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In the NHL, players have a habit of calling each other monkeys and chickens and frogs whenever gloves get dropped. It’s now Zach Minor’s job to teach them which members of the animal kingdom make for inappropriate slurs.
Hate speech was an issue in pro sports before John Rocker went public with his Dice Clay routine, and Minor may well be the busiest “sensitivity trainer” working the jock circuit. Thirteen years ago, the D.C. native (Wilson High, class of ’74) landed a consulting deal with the NBA to help rookies adjust to the high life. Minor’s firm, ZINC, went on to secure contracts with the NFL, Major League Baseball, and, as of this season, the NHL. He now meets with essentially every major sports franchise each year to go over do’s and don’ts of behavior and speech. Minor tailors a different presentation for each league, but there’s at least one message everybody gets: The sticks-and-stones rule we learned as kids is crap.
“I tell them that there’s no room for certain types of hate in sports,” says Minor, now living in New York. “You can hate me because I beat you in a game, but you can’t hate me for who I am. And as professionals, there are things that you simply cannot say in this day. My job is to get them to realize that the words they use could speak to a larger segment of society.”
To some degree, Minor can thank the hockey club in his former hometown for landing him his latest client. Though the NHL’s sensitivity-training program was launched just this year, it can be traced back to two separate slurring incidents in 1997, both involving Native American members of the Washington Capitals and opponents with African ancestry. Chris Simon, a Canadian of the Ojibwa tribe, got a three-game suspension from the league for calling Edmonton’s Mike Grier, a black player also from Canada, a “fucking nigger” during a fight on the ice. Just days after the Simon-Grier episode, teammate and fellow Ojibwa tribesman Craig Berube got bounced for one game for calling Florida Panthers forward Peter Worrell a “fucking monkey” while scrumming.
The NHL, in response to the publicity those incidents generated, instituted a zero-tolerance policy with regard to hate speech before last season. The effort to rout out slurrers, however, quickly took on the tenor of a witch hunt.
In an exhibition game, career goon Sandy McCarthy of the Tampa Bay Lightning was accused of also calling Worrell a “fucking monkey” during a game. McCarthy had actually been yelling “fucking chicken,” in hopes of enticing Worrell into a fracas. Fowl names, the league ruled, are fair game, even when preceded by an expletive and followed by a haymaker. Later in the season, McCarthy, whose father is black and mother American Indian, accused fellow thug-lifer Tie Domi of the Toronto Maple Leafs of mixing in some racial abuse while mixing it up. Audio and video evidence exonerated Domi of the hate-speech charge; McCarthy, however, was found to have spit in Domi’s face as foreplay to their rumpus. That offense went unpenalized.
The sorriest chapter of last season’s hate-speech crusade came when reporters from Philadelphia and Miami who were sitting together at a Flyers/Panthers game decided they’d heard Philly’s Chris Gratton call poor Worrell a “fucking ape” during an assault. In postgame interviews, Gratton, Worrell, and the referee who had been between the two combatants at the time of the alleged slur all denied that racist taunts had been used. The reporters, from the Miami Herald and Philadelphia Daily News, ran stories smearing Gratton anyway. “Worrell Is Slurred Again” was the headline of the Herald’s piece, which was picked up by the wire services. After reviewing game tapes and interviewing all parties, league officials determined that Gratton had more likely been yelling, “[Learn how to] fucking skate!” at Worrell, who had skated into Flyers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck just prior to the tilt. Editors at both papers ran full-length apologies to Gratton, admitting that Worrell’s denials probably should have carried some weight.
Then, in April, San Jose brawler Bryan Marchment admitted to NHL officials that he had called Donald Brashear, a black player with the Vancouver Canucks, a “big monkey” while trading blows. He added, however, that he calls everybody he fights “big monkey.” Colin Campbell, hockey operations director for the NHL, said that even though the league officials “accept[ed] that there was no inappropriate intent on Mr. Marchment’s part, [they could not] excuse the conduct” and suspended Marchment for a game. Marchment’s agent, Rick Curran, then threatened to sue the league unless players were given clearer guidelines about unacceptable speech.
At the end of the controversy-filled season, the NHL brought in Minor to construct the clearer guidelines. He produced a one-hour sensitivity training program, including an instructional video and role-playing exercises meant to teach players that references to race, family, language, or sexual orientation aren’t kosher in hockey. (Minor originally left D.C. to pursue a theater career in New York, so he admits a particular attachment to the theatrical portion of his program.) The typical NHL locker room is about as diverse as the U.N. Security Council—at least 17 different countries are now represented—so you could fill a book with words that could be considered culturally insensitive by at least one player. The NHL has no such list. Instead, it asks Minor to get the word out that insulting an opponent’s heritage is, in the view of the NHL, less moral than crushing his eye socket with a fist.
“I want to convince these guys that they are enjoying a lot of benefits from the incredible diversity the league has now,” Minor says. “The presence of these different cultures not only affects the way the game is played, it expands the fan base of the NHL, and I tell the players they have a responsibility not to do anything to harm that fan base. I hammer home there can be consequences if they do.”
The first test of the NHL’s new hate-speech program, however, shows that all slurs are not deemed equal. Patrice Brisebois, a player with the Montreal Canadiens, complained that Vaclav Prospal of the Ottawa Senators had called him “a fucking frog” during a game in late December. Brisebois is French-Canadian, perhaps the most well-represented minority in hockey. He said he expected the league to punish his verbal attacker, on the basis of what he’d learned in the sensitivity-training session.
For all its talk about zero tolerance, the NHL had never protected the French. (All of the NHL’s publicized insensitivity cases involved black victims.) Prospal, a Czech, said that he heard “frog” so much that he figured he had carte blanche to yell it at Brisebois while wailing on him.
The I-didn’t-know-it-was-racist defense hadn’t worked for Marchment, but it convinced the NHL not to suspend Prospal. Instead, Prospal was ordered to attend a one-on-one with the sensitivity trainer. Last week, Prospal traveled to New York to meet with Minor. The session went well, according to Minor, who doesn’t think Prospal will let “frog” leap from his lips in future skirmishes.
The Prospal affair began the same week Sports Illustrated published Rocker’s now-infamous remarks, and, not coincidentally, the hockey incident went largely ignored by the media. (When his Senators played the Capitals at the MCI Center last Sunday, there was no visible or vocal display of anti-Prospal sentiment.) Though publicity about such slurrings can only help his business, Minor says he’s glad Prospal didn’t get the Rocker treatment. Not even Rocker, he adds, deserves the Rocker treatment.
“Whenever an athlete stubs his toe, I don’t hear cash registers,” Minor says. “I think about the pressure that athlete is under, how most of us won’t ever understand that. And I think that in today’s society, we’re just too quick to judge people based on a quote.”—Dave McKenna