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Don Cherry’s Firing Was Overdue—but the Problems He Represented Remain

The former Sportsnet broadcaster has a decades-long history of hateful comments toward immigrants. His Saturday tirade cost him his job, but Cherry’s ouster won’t fix the sport’s racist, sexist, and classist dysfunction.

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Canadian broadcasting giant Sportsnet has fired legendary Hockey Night in Canada commentator Don Cherry for making racist comments on Saturday night’s show. In advance of Monday’s Remembrance Day holiday, during which Commonwealth subjects wear poppies to honor fallen soldiers, Cherry spent part of his weekly “Coach’s Corner” segment on an unsteady but unsparing tirade against immigrants who don’t take part in the tradition.

Cherry was sent packing two days after his final segment, but he’d been courting such consequences for decades. It’s sometimes hard to remember that the 85-year-old earned the honorific “Coach” after a brief career as an NHL bench boss some 40 years ago, because the segment has all too frequently turned into a sort of ethnonationalist Two Minutes of Hate.

In a 1990 CBC interview, Cherry proudly proclaimed himself to be a nationalist, and proposed to start a political party for people who are “ticked off at the foreigners coming over earning the dough.” In 1998, Cherry criticized Canadian Olympic flag-bearer Jean-Luc Brassard and called Quebecers “a bunch of whiners” just three years after the Quebec independence referendum. His remarks touched off a furor and sparked a debate in the House of Commons.

That same year, Cherry became a founding owner of the Mississauga IceDogs, a Canadian major junior ice hockey team. For the club’s first three seasons, Cherry boycotted the OHL’s import draft and barred the team from fielding any European players. In 2001, the team took Igor Radulov in the import draft after winning just three games the previous year.

“I held out as long as I could,” Cherry said at the time. “I did it for the Mississauga fans who supported us. I can’t be selfish. I still believe [the team] should be for Canadians.”

In 2004, CBC put “Coach’s Corner” on a seven-second delay after Cherry went on a rant about how most NHL players who wear visors “are Europeans and French guys.” It was in line with more than a decade of public comments in which the flamboyant former coach called for hockey to be as violent and as English-speaking as possible.

And yet the government-owned broadcaster continued to subsidize a man who’s used the airwaves to spread hate since Tucker Carlson was in boarding school. So, too, did Sportsnet, which bought Hockey Night in Canada in 2013 and imported the dyspeptic octogenarian to its own station. There’s been cause for Cherry’s firing since before the Columbus Blue Jackets were founded, but only now has his employer finally decided to pull the trigger.

Cherry not only forged a media career of almost 40 years, he became a national icon in the process. In spite of his penchant for televised bigotry for some, but because of it for others.

Organized hockey in North America is a fundamentally conservative institution, partially because its decision-making entities—the NHL and the TV networks that service it—are billion-dollar enterprises run by white men and are therefore vehemently attached to the status quo. Cherry’s career spanned the NHL’s expansion to the Southern and Western United States, the first wave of European players in North America, the popularization and professionalization of the women’s game, and the gradual evolution away from the gooned-up bloodfest of the 20th century to the fast-moving, almost fightless professional game we see today.

Cherry is far from the only influential hockey figure who not only refused to adapt but found it offensive that anyone would expect him to do so, and while his firing is a long overdue pleasant surprise, he is merely a symptom of the sport’s racist, sexist, and classist dysfunction, rather than its cause.

The best summation of the hockey world’s relationship to latter-day Cherry came during his fateful and final bit of oratory on Saturday night. As Cherry exhorted “you people” to buy a poppy, his longtime cohost Ron MacLean was stunned into silence, able to muster no riposte beyond a chagrined nod and a feeble thumbs-up.

The next day, MacLean did something unusual in the North American media landscape: He offered an apology that spelled out his actions (or inaction) and expressed what appears to be genuine remorse, rather than merely apologizing that people were offended.

That’s more than can be said for Hockey Canada, whose statement neither named Cherry nor pinpointed why his comments were so offensive. “Hockey is Canada’s game,” read the statement, which seems to line up with Cherry’s self-proclaimed political nationalism, if not the reality of the sport in 2019, as 24 of the 31 NHL teams play in the United States, including the past 25 Stanley Cup winners. Russia (well, the “Olympic Athletes from Russia”) is the reigning men’s Olympic champion, while the United States women’s national team holds both the Olympic and IIHF senior world titles, and Finland is the men’s world champion at the senior and U20 level. Hockey is a global game, in spite of Cherry’s best efforts.

Fully half of Sportsnet president Bart Yabsley’s statement on Cherry’s firing is devoted to praising the former analyst. “Don is synonymous with hockey and has played an integral role in growing the game over the past 40 years,” the statement reads. And while MacLean went so far as to call his partner’s comments “prejudiced,” the best Yabsley could muster was: “He made divisive remarks that do not represent our values or what we stand for.”

It’s a lamentable choice of words. Cherry’s mortal sin was not divisiveness, but bigotry. And when a person or entity is faced with bigotry and bemoans lost consensus rather than moving to protect the targets of hate, it’s fair to ask whether what values, if any, that entity actually has to stand for.

Pulling the curtain back past Cherry, even a little, reveals a hockey establishment that’s all too happy to protect the likes of Bobby Hull, a serial spousal abuser who in 1998 said that Hitler “had some good ideas.” In 2017, the NHL used Hull in a TV promo for the Stanley Cup playoffs. MacLean, Hockey Canada, and Sportsnet all spoke of hockey’s ability to bring people together, but if men like Cherry and Hull are in the room—let alone in positions of influence—then they by their very presence exclude others.

Which is why Yabsley’s claim that Cherry grew the game over 40 years is impossible to take at face value. How many women, people of color, immigrants, French speakers, or even white English-speaking men who wanted to play the game without having to fight were turned off by Cherry and his copycats and enablers? Just last year, the U.S. Olympic hockey team fielded its first black player, male or female, in the 98-year history of the event—how quickly can hockey actually be growing if that’s the case?

And while Cherry’s naked racism on Saturday has rightfully drawn most of the attention, the primary thrust of his argument—that everyone ought to wear a poppy—has gone unchallenged. The poppy is a reference to John McCrae’s 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields,” an elegy for the fallen soldiers of World War I, a conflict in which Canadian troops fought some of the harshest engagements. The stated message of the poppy, to honor those who gave their lives for king and country, seems straightforward enough.

But in reality, supporting the troops has far too often come to mean supporting wars both just and wanton, and hawkishness as a prerequisite for patriotism. It elides or erases the experiences of people of color who went to war for a society that would not grant returning soldiers the freedoms they won for themselves, as Shireen Ahmed wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail on Monday. And then there are those for whom the military is not, or not only, a national service but a symbol of colonial oppression. Consider Irish soccer player James McClean, who refuses to wear a poppy on his uniform because in 1972 British troops killed 14 unarmed civilians in the Derry, Northern Ireland, neighborhood where he grew up—the Bloody Sunday massacre, as it came to be known. McClean has become a target for derision and hatred in the U.K. for undermining the illusory conception of patriotism that nationalists like Cherry espouse, as do far too many mainstream liberals and conservatives across the Western world. Small wonder divisiveness is seen as the greater sin than hatred.

Too many have looked the other way for too long as Cherry and others like him have used sports as a Trojan horse for nationalism and bigotry. But it’s hard to imagine that much will change in Cherry’s absence, because he was fired for being divisive. He should’ve been fired for being a bigot.