For years we have read or heard the phrase, “sports is my escape from the real world.” For many sports fans watching it, reading about it, writing about it or listening to sports talk radio is a nice reprieve from the office or life in general.
It still is that way for many people, and it should be. Being a fan is supposed to be fun, but sometimes it can be equally frustrating depending on the direction of the team you cheer for.
However, I believe we can’t completely separate sports from the real world anymore.
Sports is one of the few things that unites people from all walks of life. If you are an Edmonton Oilers fan it doesn’t matter what your job is, your ethnicity or your gender. You all cheer together. Look at the diversity of fans who congregate at Jurassic Park for a Toronto Raptors playoff game. Watch them erupt in joyous unison after a clutch shot. While racism still exists in our society, sporting events often show people of different colour hugging, smiling and enjoying the journey together.
It is wonderful.
However, sports, and how they are covered has opened up opportunities where real life and sports need to intersect.
One of those examples is former NHL defenceman Vyacheslav Voynov.
Yesterday arbitrator Shyam Das upheld NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s decision that Voynov should be suspended for the equivalent of one NHL season, but Das found Voynov should be credited with having already served 41 games of the suspension last season. So Voynov will be eligible to return midway through next season.
The Los Angeles Kings own his rights and sent out a press release soon after Das’ ruling was announced.
“Today the NHL arbitrator rendered a final decision on further discipline to Slava Voynov. From our perspective, the player will not be playing for the Kings. We will now determine the impact of the arbitrator’s decision on our rights to the player and consider our options going forward.”
Voynov won’t be playing for the Kings, but will another NHL team acquire his rights and sign him to an NHL contract?
Before we discuss that, let’s look at the situation that led to Voynov being suspended by the NHL in 2014 for domestic abuse.
Voynov spent almost two months in jail after pleading no contest to corporal injury against a spouse. Upon his release from jail he was taken into custody by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but rather than attend immigration proceedings he elected to return to Russia. He played three seasons for the KHL’s St. Petersburg’s SKA. Last year he didn’t play anywhere as he sat out his suspension.
Reading he plead no contest and went to jail is one thing. Reading what he did to get put in jail is much different.
Katie Strang outlined the viciousness of Voynov’s attack on his then-girlfriend, now wife, Marta Varlamov in an outstanding article for the Athletic last June. You can read the entire piece here. I urge you to read it. It is wonderful journalism, but also heart-breakingly painful to read how awful one human could treat another.
A few lines really stood out to me.
“A statement included within that report states that, while attending a team Halloween party, the two began arguing, during which Voynov removed [Varlamova’s] costume glasses and stomped on them in front of the guests. When they continued arguing outside the venue, Voynov “punched her in the left jaw with a closed fist.”
Strang continued to outline what the police report said.
The two returned home and their argument continued. “Voynov wrapped both of his hands around Ms. Varlamova’s neck and began to squeeze, making it difficult for her to breathe.” Voynov, according to the motion, “continued to choke her while repeatedly pushing her to the floor of the bedroom,” telling her to “get out,” that there would be “no more money for her,” and that she would be “gone.”
According to the motion, Voynov then “kicked her five or six times all over her body” and when she attempted to stand he “pushed her down directly into the bottom corner of the flat screen television that was mounted to the bedroom wall.” Varlamova sustained “a head laceration that resulted in severe bleeding” and throughout all of this “she repeatedly screamed for him to stop.”
Strang obtained 911 transcripts of a call from a neighbour worried about a women screaming and not being treated well.
I encourage you read the entire story.
Even in 2019 when we are a bit more open to discuss domestic or sexual abuse than previous generations, when you read the details of what Voynov did it is much worse than the picture most of us have in our minds when we think what abuse looks like. I believe if you’ve never beaten your child or spouse (man or woman), or been a victim of abuse, it is hard to truly imagine what abuse really looks like.
It is demeaning. It is dangerous. It is ugly. And it is fucking deplorable.
But sadly, it still occurs far too often. Children are abused. Women are abused. Men are abused. The elderly are abused. No group is immune to it.
While men are still more likely to be the abuser, there are many cases of women abusing their partners or spouses.
If we never discuss it, I doubt it will diminish.
It is an uncomfortable discussion and there are many aspects to consider.
Voynov’s case is in the spotlight, and NHL fans can’t just ignore it.
Some don’t want to talk about it. Some feel it isn’t their business, that it is between Voynov and his wife.
I respect that, but I think it is worthy of discussion.
If we want change in society, then we have to discuss uncomfortable things.
Reading what Voynov did to Varlamova made me sick. I can’t imagine punching someone you love in the face. Or choking them, or kicking them repeatedly. And the scary thing is it wasn’t the first time. He not only felt it was okay to physically abuse her, he felt it was okay to do it repeatedly according to witness testimony.
But Voynov is far the only abuser in the sporting world. The statistics tell us there are likely abusers among fans, bloggers, media, players, and NHL staff. We don’t want to think about it, but we shouldn’t pretend those people don’t exist.
It is an epidemic in society that needs to stop, and if the sporting world has to be the leader, then so be it. We should welcome the responsibility.
The Los Angeles Kings said they will not sign Voynov. Will another team trade for his rights this summer?
Yesterday on Twitter I asked people a trio of questions.
Has Voynov been punished enough for abuse?
Does he deserve a second chance?
Would you be okay if your NHL team signed him?
The results had no middle ground. You either thought yes, he deserves a second chance, or you were adamant no NHL team should sign him.
I believe in second chances, but the person has to show remorse, and also prove they have changed. How much therapy has he done? Did he go with his wife? Has he spoke publicly about what he learned and how he has changed. For me, it couldn’t just be a blind “he deserves a second chance.”
If a team signs him they better have a good PR plan of how this will work, because there will be a backlash, and rightfully so.
Voynov hasn’t played in the NHL for essentially five seasons. He played six games in 2014/2015, before the aforementioned attack occurred. But after he spent almost two months in jail, he has worked. He was employed by the KHL. He was given a second chance and he made a good living doing so.
Does the NHL owe him a second chance?
If I was a owner of an NHL team I would not sign him.
It is my business and as a business owner you have the right to choose who you employ. It would send a strong message to your staff, players and fans that you don’t condone abuse.
Companies outside the sporting world do this. They have a code of conduct, and if you don’t adhere to it, you won’t work there anymore.
Why can’t NHL teams have the same?
They should simply take a stand and say we won’t employ people who abuse their spouse or children.
If you choose to abuse someone to the despicable level that Voynov did then you won’t be employed by our team any longer or in the future.
It is very straightforward.
And this isn’t about past cases. What happened in the past is irrelevant to me. I don’t care what discipline the NHL handed out in the 1980s, 1990s or even in 2010
Just like the rules have changed and evolved on the ice, it is time the NHL evolves and changes off of the ice.
I don’t believe in 2019 we should say, “stick to sports.”
Professional sports are one of the most followed activities in the world. People of all ages, races and walks of life follow it closely.
If the NHL takes a hard stand against domestic abuse, maybe it will make someone think twice about abusing someone in the future.
Maybe it won’t stop them, but at least the NHL will have created a new code of conduct.
I hope Voynov and his family find forgiveness for each other. I have a lot of empathy for his family and I hope he has stopped abusing his wife.
But I wouldn’t have him on my team. I wonder how many owners and GMs will feel the same?