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Last week, the sporting world reacted with outrage when a fan in London, Ontario, threw a banana on the ice as Philadelphia forward Wayne Simmonds was about to take a shot in an preseason game shootout.
The incident toward Simmonds, who is black, was denounced by hockey people of all races and creeds. Some called for an investigation and suggested the fan, if identified, should be prosecuted or punished for his or her thoughtlessness. That's the kind of visceral reaction most had to the racially charged incident.
Well, set your irony meter on warp because it was Simmonds who was accused of crossing the line in Philadelphia on Monday night, when New York Rangers forward Sean Avery said Simmonds used a homophobic slur toward him during a preseason game. (Avery, no stranger to controversy or the league's office of supplemental discipline, publicly supported same-sex marriage this past summer.)
So, did Simmonds cross the line with Avery? Avery said he did and Simmonds sort of said he didn't. Simmonds danced around the issue after the game, indicating there had been a lot of give and take between him and Avery, and he said he couldn't remember every word that was spoken between them.
"Honestly, we were going back and forth for a while there," Simmonds told reporters. "I don't recall everything that I did say to him, but he said to me some things I didn't like and maybe I said some things that he didn't like. I can't recall every single word I said."
There is apparently no audio of the incident, and the NHL ultimately ruled it couldn't "substantiate" Avery's claim. In a statement released by league officials Tuesday evening, Simmonds also "expressly denied using the homophobic slur he is alleged to have said" when he spoke to the league about the incident.
But NHL senior executive vice president of hockey operations Colin Campbell reiterated the league will remain vigilant to ensure players do not cross the line when it comes to comments on the ice.
"All players, coaches and officials in the National Hockey League deserve the respect of their peers, and have the absolute right to function in a work environment that is free from racially or sexually based innuendo or derision. This is the National Hockey League's policy and it will remain so going forward," his statement read.
The incident reminds us of the conundrum that professional sports leagues and teams face when the emotion of sport collides with the need to draw a line about what is going to be tolerated in terms of words or actions. L.A. Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who is black, was fined $100,000 by the NBA for uttering a gay slur at a referee last season. In January of 2000, Vaclav Prospal, then of the Ottawa Senators, escaped suspension but had to undergo diversity training after he called Montreal's Patrice Bergeron an ethnic slur.
Phoenix captain Shane Doan was accused of making an anti-French slur to an NHL linesman in 2005, an incident that became a talking point across Canada and sparked a couple of lawsuits that were eventually settled before they went to court.
Avery himself was suspended by the NHL and instructed to attend anger management courses after his now infamous comments regarding his ex-girlfriends dating other hockey players. He was also at the heart of another ugly moment last season when James Wisniewski, recently given an eight-game suspension for an illegal hit during this preseason, feigned a sexual act on his hockey stick in Avery's direction and was given a two-game suspension.
Anyone who has spent any time in an NHL dressing room, let alone near an actual game, knows that language is often sailor-like. There are few limits on what is said during many NHL games, whether it's motivated by anger or the adrenaline of competition or baiting opposing players to take a penalty. Even the banter between players and officials and coaches is hardly PG. All you had to do was watch 10 minutes of HBO's groundbreaking "24/7" series featuring the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins to know the on-ice dialogue is not for the faint of heart.
But does that mean anything should go? Of course not.
There have to be boundaries, just as there are boundaries for what players can do with their sticks and bodies. Just as players are learning what is acceptable when it comes to hits to the head, dangerous blindside hits or hits from behind, why is it unthinkable they might actually learn what is acceptable in terms of what they say?
Players already know there is a line they cannot cross in engaging officials; it doesn't take too many smarts to know that if they venture into ethnic or sexual areas they're going to get reprimanded.
As they should, and the league has outlined its standards:
"It also is important to emphasize that the National Hockey League holds, and will continue to hold, our players to higher standards with respect to their conduct both on and off the ice," Campbell's statement said Tuesday. "While we recognize that the emotion involved in certain on-ice confrontations may lead to the use of highly charged and sometimes offensive language and commentary, certain lines cannot be crossed.
"Specifically, we have for many years emphasized to our clubs and players that commentary directed at the race or ethnicity of other participants in the game (or even non-participants), or that is otherwise socially or morally inappropriate or potentially hurtful, including as it may relate to sexual orientation, is absolutely unacceptable and will not be tolerated."
It would be nice for teams to take a stand on this issue and not wait for the league to do all the heavy lifting.
The Dallas Stars said they would have suspended Avery had the league not moved so quickly after his incident, and we take them at their word.
Regardless of whether Simmonds said what Avery insists he did, all teams, including the Flyers and Rangers, need to make a strong condemnation of any such comments, even if they are made by one of their own players.