Commentary

What message should we take from NHL's suspension of words?

Updated: December 6, 2008, 5:23 AM ET
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

When pitcher John Rocker made the fateful decision to share his idiosyncratic and repulsive worldview with a larger audience, many recoiled in disgust. Many others said, "Amen, brother."

When Steve Nash, a Canadian, chose to offer a dissension against U.S. military action in Iraq by wearing a T-shirt that read "No War. Shoot For Peace" to the NBA All-Star Game, some applauded his anti-war stance. Others told him to mind his own business.

When Sean Avery decided this week to slag his ex in the most discourteous way possible, the NHL decided he'd broken an unwritten rule and told him to take a seat. Meanwhile, some laughed at his "sloppy seconds" comment and suggested that kind of brazen showmanship would bring attention to the NHL and enhance its profile.

One man's entertaining outspokenness, it seems, is another man's obscenity.

This is the reality that professional sports leagues confront when they attempt to legislate against words or thoughts. Without the benefit of a public vote to tell them what their constituents believe is a proper code of verbal conduct, these organizations rely on reflexes or gut feelings when it comes time to decide what is lively trash talk and what crosses the line into untoward politicization of their sport, a hate crime or simple crude and boorish behavior.

Really, what the NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and other leagues would prefer is that their athletes just shut up. But even that's not totally true. They want their athletes to be available and sound bite-worthy but also to have some kind of self-censorship button they can push to prevent unwanted controversy and attention.

Bland is mostly preferable to interesting. Former Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke said recently he had one rule for his players: that they steer clear of politics in any way, shape or form. Safer that way.

Then again, the Terrell Owenses of the world draw waves of publicity and attention to their sports, thus fulfilling, to some degree, a helpful function for the business.

See, sports wants it both ways. Sometimes, it wants the verbiage police on patrol. Other times, not so much.

It's one of the crucial ways in which sports, despite being entertainment, differ from other forms of entertainment that aren't inclined to try to legislate the behavior of their individual performers.

So when the Dixie Chicks choose to dis Dubya, there was no commissioner of country rock to hand down a suspension. No matter whether the Dixie Chicks were right or wrong, it was the market, or a chunk of their market, that reacted negatively to their words. They didn't have guaranteed contracts to lean on, only their reputation and appeal.

"Saturday Night Live" can parody recent vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and chuckle about those who would call her a "MILF," but there's no one to sit down Tina Fey for the next five episodes of "30 Rock."

The days when police would arrest Jim Morrison of The Doors on stage for breaking obscenity laws are long gone, folks.

Theater, art and rock 'n' roll are about having no rules, while sports are, to some extent, all about rules. It's why those shut-ins will call in while watching a golf tournament to complain about a ball that was lifted illegally. Without the rules, there is anarchy, right?

But when it comes to words, thoughts and morality in professional sports, whose rules apply? Who are we protecting, exactly? The kids who watch everything and anything on YouTube, or those who belong to abstinence groups in college and participate in overseas service trips?

In the case of Avery, he offended a lot of people, but most specifically, he offended NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Never mind that he has said similar things or nastier things over and over during his career to his opponents and has directed disgusting slurs against their girlfriends, daughters or mothers.

[+] EnlargeSean Avery
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesSean Avery is set to meet with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and league disciplinary czar Colin Campbell on Thursday in New York.

Never mind that this is a league that does little or nothing to stop the words that athletes exchange on the ice, mostly because there's little it can do about attempts to get the other guy "off his game." You can turn on games any night and read the lips of coaches and players saying things a great deal worse than what Avery had to say about Dion Phaneuf and Elisha Cuthbert. But after the Dallas forward stage-managed his own news conference Tuesday afternoon in Calgary, the league suddenly felt compelled to act.

Confused? Join the club.

These are tricky, tricky areas for sports to venture into, if only because no rules exist to detail specifically what can and cannot be said. Football players talk smack every week, but when former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Joey Porter publicly questioned the masculinity of Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow in 2006, there suddenly was a problem and outcries for an investigation.

Someone in authority decides suddenly when a line has been crossed, and in the case of Avery, there was no shortage of people to say exactly that -- that Avery "crossed the line" in this case.

Well, whose line? Is there some homogeneous North American populace out there whose members all feel precisely the same way on these matters?

Former Tampa Bay Lightning coach John Tortorella, now an analyst on TSN of Canada, called Avery's comments "ridiculous" and said the NHL should "send him home," but Tortorella was renowned for a wide variety of verbal outbursts during his NHL career. Just last season, he told a New York columnist to "get the f--- out of here" in a postgame scrum in an incident televised everywhere. Funny, I can't remember the suspension. Or the apology.

So, you can insult an opponent's girlfriend in the lowest possible terms on the ice within earshot of the most expensive seats where little Johnny is sitting with his dad, but if little Johnny hears something nasty while watching "SportsCenter," that's a different universe entirely.

Still, up here in the Great White North, "Hockey Night in Canada" star Don Cherry has a long history of making unflattering comments toward French Canadians and Europeans of various ancestry, but no one from NHL headquarters has ever laid a hand on him.

Look, this is an imprecise science at best, and Bettman's heart is probably in the right place. It's clear that nobody really likes Avery, and although the NHL undoubtedly was thrilled to see him out of New York, right now it probably would prefer if he were out of the NHL entirely. He's a blight on the sport and fancies himself the perfect salesman for the league.

The NHL has tried before to silence inappropriate chatter, particularly use of racial slurs on the ice. But anybody who knows the game and knows players understands that Avery's choice of words was relatively benign compared with much of what gets said between NHL players.

So it wasn't what was said. It was how it was said, and the setting it was said in.

This gets more complicated by the minute.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.

ALSO SEE