Posted by: mdegeorge | June 17, 2011

An open letter to Gary Bettman in the wake of the Vancouver riots

Courtesy of Creative Commons.

Dear Mr. Bettman,

I hope this note finds you well and on the cusp of a vacation now that the season has come to a conclusion. I’m sorry to hear you had a rough go of things in Vancouver Wednesday. I wouldn’t take it personally. It’s clear they weren’t in the best frame of mine at the time, which is the whole reason I’m writing. I also assumed they’d be more grateful now that you’ve reintroduced Winnipeg as another Canadian franchise who can’t win the Stanley Cup. And on the bright side, at least they weren’t yelling “Gooooodenow.”

Last night did go fairly well for you and your league, you now as far as the on-ice performance. After that it got a bit ragged. Still it was an excellent showcase of your league. There was some very good young talent that came to the fore for Boston, and for the third time in four years, the Cup will reside in an Original Six city. If only you could get over that whole Canada hump, but I guess that’s not your fault (despite what Air Canada and the Max Pacioretty supporters may think).

Rosy thoughts aside, there is some very serious business to attend to in the wake of Wednesday’s Cup final. It’s not the few f-bombs that were caught on live television. It’s not how to keep the egos of Boston’s fandom down. It’s how you and your office have a mandate to make an example of the barbaric lunatics in Vancouver that turned the capital of British Columbia – by all accounts a civilized land – into downtown Tripoli.

The pictures are just hellish. There’s no way a city anywhere in this pseudo-civilized world should descend into such anarchy and chaos over the result of a bunch of oversized kids playing a children’s game. I believe sports can be a microcosm of the world around us, showing what lies hidden in our workaday lives and reflecting what many of us hope for but cannot attain. If the world contains people who hope for the type of destruction and devastation rendered by those Labatt’s Blue-fueled masses, well that is just terrifying.

I know it’s not unprecedented. Sports teams in America are often a convenient flashpoint for fomenting social and cultural unrest. Teams like the Oakland Raiders and Miami Hurricanes football team in the 1980s and Detroit Pistons in the early 1990s have been emblematic of such deeply ingrained struggles. But they’ve been a relatively non-violent response to them that has inadvertently fueled and at times benefitted from such ideological strains in populations. Just because gangsters and murders wore red New York Yankees hats or Oakland Raiders jerseys didn’t mean the team, or even the more abstract team culture, precipitated the violence.

Sure in some cases riots were started in celebration (the last way I would ever think to celebrate, I’ll give you), but even then they were a relatively benign release of emotions long bubbling beneath the surface. I saw it first hand in Philadelphia when the Phillies won the World Series in 2008: Disrupt some traffic, burn some junk at the side of the road, do a little more trespassing than you normally would, and when the cops come, you move on. Maybe you repeat the process at another, non-police monitored location, but there’s no riot gear and tear gas on the way.

But this wasn’t celebration, was it Mr. Bettman? This was simply petulance. It was a mass of angry, liquored up people who weren’t celebrating the glory of sport in an overly exuberant yet understandable, if not always excusable, way. They were pissed off people who were sore after a loss and had to take it out one someone. Or someone’s car. Or house. Or shop windows. There was nothing noble or understandable about it; it was just alcohol-fueled rage. They were like children, children really adept at wreaking havoc and destroying things.

The devastation is more akin to what we’d see from an active day protesting a Middle Eastern despot. 15 burned cars. 100 arrests. Over 150 people injured, including nine police officers. Looting. Property damage. The image of tear gas being shot into a crowd clashing with police in riot gear as smoke billows from an unseen fire raging in the background is not what you want your league to be associated with, I can safely assume. The only saving grace is that no one was killed in the fracas and that all the injuries, regardless of the fear and shock, seem minor.

Surely this is not an incident that should pass by your disciplinary office unnoticed. The riots were a momentous occasion of embarrassment that was unprecedented in NHL fan history; the penalties levied on the club that spawned these out-of-control fans should be equally historic and as comprehensively in their scope and severity as was the unruliness and brutality of the mob.

That’s why I am proposing to take a page out of the European soccer disciplinary book. When far less egregious acts of fan misbehavior occur, soccer federations as well as the continental soccer body UEFA have the power to impose stadium bans, where teams are forced to play home games in empty arenas, devoid of the advantage brought by home fans. They happen with alarming frequency in places such as Italy and Eastern Europe largely due to racist chanting or abuse of a visiting player. Even big clubs such as Juventus and Lazio, two of the five biggest clubs in Europe, as well as Atletico Madrid, one of Spain’s largest clubs, aren’t spared the wrath if they run afoul of UEFA’s fan behavior directives.

While racist abuse by fans is a heinous act, it pales in comparison to the active terror wrought by the Vancouver demolition crew. Their uprising is more like what happened in Italy in 2007, when rioting in the Sicilian town of Catania led to numerous injuries and the death of a police officer. The team in Italy’s top league received for its efforts a four-month stadium ban, meaning it played out the rest of its season behind closed doors without the benefit of a true home game.

This is what Vancouver deserves, Mr. Bettman. Perhaps not four months, but Canucks fans should be suspended from seeing their team play for the first 10 games of the 2011-12 season. No Western Conference Championship banner ceremony, no opening-night giveaway. 10 games, no fans. Refund the season ticket-holders, furlough the gameday workers and allow in only the staff necessary to make sure a game happens.

It will ramp up pressure among the well-behaved fans to eradicate such behavior from their own ranks. It’s hardly punishing everyone for the actions of a select few, as one group of hardcore and psychotic fans couldn’t be responsible for what was reported as four separate riots within a 10-block radius Wednesday. It will teach other teams that this type of behavior can’t be tolerated and comes with serious ramifications.

Now Mr. Bettman, you might scoff at the loss of 10 games of gate revenue. It’s a small price to pay though to gain back a modicum of integrity to your sport, send a message that such dissident behavior is intolerable and render yourself as one of the most authoritative and fearless commissioners in professional sports. You have a duty to all the well-intentioned, law-abiding fans of this league who were appalled and terrified by what transpired in the streets of Vancouver Wednesday night to take action. You have the benefit of a largely working class fanbase that prides itself on not being a league of prima donnas; having riotous, uncontrollable fans bent on plunging a city into temporary ruin doesn’t fit that wholesome paradigm.

It won’t be an easy decision, Mr. Bettman. And I know it’s unlikely that you have what it takes to levy a judgment of this magnitude in a market where it’s blatantly obvious you’re already reviled. But the Vancouver riot is a disgraceful black eye on your league and on all of American professional sports. Something serious has to be done to rectify it. I only hope you have the courage and the audacity to be the person to do so.

Sincerely,

A concerned hockey fan

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