Local Editorials

Our View: Needs of victims must supersede all other considerations

There is a lesson for all in regard to the Chicago Blackhawks sexual assault case

It’s not as if Chicagoland’s trophy case is running out of room, so even casual hockey fans caught the fever as the Chicago Blackhawks skated to the Stanley Cup championship in 2010.

The team composed a winsome core of highly skilled young stars such as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith coached by a popular, mustachioed hockey lifer, Joel Quenneville.

But the Hawks’ championship truly was an organizational championship: In the years before the championship run, team president John McDonough, a marketing whiz, oversaw what amounted to a revolution in the way the Blackhawks operated, engineering broadcast deals that resulted in all 82 of the team’s regular-season games being broadcast for the first time in franchise history. Forbes magazine called it “the greatest sports-business turnaround ever.”

Now, none of that matters, the team’s achievement forever tainted by the sexual abuse scandal that became public in May. That’s when a player formerly affiliated with the Blackhawks, identified in legal documents as John Doe, filed a lawsuit against the team claiming that he had been sexually assaulted by video coach Brad Aldrich in May 2010, in the middle of the championship run. The suit further alleged the Hawks were made aware of the alleged assault soon after it occurred and failed to act to address the matter. (The plaintiff has since come forward, but given the nature of the case, we’re not going to use his real name.)

A subsequent investigation conducted by the venerable Chicago law firm Jenner & Block laid bare the toxic stew of negligence, arrogance and sheer disregard for the welfare of the former player. The Jenner & Black report confirmed that worst: The organization’s senior leadership, including McDonough and Quenneville, fearful of damaging team chemistry and incurring negative publicity during the playoffs, postponed any action against Aldrich until after the Stanley Cup Final. When all was said and done, Aldrich was allowed to resign yet still participated in the team’s championship celebrations.

Sadly, the chain of events could have been broken early on, in May 2010, had any one of a handful of people with knowledge of what was going on had raised a hand and shouted “Stop.”

The management decision to delay dealing with the allegations against Aldrich until after the playoffs was high-level negligence, and it violated the organization’s own policies for handling sexual harassment complaints, which included this: “(R)eports of sexual harassment will be promptly and thoroughly investigated and appropriate action will be taken.”

But rather than follow its own rules, the McDonough-led management team was more concerned about bad press than about doing the right thing. (Jenner & Block also found that many members of the organization, including some senior executives, were unaware of the team’s harassment policy. Ignorance, however, is no defense.)

You would think, of course, that the Blackhawks would have learned from the wider culture that a cover-up was not just doomed to failure but also had the potential to destroy careers and force the organization to tear its house down to the studs. (The career implosions are underway already. Quenneville resigned from his latest coaching gig with the Florida Panthers, and Hawks GM Stan Bowman resigned after Jenner & Block delivered its report.)

Instead, the team demonstrated the same hubris that has undercut the moral authority of Roman Catholic bishops who transferred abusive priests and shamed victims; that has brought the Southern Baptist Convention to its current reckoning over sexual abuse; and that earlier this year led the Boy Scouts to agree to an $850-million settlement with tens of thousands of people who brought claims of abuse against Scout leaders. And that’s just a few of the more prominent examples.

In each case high ambition and overweening confidence, combined with a desire to protect the organization’s reputation at all costs, produced disastrous results.

Perhaps worst of all the Blackhawks, like most offenders, demonstrated near-zero regard for the victim or victims. The Jenner & Block report makes clear the emotional trauma experienced by John Doe. Anyone who has survived an assault or who loves a survivor knows exactly what that looks like — the shame, self-doubt and depression, sometimes accompanied by an impulse toward self-harm, don’t just vanish overnight.

There are plenty of lessons to be drawn from the Blackhawks’ mess, but for us two stand out.

First, doing the right thing might mean doing the hardest thing. But no matter. Championship parades don’t mean much when the winning team turns out to have no moral center.

And where sexual assault or harassment are involved, the needs of victims must supersede all other considerations. Someone wins the Stanley Cup every year. John Doe, however, gets just one life.