Big-time American team sports are unforgiving, Darwinian enterprises. If a pitcher can’t find the strike zone, he gets demoted, traded, or cut. Many football coaches are a botched fourth-down call from the unemployment line. Even up the ladder, general managers get only so many chances to build a winning team before their time runs out. Those at the team president/CEO level also find themselves out of work if they screw up badly enough.
There are many ways to damage the team, on the field or off. And the consequences for almost every employee are the same: Find a new job.
But what if the person damaging the team can’t be fired?
On Wednesday night, Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz gravely embarrassed himself and his team at a town hall event at the United Center. Mark Lazerus of The Athletic directed a question to Wirtz’s son, team CEO Danny Wirtz, about what steps the Blackhawks were taking to empower players in the wake of the Kyle Beach story. Rather than respond with any sort of consideration or information, Wirtz père jumped in and told Lazerus, “I don’t think it’s any of your business. You don’t work for the company. If somebody in the company asks that question, we’ll answer it. And I think you should get on to the next subject. We’re not going to talk about Kyle Beach. We’re not going to talk about anything that happened. Now we’re moving on.”
Here’s the full segment/video. Just ridiculous from Rocky Wirtz. pic.twitter.com/9k9QxKW0gI— Wally Maz (@WallMaz35) February 3, 2022
For almost a full minute, Wirtz shut down both his own son and Lazerus as they attempted to discuss the accountability and transparency measures his team had promised in October, when Beach revealed himself as a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the team. And when Chicago Tribune beat writer Phil Thompson tried to follow up, Wirtz snapped again, asking why Thompson was bringing up “old business.”
It bears repeating that this wasn’t some sign-stealing or ball-deflating scandal. According to a publicly released investigative report, in 2010, former Blackhawks assistant coach Brad Aldrich had a sexual encounter with Beach, who at the time was a minor leaguer practicing with the team. Beach told investigators that this was not consensual; per the report, he “recalled that Aldrich said words to the effect of, ‘If you don’t lay down and act like you enjoy it, I’ll make sure you never play in the NHL or walk again.’” When Blackhawks senior management became aware of the incident, they swept the matter under the rug and later allowed Aldrich to leave the organization quietly. Thereafter, Aldrich continued to work with amateur players and lean on his NHL and Blackhawks connections to find new work—some with teens and college-age players—until he was jailed in 2013 for fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct involving a minor.
Wirtz’s obstinacy about “not looking back” is all the more damning given that this story is still ongoing. The morning after the town hall, TSN’s Rick Westhead reported that another former player who said Aldrich raped him while working at Miami University of Ohio in 2012 is considering suing the Blackhawks. Former Blackhawks assistant coach Paul Vincent is also considering a lawsuit, as he says the team blacklisted him for advocating for Beach and another as-yet-unnamed player when they came forward with accounts involving Aldrich.
This story pervades every aspect of the Blackhawks organization right now, to the point that when Wirtz suggested Thompson might be better off asking about the franchise’s search for a new GM, he was himself backhandedly referencing the scandal—that vacancy exists only because longtime executive Stan Bowman was forced out in October for his role in the Aldrich cover-up.
Let’s consider Wirtz’s function at this event. This was an attempt to foster goodwill at a time when morale among the fan base is at a low point following revelations of an appalling moral depravity. Lazerus called it “perhaps the biggest story in franchise history” in his column Wednesday, adding that the Wirtzes had not been publicly questioned on the matter since Beach’s lawsuit was filed last year.
So it makes sense for the Blackhawks to reach out to diehard fans and season-ticket holders to try to build a sense of community, hear concerns, and answer questions—or at least to give a convincing enough facsimile of the same to sell a few tickets. If that was the goal, it’s hard to imagine how Wirtz could’ve failed more comprehensively.
Wirtz should’ve been prepared to face these questions, as anyone with half a brain would have expected the Beach story to come up in a setting like this. Wirtz could’ve evaded—something along the lines of “We’re still looking into it” would’ve been unsatisfying, but would not have made international headlines. He could have lied. He could have let his son field the question that was directed to him in the first place, and that he seemed all too eager to answer. (The elder Wirtz admitted as much in a statement hours after his tirade, in which he expressed “regret” for the outburst, if not the sentiment behind it.)
But he didn’t. The night Beach appeared on TSN to tell his story, the Blackhawks released a statement that read, in part, “The Blackhawks have implemented numerous changes and improvements within the organization, including hiring a new leadership team that is committed to winning championships while adhering to the highest ethical, professional, and athletic standards.”
NBC Sports Chicago announcer Pat Foley also used his pregame introduction that night to comment on the situation. “Since 2010,” he said, “the Hawks have implemented numerous positive changes throughout the organization, and especially over the past year under new leadership. … One important takeaway here is that this is a new leadership team, and they showed the world yesterday they’re going to be transparent. And they’ll lead with values first.”
How can Blackhawks fans buy that party line now? How can they believe that the team has cleaned house and will go forth and sin no more when the head of the Wirtz family—which was cleared of wrongdoing in the official report but has been the face of the franchise since the 1950s—responds so rashly to a question that was as diplomatic as it was essential?
