The most fun I've ever had as a sports fan has been at a sports bar in New York, eating tater tots and cheering for the Blackhawks during the playoffs with fellow former-Chicago residents. Whether the team won or lost, I never failed to have a good time. But I'm not sure I'll be going back to that bar, this season or ever again. I'm not sure that if I did, it would be any fun anymore — not because of the bar, but because of how the team has been handling recent allegations against one of its star players. Although the Blackhawks are my team, I don't know if I'll be cheering for them this season.
In August, Chicago Blackhawks player Patrick Kane was accused of rape by a woman whose name has not been released to the press. Kane, who has not been charged, has denied the allegation. According to the woman's account, she met Kane in a nightclub in Buffalo, NY on August 1, after which she and a female friend allegedly went back to his house in nearby Hamburg. She claims Kane approached her while she was alone in a room, overpowered her, and raped her. Kane said in a press conference on September 17 that he is confident he will be absolved of wrongdoing, though he has declined to comment on the details of the allegations.
The police have been actively investigating the matter, though no charges have yet been filed. Recent turns in the story have been shocking, with the accuser's lawyer claiming that evidence may have been tampered with — an unopened evidence bag containing a rape kit was allegedly left anonymously at the home of the accuser's mother. Meanwhile, Erie County Police Services has stated that all evidence is accounted for and has not been tampered with; additionally, Kane's lawyer is suggesting this may be a "red herring" or a ploy to hurt Kane by casting doubt on evidence that could clear him.
When I first heard about the allegations in August from the same friend who just a few months before had been eating tater tots with me while cheering at the screen, a feeling of dread came over me that hasn't quite gone away yet whenever I think of the team. Being a Blackhawks fan has always been a bit of a balancing act for me. All of my paraphernalia is fan-made, to avoid giving the team money for their racially problematic logo. I also wince every time someone on ice takes a blow to the head, because I know what those head injuries can do to players — a problem not confined to Blackhawks fans or even to hockey fans. But there is something particularly and specifically galling about what you may not know about the person you're cheering for.
After watching the situation unfold and reflecting on it, though, perhaps even more troubling for me — the thing that makes me question whether or not I can still be a fan — is the way the Blackhawks as an organization, and as a fan base, have handled the allegations.
A team is more than just one player, and it's impossible to write off an entire team, an entire fandom, because of an allegation lodged against one person. I think most hockey fans (and people in general) understand that athletes' media images are careful constructions; they are, after all, real people who are not perfect, and we do not really know any of them. We cheer for the team as a whole anyway.
But while it might not be fair to judge a whole team based off of allegations against one player — or even to judge that player when no charges have been filed or until there is a legal conclusion to those allegations — it is certainly fair to judge a team by their response to the situation. And this is where it becomes harder for me to think well of the team as a whole, to still feel that sense of loyalty and enjoyment that comes with being a fan.
Patrick Kane is one of the Blackhawks star players. His skill and his value to the team cannot be overstated. It's doubtful the team could have ever won the Stanley Cup last year without it; it's also almost certain they won't take home the Cup this year if he doesn't play. But while disappointment from fans is understandable, I'm not sure how I feel about being part of a community of Kane supporters, if that community has members willing to create a hashtag purporting to support Kane that actually showcases rape culture at its most quintessential.
Official responses have also been tone-deaf at best. Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews alluded to Kane's situation as a "rough patch" in a Winnipeg radio interview with TSN 1260's Hustler and Lawless, adding, “You stay together as a team and you support your teammate." While this is understandable, it minimizes the alleged victim in the case.
Worse still was when the Blackhawks announced last week that Patrick Kane will be attending training camp and brought Kane out to read a statement to the press. Bringing Kane to training camp was expected — unless charges are filed (which they haven't been yet) or the NHL takes their own action, Kane is free to keep playing, and the team doubtlessly doesn't want to unnecessarily bench one of their star players, though they could have. But going so far as to give him the microphone at a Blackhawks press conference was another matter. His comments weren't great — he described the case as a "distraction," and apologized for the impact it has had on his family, his teammates, the organization, and the fans, before ducking reporters' questions on the subject — but even if they had been better, having him there at all sends a strong message, and a wrong one. It may have been a better response either to read a statement from him or simply to say that he would be attending.
An even stronger message: The fact that after Kane finished answering questions, the press conference proceeded as though everything were normal, as though the issue had been dealt with and was no longer important.
After news of the allegations broke in early August, Blackhawks fan and rape survivor Katie Klabusich wrote a moving piece on RH Reality Check about her own reaction and her complicated feelings about potentially rooting for the team this year. Wrote Klabusich, "For the remainder of the off-season, I’m rooting for law enforcement, the Blackhawks organization, and the National Hockey League to break from rape culture and handle the case in a way that recognizes the needs of the alleged victim as more important than the reputation of the accused."
So what do you do when it seems that the team and the league aren't living up to that hope? What do you do if these missteps only keep mounting?
Despite the fact that 92 to 98 percent of rape allegations are true according to the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women, RAINN reports that only two percent of rapists are ever convicted. No one but Patrick Kane and the unnamed woman in question will ever know for sure what happened between the two of them on the night of Aug. 1; but no matter what happens next, I don't know if I'll ever be able to feel 100 percent OK cheering for the Blackhawks, particularly since the Blackhawks as a whole haven't treated the allegations with the respect they deserve.
Sports journalist Jessica Luther recently wrote on Fansided, "For many people, being a sports fan is increasingly becoming an act of reconciling what you know with what you love, and then compromising." I have yet to decide which side of the compromise I will land on. Instead I'm asking myself questions: Am I able to enjoy this team in spite of all this? If fans keep cheering, will anything ever change?
The big question — the one I keep coming back to again and again — isn't just about the Kane case. It's a question that always comes up when high-profile people are accused of rape: If I were, god forbid, ever a victim who came forward to tell my story, how would it feel to have others still cheer for people who didn't act like it mattered?
I am still mulling these issues over and waiting to see how the case progresses in the weeks until the season begins, but there is every chance that the only hockey team I'll be supporting this year will be the newly formed New York Riveters and the fledgling National Women's Hockey League. I don't know if I'm willing to try cheering for the Blackhawks right now. I don't know that I'd enjoy it at all if I did. Depending on how things play out, I might not go back to that Blackhawks bar for a very, very long time. I haven't decided, but no matter what I decide or how things progress, I already know my feelings about this team will never be the same.