Krys Barch of the Florida Panthers was given a game misconduct against the Montreal Canadiens last Saturday for what a linesman later revealed was a racial slur he heard Barch use against P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens.
On Thursday, Barch was suspended for one game by the National Hockey League. Not for, as was first inferred, dropping an N-bomb or ridiculing Subban's heritage, whose parents are from Jamaica.
Instead, Barch was suspended for making a reference to "slipping on a banana peel" after Subban tumbled to the ice in an altercation with Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson, multiple sources confirmed to Yahoo! Sports on Wednesday.
From the NHL, the official word:
"Mr. Barch has admitted making the remark, but denies that the comment was racially motivated," said Colin Campbell, Senior Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations. "While we accept Mr. Barch's assertion, as
a player in the National Hockey League, he must be held accountable for making a comment that, in the context in which it was made, and in light of the entirety of the circumstances, was offensive and unacceptable."
And with that, "racism" becomes a matter of context.
According to Harvey Flalkov of the Sun-Sentinel, Barch said he would have received up to a seven-game suspension from the NHL had his comment been a racial slur. He also called Subban on Sunday and explained his comment, saying that Subban "understood where he was coming from."
From George Richards of the Miami Herald, coach Kevin Dineen said:
"There is no debate over what was said,'' Dineen said. "The content or the context of the comment can and should be debated over what the intent of the comments were. I have a lot of respect for Krys Barch and how he's handled himself the past five days. This has been extremely tough on him. "At the end of the day, all the information was laid out there. We respect the league's decision and move on.''
Scott Norton, Barch's agent, was confident that "he did no wrong and there were no racial undertones or slur stated" and that it was all "a misunderstanding," like an episode of "Three's Company."
[Related: How Sidney Crosby's lost year changed hockey]
But it's one word against … well, not Subban's, because he didn't hear it. Against the linesman's, we guess, who decided that a joke used occasionally in a game played on a slick surface — a former NHLer texted us this morning to say it's "commonly used when a guy goes down in purpose in a fight to avoid getting his ass kicked" — had racial undertones.
So now we're in Howard Cosell "that little monkey gets loose, doesn't he?" territory, in which some believe it's an bad joke with appalling context and others believe it's something more nefarious and intentional.
But you can't ignore the context, especially this season in the NHL: The hockey worked was horrified when a fan threw a banana at Wayne Simmonds in the preseason. Subban's a player that's had fans show up in blackface to 'support'; even if the banana thing wasn't intended to offend racially, the NHL's going to police it.
Especially when a linesman heard the statement and ejected Barch for it. That's the difference between this incident and the one involving Wayne Simmonds using a homophobic slur against Sean Avery of the New York Rangers earlier this season: None of the on-ice officials heard it, and the NHL was weary about labeling Simmonds as a homophobe without what it considered concrete evidence. (Potential defamation lawsuits are funny that way.)
This evidence, apparently, not being concrete enough:
All of this is what happens when we start policing language on the ice, where men do and say things they'd never do or say at, like, Starbucks the next morning. (OK, Chris Neil might.) A few more of these and we'll have players crying about being offended by verbal taunts like they cry about uncalled tripping penalties on breakaways. Do we really want linesmen as arbiters of good taste? They can't even get offside calls correct half the time.
It's a slippery slope. As slippery as a bana … uh, something really slippery that may nor may not have been peeled away from a piece of fru … uh, food.
Other popular content on Yahoo! Sports:
• The Jerry Jones Bowl? What if the NFL embraced the BCS format?
• Kobe Bryant is taking pregame injections to his wrist just to be able to play
• There's trouble in paradise as the PGA Tour begins its 2012 season