Facts & arguments: team players — strong and compliant

ALTHOUGH I’m glad to be spending some winter-time out of the country this year in sunny Florida, I still miss the news from home. On the great Richter scale of the U.S. news industry, Canada shows up as infrequent, hardly-worth-noting seismic blips. Canadians here constantly search the air to the north for tiny, faint smoke signals that will somehow apprise them of what’s happening back home. Either that or we pay $3.25 (U.S.) for a day-old Globe and Mail, or we glue ourselves to static-y short-waves, various Web sites, or Real Audio for bursts of CBC.

The blips we’ve picked up recently in the U.S. media included Lloyd Axworthy sweating in a necktie on the beach at Varadero–as well he deserved for his unholy truck with the Cuban demons, according to the Florida punditocracy. The lawyer’s withholding of evidence in the grotesque Bernardo-Homolka murders made the news. The unionization of a Windsor Wal-Mart got some air time.

By and large, the only thing Canada is good for is as an unending source of bone-chilling weather–those cold fronts shrieking down from across the border to terrorize the U.S. At least such reports were the main news items until the hockey harassment stories started to surface. Reports have more than seeped to the south, and because sports generally have such a choke-hold on the American consciousness, the commentators and analysts are weighing in with solemn pronouncements that take on such issues as the supposed Canadian “insecurity” about their dwindling dominance in hockey.

hockeyThere has been so much news and analysis here about the abuses of young Canadians in junior hockey, most recently allegations surrounding the revered Maple Leaf Gardens, that I started to think about the sorry subject. And I think that the abuse of young boys in hockey leagues and arenas–abasement that has too often been overlooked or covered up–has nothing to do with national identity. Nor is it, sadly, very surprising.

It may have a lot more to do with the culture of team sport generally and its resolutely macho values. Hockey (as well as football and basketball) encourages young players to be aggressive and combative, yet it also demands that they subordinate their own feelings or priorities to the good of the team. The coach or trainer is at the top of the pyramid in this scenario, and his orders are supreme. To deviate, even to protect oneself from an abuser, is to challenge authority, to compromise the team–and risk ostracism.

Thus, the sport provides a steady supply of strong, finely tuned young boys intensely encouraged from their earliest years to be compliant. Is it a wonder, then, that the sport attracts a small, but highly destructive, element of predators?

We’ve ceased to be shocked at the revelations of child sexual abuse by men of the cloth. Mount Cashel has been razed. Native residential schools are seen to have been, all too often, places of enduring shame. Kingston was rocked by the perfidy of a respected choirmaster. But perhaps some of the factors that led to abuse in these settings, supposedly designed to protect children, are the same as those that lead to abuse in sports, supposedly intended to empower children.

For one thing, most of the environments in which the abuse occurs–be they churches or arenas–are rigorously, even exclusively, masculine in their approach. Male children are left in the hands of adult males, in a culture that often is scornful or actively hostile toward women–or toward values that are seen to be “feminine.”

Another factor is the rigidly hierarchical nature of the enterprise. The priest assumes unchallengeable power over his charges, the same supremacy that the coach has over his young team.

Finally, there is the similar emphasis on loyalty, on toughing it out, and of not revealing secrets that could somehow discredit the group, whether it’s a group of choirboys, altar boys, or hockey players.

The lurid revelations about predators of children in Canadian hockey are disturbing, of course, even at this distance. But they should probably cause us to cast a probing eye at the culture of team sport generally. There’s nothing peculiarly Canadian about the story. But there may be lots that’s particular to the ways we deny, conceal–or glamorize–some of the thuggery and buggery that is too often a part of our obsession with team sports.

Nell Waldman usually lives in Toronto.

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