Slava Voynov’s suspension and the NHL’s moral predicament

voynovOn Monday morning, the NHL suspended a player for a crime he has yet to be charged with.

Yes, Slava Voynov was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence, and the initial bits of news trickling out of Redondo Beach are ugly – an incident between Voynov and the alleged victim, a woman who was “screaming and heard crying,” left the woman with injuries bad enough to require hospital care. Voynov was arrested at the hospital.

While the case will likely progress to an arraignment for Voynov, he has yet to be officially charged. Had the Kings’ defenceman been arrested on suspicion of, say, DUI or cocaine possession, Voynov may still be preparing to face the Buffalo Sabres this coming Thursday, the way Ryan Malone was preparing to make his season debut with the Rangers Tuesday night four months after his own arrest.

Heck, if he’d committed the same deed a year ago, he may still be playing, as Semyon Varlamov was after he was charged with domestic assault last season. The NHL stated it would allow the legal system to play out before leveling any penalties towards Varlomov or his Colorado Avalanche. The charges against Varlomov were eventually dropped as the prosecution could not produce a solid, winnable case against the netminder.

But this is professional sports in the post-Ray Rice world. NFL commissioner/automaton droid Roger Goodell and his posse of muckity-mucks bungled Rice’s case so distressingly and publicly that suspected domestic attackers can now expect to be branded with a scarlet letter until pro leagues prove they take crimes of home abuse as seriously as they do the crime of a player leaving a dimebag in his or her car’s center console.

So despite the lack of charges, and despite the case being less than 48 hours old, Voynov, he’ll sit at home with pay until Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly determine the case has been resolved to their liking. The reaction? Amongst Vonov’s own team, and hockey writers, the decision has received nearly universal acclaim.

“There were two ways the NHL could have addressed the Monday morning arrest of Kings defenseman Slava Voynov on charges of domestic violence: the old way or the right way,” SI.com’s Allan Muir said, adding that Bettman had opted for “the right way” by suspending Voynov.

“It was the right move. It was the only move,” Yahoo’s Nicholas Cotsonika proclaimed.

His Puck Daddy colleague Greg Wyshynski agreed, equally fatalistically.“[I]n 2014, in professional sports, on a domestic violence arrest … this is the only way to respond,” he said, while pointing out how great Bettman’s wielding of the disciplinary hammer looks in comparison to Goodell’s Hindenburg of a crisis management strategy.

No mention of due process or legal timeframes, not that the NHL is required to adhere to them. No mention of the double standard the league exhibits when a “hot-button” crime like domestic violence is involved, versus Malone’s case or Varlamov’s case last year before the NFL debacle. Only a proverbial shrugging of shoulders, noting the league made the right decision because otherwise, everyone would get real mad at them.

The irony of this unconditional adulation is that none other than Goodell himself made this type of brazen punishment popular in the mid-2000’s. He based the first few years of his commissionership entirely on the platform of “cleaning up the league,” assigning half-season and season-long suspensions to Adam “Pacman” Jones, Chris Henry, and Tank Johnson, disciplinary precedent and legal process be damned. The goal: turn the league into a paragon of ethical fortitude for the sake of publicity. Not only did the NFL need to have the best most popular on-field product in North America, it needed to be full of angels off the field.

The problem with presenting your league as a moral leader in the community is that it’s very easy for the façade to crumble. Give out a few inconsistent suspensions? React a little slower when it’s, say, Alex Ovechkin committing the crime instead of a fair to slightly above-average defenceman? Take it a little easier on discipline after the owners – who pay the commissioner’s salary, mind you – begin to grumble that you’ve got an itchy trigger finger? Nobody’s going to remember that time you suspended a guy before he had a change to get his attorney on the phone, no matter how much of a scumbag Voynov turns out to be – or, is proven not to be.

If that sort of crash in public perception can happen to the biggest, most unassailable sports league on the continent, it can certainly happen to the NHL

If Slava Voynov, or Ryan Malone, or Semyon Varlomov were employed for Conglomo Corp or most companies aside from a professional sports league, they likely wouldn’t have been fired or suspended simply for being arrested. The NHL, and most sports leagues, have decided they are not like most companies on that front. In addition to being a superstar athlete, you must also be a beacon of proper behavior – that’s part of the job description.

The NHL had just better be prepared for a time down the road when being virtuous and proactive isn’t the easiest choice.

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