Commentary

Varlamov allowed back too soon

Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but Colorado needed to take harder look

Updated: November 4, 2013, 4:09 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

So, Colorado Avalanche netminder Semyon Varlamov spends a night in jail after being accused of beating his girlfriend, and then not only travels with the Avs to Dallas but gets the start and the win?

Well, guess all this is working out swell for Varlamov and the Avs.

Do the optics of the situation bother anyone anywhere in the Avalanche organization, or in the NHL, for that matter?

Everyone understands the presumption of innocence. We're all for that. It's a vital cog in the machinery of our society.

[+] EnlargeSemyon Varlamov
AP Photo/The Denver Post, RJ SangostiSemyon Varlamov traded a yellow jumpsuit for an Avs uniform far too quickly, and the team looks bad because of it.

But presumption of innocence does not necessarily mean to go ahead and do whatever you want or, more to the point when it comes to the Avs and Varlamov, to go ahead and try to collect a few more points while we get this whole guilt or innocence thing straightened out.

You know what happens to police officers and teachers and lots of other people when they get charged with a crime, especially one involving alleged acts of violence? Yes, they are protected by the presumption of innocence. But police officers don't go back on the beat right away -- they are reassigned to desk duty. Teachers who are charged with violent crimes don't go right back to talking about Christopher Columbus and the Civil War in the classroom. Not two days later, anyway.

But NHL goalies? Well, Varlamov proves that regardless of the third-degree assault and second-degree kidnapping charges, and his girlfriend's reported claims that the netminder laughed at times while drunkenly beating and kicking her, life goes on pretty much as normal for a hockey star.

Does Varlamov's version of what happened between the two vary? Presumably very much. Still, we were more than a little taken aback when the Avs looked at the allegations and, rather than taking a hard look at not only the specific incident but the larger issue of domestic violence and its public perception, they opted to get their goaltender back on the ice. Right away.

That coach Patrick Roy fell back on the old cliché about supporting a teammate during a tough time was more than a little off-putting, as well.

The hockey community as a whole -- everyone, including fans and agents and writers and management and sales staff and others -- isn't just a bunch of guys hanging out in a locker room and playing a game. The community is much broader that that and the actions of players have greater implications.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates that one in four women will experience some form of domestic abuse, and that the vast majority of abuse cases are never reported to police. The group estimates 1.3 million U.S. women are the subject of physical assault at the hands of an "intimate partner" annually.

What about those women whose lives intersect with the hockey world who have already made the painful decision to report being the victim of abuse? How would they feel if the subject of their complaint was treated similarly, allowed to go on with his life as though nothing happened?

Varlamov's agent, Paul Theofanous, told ESPN's Craig Custance via email shortly after the situation came to light last week that "my client Semyon Varlamov is completely innocent of all of these charges." He might well be.

And we're sure Theofanous is privy to many things about this incident the public and media are not. But it is likewise a certainty that Theofanous does not know absolutely whether his client is guilty or innocent, regardless of what he's been told or may think.

And for him to announce with certainty that his client is innocent adds to the perception being perpetuated by the hockey world that this is a matter of little consequence, an annoyance. That the league didn't bother to step in and make the hard decision the Avs couldn't or wouldn't make -- taking a step back and letting things play out a little more before Varlamov returned to action -- is also disappointing.

So much good work is done by the NHL on so many fronts: breast cancer awareness, Hockey Fights Cancer, the You Can Play initiative. And to be fair, the NHL seems to have fewer instances of players involved in domestic violence than, say, the NFL. So maybe this just caught everyone by surprise.

We're not talking about suspending Varlamov and taking away his pay at this stage of the process. And we get that people in the public eye, whether athletes or film stars or other celebrities, can sometimes be victimized themselves, whether in some sort of extortion scam or things of that nature.

But something ugly happened here, that much seems certain. Whether the charges at some point are dismissed or found to be true, or the truth is somewhere in between, something happened between these two people that deserves a lot of scrutiny.

Would it have hurt anyone to say to Varlamov, "The charges you face are very serious, and while you enjoy the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise, we want you to take a few days off from playing so we can take a good hard look at what we know about all of this and then make a plan"?

What was the rush?

Instead, the fact that Varlamov went from jail to the win column in the blink of an eye leaves everyone connected to this a significant loser, no matter how the legal process plays out.

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