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IN SPORTS SCANDALS, THE OWNERS WALK AWAY LIKE RATS
Rocky Wirtz and Dan Snyder deserve historically severe punishments for workplace culture misconduct in their franchises, but protected by leagues, they can claim to know nothing and blame underlings
If the subject matter wasn’t so sickening, we’d laugh. Amazing how sports owners always are shocked — shocked! — by the sordid events in their workplaces. They didn’t become billionaires and business titans by remaining parked on life’s clueless periphery, unaware of inner workings and how the sausage is made.
Yet with astounding agility, they’ve managed to elude accountability in scandals — Daniel Snyder in Washington, Rocky Wirtz in Chicago are the latest — by playing dumb and blaming their underlings. If the same deflective mercy was accorded the scummiest of U.S. presidents, Dick Nixon would have continued lying and Monica Lewinsky would have kept entering the Oval Office with her pizza boxes. Other than a shrug-if-off fine and brief vacation for Snyder and a wrist-tap fine for Wirtz, they are skating away from the shame dumpster, protected as usual by league mechanisms that never punish the oligarchs who, remember, pay the sizable salaries of commissioners making the disciplinary decisions.
How is it possible that a roomful of Chicago Blackhawks executives and coaches in 2010 — and, according to one account, every player on the team — knew of a claim that a player had been sexually assaulted by the team’s video coach? And that more than 10 years somehow passed without Wirtz or his son, the team’s CEO, hearing a word about this and other allegations concerning an accused predator in the ranks?
“If we had, we certainly wouldn’t be standing here today,’’ said the elder Wirtz, appearing Tuesday with son Danny to announce the forced resignation of hockey operations president and general manager Stan Bowman, a.k.a. The Fall Guy.
While understanding that sports in America is inherently corrupt, the Blackhawks are guilty of a particularly heinous sin. They prioritized the beginnings of their championship run over the well-being of a violated employee. Instead, they participated in a massive cover-up starting in May 2010, not an hour after the Hawks had advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals. In an independent law-firm review summoned by, of course, the Wirtzes, Bowman was described as a key informant who spoke of what did — and didn’t — happen in the room when upper management first met to discuss a claim against Bradley Aldrich. John McDonough, celebrated at the time as the team president who’d resurrected the franchise after arriving from the uber-popular Cubs, wasn’t keen on letting a potential scandal distract the newfound civic glory and joy. Nor was head coach Joel Quenneville.
Wrote Reid Schar, of Chicago-based firm Jenner & Block: “McDonough and Quenneville made comments about the challenge of getting to the Stanley Cup Finals and a desire to focus on the team and the playoffs. … What is clear is that after being informed of Mr. Aldrich’s alleged sexual harassment and misconduct with a player, no action was taken for three weeks. One witness recalled that the decision on how to proceed was left in Mr. McDonough’s hands. … Mr. McDonough did nothing to address the allegations until June 14 after the playoffs were over when he reported the information to the director of human resources.’’
So, as Chicago partied with the Cup for the first time in 49 years, every top Blackhawks executive, the head coach, the players and the director of human resources were among those aware of the Aldrich story. All have lips, ears and texting devices. And Rocky Wirtz honestly didn’t hear a single detail until the aggrieved player, identified as “John Doe,’’ filed a lawsuit against the team months ago? An entire decade passed without the OWNER AND CHAIRMAN OF THE TEAM knowing about any of this?
Does he think we’re stupid?
No, Wirtz realizes he is sheltered by the NHL and commissioner Gary Bettman, who spanked the team with a mere $2 million fine, paltry in the kingdom of an owner whose net worth is almost $5 billion thanks to a longtime family operation based in real estate and liquor distribution. Bowman is finished as a major hockey executive, also stripped of his prestigious duties as GM of the U.S. Olympic team. Quenneville, now head coach of the Florida Panthers, will be questioned by Bettman. So will Kevin Cheveldayoff, an assistant GM in 2010 and now GM of the Winnipeg Jets. Everyone else in that room is long gone.
Yet Rocky Wirtz, the money man, gets to stay in power and stare at his three Stanley Cups, which came at a criminal expense that never will be noted by history. Will the alleged victims now be forgotten as quickly as the next puck drop? “John Doe” bravely revealed himself as Kyle Beach on Canadian sports network TSN, with Beach, then a Hawks prospect, saying he felt “alone and dark” at the time. He said it was impossible Quenneville didn’t know of the accusations — but he wouldn’t dare make the same claim about Rocky Wirtz. How significant to see Hawks legends Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane defend Bowman and ousted executive Al MacIssac, with Toews seemingly targeting the Wirtzes in saying: “I don’t understand how that makes it go away, to just delete them from existence and (say), ‘That’s it, we’ll never hear from them again.’ ’’
All of which happened on a day when commissioner Roger Goodell said the NFL, unlike the Blackhawks, won’t publicly release findings of its investigation of the Washington Football Team’s workplace culture. Never mind Jon Gruden’s racist, anti-gay and misogynistic emails, found in a trove of 650,000-plus emails linked to the probe. Goodell prefers to protect the anonymity of those who cooperated. “We’re very conscious of making sure we’re protecting those who came forward,’’ he said. “That was a very high priority.’’
Thus, while Gruden rightly loses his coaching career, Snyder marches on as owner of WFT, a name neceessitated after his longtime refusal to ban the racist Redskins nickname. The team was fined $10 million. Longtime front-office executive Bruce Allen, who exchanged emails with Gruden, was removed. For a few months, Snyder will work in the shadows while his wife, Tanya, runs daily operations in a revamped hierarchy. But like Wirtz, Snyder remains in the saddle.
“I do think he’s been held accountable,’’ Goodell said.
Does he think we’re stupid? No, Goodell is protected within the same power-and-greed cocoon that enables him.
In Major League Baseball, commissioner Rob Manfred also thinks Jim Crane has been held accountable. He owns the Houston Astros, who are in the World Series for the third time in five years, despite an electronic sign-stealing scandal that helped them win a 2017 championship. Jeff Luhnow, the general manager, lost his job. Manager A.J. Hinch and Alex Cora lost their jobs, though resurfacing quickly with other major-league teams. But the players, who were granted immunity for participating in the MLB probe, continue to pursue rings. And so does Crane, who kept his trophy and is quick to point out recent remarks by Oakland Athletics pitcher Chris Bassitt, who said the Astros were scapegoated by a league that knew many teams were cheating similarly but chose to take the less messy route and blame one team. Said Bassitt: “Houston was not the only team doing stuff. Like there was a lot of people doing stuff. Unfortunately only one team essentially got caught doing it or was the guinea pig of it to like clean the whole entire league up."
Which brings us to Manfred, who this week made an inappropriate, Crane-friendly remark only two years removed from his investigation: “I think the Astros winning would be a great accomplishment. People are going to make up their own minds about what it means.’’
Said Crane, self-absolved: “We got it pinned on us, we owned it, we took the penalty and we’re past that now.’’
See a pattern? It’s good to be king.
There was Rocky Wirtz, at a video briefing, letting his son do the talking. “Rocky and I appreciate Stan’s dedication to the Blackhawks and his many years of work for the team,’’ Danny Wirtz said. “However, we and he ultimately accept that in his first year as general manager he made a mistake alongside our other senior executives at the time and did not take adequate action in 2010.’’
As for the ensuing 10 years, I’d ask a judge for a lie detector, but he’s probably on the take, too.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he has gravitated by osmosis to film projects.