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In Post-Ray Rice Era, What Do Sports Leagues Really Care About?

Max Meyer |
October 20, 2014 | 11:19 p.m. PDT

Senior Sports Editor

After reading ESPN's report on Slava Voynov's Monday morning arrest on domestic violence charges, one sentence really stuck out. Interestingly enough, it was not about Voynov. 

"Last season, Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov was involved in a domestic violence charge involving his girlfriend, but was able to travel and play with the team while the case went through the judicial system."

Varlamov was actually arrested by Denver police on October 31, 2013. Varlamov's girlfriend told police the day before that he had kicked her in the chest along with dragging her by her hair. 

Yet, the next day, Varlamov started against the Dallas Stars, and was the "winning" goalie after the Avalanche beat the Stars 3-2 in overtime. 

Almost two months later, the charges were dropped against Varlamov. Over that span however, the NHL did not discipline the goalie in any fashion.

The NHL has already handed Voynov an indefinite suspension, less than 24 hours from his arrest. But, was it any different from Varlamov's incident, which the NHL did nothing about?

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN's Pierre LeBruin in an email that "the facts and circumstances are different."

He's absolutely right, the circumstances are different. The sports world is currently living in a post-Ray Rice era. 

Let's not give a standing ovation to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman just yet. After the Rice fallout, it's clear that the NFL has made similar strides in the right direction with the Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson suspensions. 

The public relations disaster that ensued after the Rice video went public was enough to scare professional sports leagues from dealing with domestic violence issues lightly again. 

In the past month, both the NHL and NFL were correct in their decisions to suspend each of those players, but it took a lot of scolding from the public along the way for each league to finally get it right. 

Yet, is it wrong to think that the only reason why professional sports leagues now "care" is because the public cares? Sports leagues care about one thing over all, their brand. Negative public perception on certain issues can instantly destroy that brand. Sports leagues, in my mind, don't necessarily want to fix the problem, but rather they want to fix the damage that it has caused to its brand. 

That stance has only strengthened in the post-Ray Rice era. 

The NHL clearly learned a valuable lesson from the NFL. If you severely discipline players for unspeakable crimes and are swift in dishing out the punishment, your brand will remain intact. The last thing the NHL wanted was the public to think that Gary Bettman was a Roger Goodell clone. Or have a potential PR disaster on its hands. 

Instead, on Monday night, the same day of Voynov's arrest and suspension, the story is no longer a top headline on ESPN's website. Somehow, it's the sixth story down on the NHL website's home page. With the public deeming the punishment appropriate, there's no backlash and the story has immediately moved on. The NHL's brand didn't suffer one bit, and Bettman looks like the good guy here. 

The big question I have in this post-Rice era is what is the acceptable amount of time, in the public's eyes, that athletes like Voynov, Peterson and Hardy should be suspended for? 

I'm not sure either the NHL or NFL wants to be the first league to find that answer out since their brands could be in jeopardy again if an athlete returns too quickly. Or even worse, it could open the public's eyes towards the possibility of either league not really caring in the first place. 

Reach Senior Sports Editor Max Meyer by email.

Follow @TheMaxMeyer



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