Anyone who follows the Ontario Hockey League closely knows what league scoring leader Nick Cousins was involved in.
The fact that a 19-year-old male who has a court date later this month on a sexual assault charge is also first in OHL scoring while leading the resurgent Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds is not lost on anyone in OHL circles. Not talking about just happens to be the coping mechanism when the fantasyland of sports collides with uncomfortable subjects such as jock culture and sex assault. It's wrongheaded, make no mistake. Now, thanks to the Philadelphia Daily News bizarrely writing a positive profile of Cousins that included ill-chosen words from Flyers director of player development Ian Laperrière, Cousins wound up in a media storm on Thursday.
The kicker is it's not even really about him or the Greyhounds, whose climb up the standings will be painted positively no matter what happens in court. Hockey cannot be filtered out of the case, but hockey not is on trial. It's more about how the media is vexed to properly write about an age-old societal scourge.
Cousins, along with the co-accused, Greyhounds right wing Andrew Fritsch and former 'Hound Mark Petaccio, who was traded in January to the Ottawa 67's, still have their day in court coming. They're entitled to it.
The story died down after the initial shock when charges were laid against the three in August and kept away from the Soo's training camp until the story died down. The OHL and Hockey Canada had an out with regard to not selecting Cousins, a Flyers third-round pick in 2011, for either the Subway Super Series or the Canadian national junior team selection camp. At the time, he wasn't a slam-dunk choice for Team Canada. There was enough plausible deniability to keep that story localized to the Soo. It was a topic best avoided.
Then the 'Hounds started winning under new coach Sheldon Keefe and Cousins started piling up points. That led to the Daily News deciding a story was called for, even though it did not mention the criminal case until the 14th paragraph. Ian Laperrière, who says his words were misunderstood, aggravated an already tense situation. Here's the damning quote from Frank Seravalli's article:
"At the pro level, teams expect you to be an adult and act like one," Laperriere said. "[Cousins has] a good heart ... Let's be honest, stuff like that has been happening forever. You can't get away with anything now. He can't put himself in those situations.
"He's been in trouble with this stuff, but hopefully that's all going to go away. Part of my job is telling him that he needs to learn from that. You need to be careful what you're doing. All of our prospects need to learn from his situation." (Philadelphia Daily News)
Laperrière and Seravalli's explanations given to Broad Street Hockey just muddy the picture further. It's obvious that a serious criminal charge should not be put under the heading "stuff like that." Laperrière, without saying as much to Travis Hughes, seemed to realize he had erred big-time. At the same time, he's an assessor of hockey talent stepping out of his comfort zone.
(Update: Further to the point that Laperrière deserves some benefit of the doubt, please visit Backhand Shelfand pore through the email exchange between he and Jennifer Conway (@NHLhistorygirl), a sexual assault survivor.)
What was really objectionable was Frank Seravalli's justification of what Deadspin called a "whole article [that] should never have been written."
"I'm in no way defending Cousins or his actions," Seravalli continued. "If he is guilty, anything he's done in hockey won't matter. For one, he won't be allowed in the U.S. And I'd have a hard time believing any team would be interested in a player with that history and past."
Innocent until proven guilty is an important principle in our society, so we definitely shouldn't assume that Cousins is guilty. In that regard, I don't have a problem with the second part of Lappy's quote -- the "hopefully that's all going to go away" part. We do hope it goes away, because we hope the accusations are false and that this never happened. (Clarification: That's also not to say that we're victim blaming or brushing the accusations under the rug, or that we shouldn't take the accusations seriously.)
In any case, let's make clear here that sexual assault or rape is not something "learn from." It's something to be punished for. (Clarification: I don't mean to say that our society in general doesn't have a lot of learning to do when it comes to rape culture. We do.) (Broad Street Hockey)
Seravalli kind of answered everyone else's question. A story about the progress of a random young athlete who is facing trial might become null and void with a criminal conviction. If he is guilty, anything he's done in hockey won't matter. Why do all that work in the first place? There is certainly another topical Philly prospect story to write up, like 2012 second-rounder Anthony Stolarz's trials and tribulations since leaving college to join the London Knights last month.
The point is the best, but still flawed, practice with covering a junior player with a pending court case or a prior conviction is to say as little as possible. Leave it to the court system. Stick strictly to describing on-ice play. Don't go out of one's way to glorify. As it happened, this came one day after a certain blog named Andrew Fritsch its No. 1 star of the night in the Canadian Hockey League. However, he rated the recognition that only touched on his four-goal game and his history of injuries. And nothing else.
Is that the perfect, socially progressive response? No, because there is no filtering hockey out of the Cousins, Fritsch and Petaccio case. Does it do anything to change attitudes about sexual assault? No. But sports journalism isn't about creating a safer world. So that's where it ends up. The only reason this post was written was due to the Philly story and the ensuing fallout.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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