Wirtz’s tone is not the issue. Veteran journalists will face much scarier opponents than an irritated 69-year-old with a microphone. But embedded in Wirtz’s nonanswer was a clear message that makes it worth watching the video instead of just reading the transcript of the exchange. That message: How dare you question me.
Wirtz is a third-generation NHL owner. His father and his father’s father have exerted near-absolute power over an NHL franchise since Rocky was 2. They’ve been the ones who hired and fired coaches and GMs, who dictated team policy. When Wirtz snapped, “I don’t think it’s any of your business,” he may have done so because he’s been able to decide what issues are whose business within his fiefdom for his entire life.
This exchange was only one of several examples this week of the ultimate doctrine of power in sports: An owner can be lobbied, cajoled, or persuaded, but never dictated to.
The morning before Wirtz melted down, the NFL’s franchise in Washington, D.C., unveiled its new team name, logo, and uniforms. Front and center at the event was owner Daniel Snyder, whose organization was fined $10 million by the NFL last year in response to reports of systemic workplace sexual harassment by Snyder and other male employees. On Thursday, six women who had worked for the team appeared before the House Oversight Committee for a roundtable discussion on workplace sexual harassment. There, they revealed new accounts of Snyder’s inappropriate behavior. A former cheerleader and marketing manager said Snyder had tried to force her into his limo after a team dinner, and “that the only reason Dan Snyder removed his hand from my back and stopped pushing me toward his limo is because his attorney intervened and said, ‘Dan, Dan, this is a bad idea.’” She also said that a senior colleague urged her not to report the incident to HR. Another former Washington employee said, “I can’t recall a time that I didn’t experience or fear sexual harassment.”
In addition to accounts like this, Snyder has been an embarrassment to the team and the league almost since the moment he bought the club in 1999. For more than 20 years, he’s been an exemplar of a nightmare sports owner. In addition to the headline items—reported rampant sexual harassment and Snyder’s fixation on keeping the team’s racist former nickname for years even after public opinion turned on him—Snyder has turned a once-proud franchise into a laughingstock.
But apart from fining Snyder a trivial amount for a man of his means (his net worth is $4 billion, according to Forbes) and allowing him to come and go from a nebulous self-imposed exile, the league hasn’t done much of anything to discipline him. At least the investigation into the Aldrich cover-up was made public. After The Washington Post published its series of exposés on Snyder in 2020, the NFL commissioned its own investigation into Snyder and Washington’s toxic workplace culture—a report Snyder reportedly tried to stymie after promising to cooperate. Commissioner Roger Goodell announced the $10 million fine on July 1 and in October alluded to a “summary of findings” from the investigation, but the findings themselves have not been released.
Snyder might be the NFL’s most infamous owner, but he’s far from the only one to disgrace himself and his team. On Tuesday, former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores filed a class-action lawsuit against the league and three of its teams that included accounts of discrimination. According to the suit, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered to pay Flores “$100,000 for every loss, and the team’s General Manager, Chris Grier, told Mr. Flores that ‘Steve’ was ‘mad’ that Mr. Flores’ success in winning games that year was ‘compromising [the team’s] draft position.’” Tanking in sports is nothing new, but the explicit incentive to throw games violates the core tenet that underpins the legitimacy of sport: that both sides are trying to win.
Within hours of Flores’s lawsuit becoming public, the NFL dismissed his claims out of hand. “We will defend against these claims, which are without merit,” the league’s statement read. It made no reference to any potential investigation into the allegation against Ross—which, if true, would be tantamount to match-fixing—just the immediate circling of the wagons.
The NHL, meanwhile, has not yet disciplined or even issued a statement reprimanding Wirtz for his outburst on Wednesday, damaging as it was to the credibility of the team and the league. And in the NBA, a league investigation into Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver is entering month four with no results after an ESPN report detailed accounts of racism, misogyny, and a toxic work environment in Phoenix. According to that report, Sarver, who is white, used racial epithets in conversation with then-coach Earl Watson, and said that he “owned” certain employees.
If a player, coach, or executive had said anything as grotesque as Wirtz’s comments Wednesday, or as bigoted as Sarver’s, or as misogynistic and predatory—to say nothing of legally actionable—as Snyder’s, they’d be hitting the bricks. No less entrenched and decorated a figure as Jon Gruden can so attest. If not out of a sense of moral obligation, then at least for reasons of public relations expediency. But when the owner is at fault, there is no recourse. When the rot is at the most powerful and influential levels of the organization, only then is it untreatable.
That’s because the perception of American professional sports leagues as governing bodies is a convenient illusion. They merely represent working agreements among cartel members, and league employees—including and especially the commissioners—report to and are hired and fired by the owners. To wit: On Friday, the House Oversight and Reform committee issued a document that revealed the decision to publish the Washington report lies not with Goodell, but with Snyder himself.
Owners love to invoke a sense of community when it’s time to fund a new stadium or push to meet ticket sales quotas. But a sports team and its fan base share a community only in the sense that a feudal manor is a community. In exchange for lifelong loyalty and financial support, maybe the owner will construct a winning team. Maybe they’ll put together a franchise that conducts itself with dignity and humanity, that makes fans proud to wear its logo. If not, well, it’s none of our business anyway.
That’s the implicit challenge Wirtz issued on Wednesday night. No one has the right to question the owner. Don’t like it? Tough. There’s nothing you—or almost anyone else—can do about it.