, teams and executives are taking a strong stand against this. We’re seeing it. There is change happening.”

There is change. But clearly there’s more work to be done. As for the debate in the hockey world about Brendan Leipsic’s fate. In cases of this nature, the sins of an athlete are almost always measured against his gifts. So Leipsic, as a fourth-line agitator who is highly replaceable, will likely bear the consequences of this mistake for years to come. There are long-time observers of the sport betting he has played his last NHL game. And if that may seem cruel to some, Carolo would suggest a reassessment of the damage that’s been inflicted.

“We can’t turn a blind eye to this kind of behaviour,” Carolo said. “It’s very damaging to everybody. It’s definitely damaging to the women who (were insulted). It’s damaging to the fan base, the young people who are watching these athletes. There are different forms of accountability — a suspension or a fine or a requirement to do some community work … In some cases, people’s careers are ruined, and rightly so, because we need to think about the harm these behaviours to bring to others.”

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