By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) Another year, another fantastic Chicago Blackhawks team on the ice. And another unfortunate incident that doesn’t involve hockey. And another difficult reconciliation fans must negotiate in order to just enjoy some hockey.
On Sunday into Monday, a video from 2012 (the original of which as of late Monday night was still available but has since been removed from YouTube) gained attention because it features Blackhawks winger Artemi Panarin — an individual who had been nothing but a fun story of success — making a racist comment while he was playing in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia. The video isn’t unlike the goofy kind of thing the Blackhawks or any pro sports team does in original team programming that airs during weekend afternoons or rain delays or lulls in play in which one player interviews another. In this one, as a follow-up to the question “What would you do if you never played hockey?” then-KHL teammate Yaroslav Tulyakov asks, “What is something you could never do?” Panarin responds, “Have sex with a black woman.”
The entire video clip (again, since deleted from YouTube) involved a lot of joking between the two Russians, and Panarin’s line seems to have been a really foolish attempt at cheap humor without clear malice. Not that there’s now license to brush it off.
Notes Matt McClure of the Faxes From Uncle Dale blog:
The point isn’t labored upon in the interview, it’s just completely passed over, treated as an off-handed joke. And coming from a then 20-year-old sheltered athlete in a country where there are hardly any black people, it’s easy to see where Panarin thought he was being a clever little ignoramus. Russia is not exactly the most tolerant place for marginalized people, and that was brought to light prior to the Sochi games when even its most beloved son in Pavel Datsyuk bent over backwards to condone his homeland’s governmental policy of oppression of LGBTQ people by passing the buck and saying “I am Orthodox.”
McClure also points out this video resurfacing happens to come on the heels of the NHL’s “Hockey Is For Everyone” month, an attempt at minority outreach by the predominantly white league. So that’s especially no good.
Slightly mitigating this latest cringeworthy episode hovering over the Madhouse on Madison is the Blackhawks’ and Panarin’s response Monday night. And it breaks a recent pattern of tone deafness.
“In 2012, I was a guest on a Russian TV show and made insensitive comments that I deeply regret,” Panarin said in a statement the team released to the Chicago Tribune. “I understand my comments are offensive and I apologize for my hurtful words.”
Panarin not giving a dead fish apology in which it’s something like “Sorry if you were offended” or “I can see how some people might find what I said to be bad” or “Anyone who knows me knows that’s not what’s in my heart” is a great improvement from a lot of bad athlete faux mea culpas. It’s a clear statement of understanding of wrongdoing and regret, and it doesn’t even use an obvious out of claiming youthful ignorance. It shouldn’t be so absurdly commendable in 2017 to have an adult apologize like we expect kindergarteners to do, but here we are.
“On Sunday, we were made aware of the video from Artemi’s appearance on a Russian TV show in 2012,” the team said in the statement to the Tribune. “We immediately addressed the matter with him. His comments in the video in no way represent the values of our organization. He has apologized and understands the offensive nature of his words.”
OK, getting right out in front of it after we non-Russians came upon it five years later. That’s positive, remedial as it may seem. If I’m going to take the Blackhawks to task for notably using woman abuser and Nazi sympathizer Bobby Hull as an ambassador, conducting a brutal press conference during the Patrick Kane sexual assault investigation and reinstating a minor leaguer after playing dumb about him probably committing a sex crime and benefitting from a legal system stacked in his favor, I’ll acknowledge when they take the right step, as they did in words after former player Andrew Shaw’s homophobic slur during a playoff game last year (though they let the league handle the punishment).
While it’s good to see that the organization is seemingly learning in baby steps how to show basic humanity toward marginalized groups, it’s no less sad that the jewel franchise of the NHL can’t go a season without some sort of incident that’s inarguably offensive. This isn’t something to be given a pass simply because “Hey, it was a joke” or any other privileged excuse.
Yet this Panarin incident, too, shall pass as the general public concern deals mostly with the Blackhawks’ battle for the top seed in the Western Conference. So goes sports, and so goes white and male dominated fan bases.
But when is too much too much? When do the moral letdowns outweigh the uplifting hockey?
The video isn’t the team’s fault, of course. Should there be some sort of due diligence done on old Russian YouTube interviews? I don’t know if that’s part of any NHL scouting team job description.
This is definitely an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive. The apologies done well are a start, but words of sorry don’t simply neutralize words of venom, no matter the humorous intention (and the “It was just a joke” inevitable defenders are dismissing what it means to have your race and gender so easily made objects of downward-punching humor). The Blackhawks have been great at charitably engaging with the Chicagoland community, and this is an opportunity to walk the walk to fix the hurtful talk a la Shaw becoming an LGBTQ ambassador for the Montreal Canadiens in order to really work to be more intelligent and use his position to help that community. Hopefully, Panarin has a similar unselfish desire to make this into a good thing with hockey fans of color.
Still, give me a year where it doesn’t feel like the team has sold its soul to move on from the hockey Dark Ages of Bill Wirtz only to become an annually problematic organization otherwise. Or at least a season in which I don’t have to feel like I’ve sold mine in order to enjoy great hockey. Because I’m tired of negotiating fandom with decency.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.