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Anderson: Let Hockey Help Set Good Path After TB’s Cooper Fumbles



Jon Cooper

Words are kind of my thing, so my initial reaction to a certain comment made by Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper earlier this week was to wonder if others would also find it cringeworthy. They did. Good.

There is no reason hockey can’t be the context for a reminder of language that would best be weeded out of our everyday usage, particularly in sports.

We aren’t talking about general vulgarity. That’s not likely to go anywhere and, frankly, if that bothers anyone, it’s more about decorum.

This is about making an angry point or directing trash talk at others by relying on — and perpetuating — demeaning generalizations and slurs at the expense of some faction of society. That language is saying the subject of such comments is lesser than, just like that faction of society is perceived by some to be.

Here’s what happened in Cooper’s case. It was just after his Lightning got eliminated from the first round of the playoffs on Monday with a 6-1 loss to the Florida Panthers. In his postgame press conference, Cooper let loose with a long rant about two goals that were waved off because of goaltender interference.

During that diatribe, Cooper said that “we might as well put skirts on them,” referring to goalies.

Yikes. Ugh. Eye roll.

Here’s the full comment:

We know what he was saying. He thinks the NHL is coddling the goalies and calling interference and nullifying goals way too easily. He was frustrated after the loss. He was confounded by a penalty and rule that has caused widespread consternation around the league for everyone from coaches – just ask the Penguins’ Mike Sullivan – to goalies themselves.

They are right. No one seems to know exactly what constitutes goalie interference. It’s a valid criticism.

The problem is that Cooper could have expressed that in many ways, but he fell back on a trite and insulting phrase, one that insinuates that women are weak and need protecting, and therefore the NHL in that game called goalie interference in a way that treats goalies like fragile little girls.

Those type of generalizations and slurs are too commonly used in our society, and it bleeds over into how those in and around sports express themselves in the heat of competition or over the frustration of some play calls.

It shouldn’t be that way. And it is hurtful. Take it from a female sports writer who over a long career has at times been the target of gender discrimination, both overt and subtle, some of which still goes on in our profession. Having those in sports use phrases like, we should put skirts on them, on some level validates that discrimination. No, it’s not nearly enough to walk away from a career, but it seems so unnecessary.

Not too many years ago, there was a light shined on the use of the major slur referring to gay people being widely used to diss opponents in sports. As in, you are so deficient, you must be gay. It sure seems like after that became a public issue, the incidence of using that particular slur in sports declined.

After all, there are lots of ways to call your opponent wimpy without insulting any particular group of people. Creativity is welcome.

It’s just not cool to use language that makes a stinging point aimed at an opponent or sports officials by perpetuating slurs and hurtful generalizations related to certain segments of society. That includes gender, skin color, religion, nationality, disability or anything else that defines groups of us.

That sort of thing can, of course, be blatant. I had a neighbor years ago who struggled with being a single mom of two rambunctious youngsters and often yelled at them. It was tough to hear, and people tried to help, but the worst I heard was one evening when she screamed, “Can’t we just have a nice dinner like a normal white family?”

That’s really, decidedly not OK. How awful to pass that sort of racism on to kids. But it’s also not OK to let perhaps less blatant slurs and generalizations creep into our communication and become accepted, including within sports.

In Cooper’s case, much to his credit, he realized that.

Wednesday, during his season-ending press conference, he opened with an unprompted, heartfelt, meaningful apology. This was not something whipped up by a public relations specialist just to defray the public criticism that had been growing.

Cooper, an intelligent man who previously practiced law and is the NHL’s longest-tenured coach, said the analogy between goalies being coddled and females was wrong. He said he intended to have a discussion about it with his twin daughters. He pointed out that the NHL has been working to help grow women’s pro hockey. He even said that he was bothered by the “skirts” comment he made more than he was bothered by Monday’s loss and elimination. Wow.

Talk about a highlight save. Cooper’s apology probably did more to spotlight the situation and perhaps help people understand how those types of comments are hurtful than his original comments.

So while it was unfortunate that Cooper made the “skirts” comment, ultimately his handling of the situation deserves this response:

Thank you, Jon. Perhaps we can all work to be better now.