Leonsis deserves more severe penalties

I can think of at least a dozen reasons why the NHL could have come down a little lighter on Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis.

Updated: January 28, 2004, 8:44 PM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

I can think of at least a dozen reasons why the NHL could have come down a little lighter on Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, who was given a one-week suspension and a $100,000 fine by league commissioner Gary Bettman for an altercation with a fan.

Exactly what Leonsis did or didn't do is still the subject of conflicting accounts, but there is no doubt he lunged at Jason Hammer and put his hands on him.

I could argue that Hammer pushed Leonsis too far and that, given the circumstances, Leonsis was asked to take more than any man should have to. I could ask the league to consider that Leonsis was being ridiculed and insulted by someone who had no idea about the true workings of either the business or emotional side of being a sports owner.

I could defend Leonsis with an argument that he has built up a reservoir of good will, both with the league and the always-iffy Capitals fan base. I could say that his exceptionally sharp business skills and innovative approaches to running a franchise in a town that doesn't seem to give a good gosh darn about the sport are a model for franchises across North America.

I could even explain that really caring about a team as part of an extended family and an extended community should count for something, that there should be a limit to how much a man is forced to endure -- especially a man who willingly absorbed millions of dollars in losses and saw his best-laid plans go astray.

Regardless of these arguments, though, one week wasn't enough punishment for Ted Leonsis. Neither was the $100,000 fine.

It's simple. An owner, coach or general manager simply should never, ever lay hands upon a fan.

I know Leonsis to be a good man, a daring and innovative owner and a caring member of both the NHL fraternity and the Washington community. I would argue before and after this incident that both the league and the D.C. area are fortunate to have him.

That said, he still crossed the one line that no owner, coach or general manager can ever cross; he accosted and demeaned a paying customer.

Was Hammer a jerk? It would appear so. Did he go too far in getting his sign and his chants right up into Leonsis' face, embarrassing him in front of friends, family and fans? Absolutely. Did he deserve to have someone put him in his place? By the code of hockey and most every other basic human instinct, it would appear he could benefit from anything from a verbal put-down to a harassment charge and maybe even an old-fashioned spanking from his father once he got home.

But not from Ted Leonsis.

It's not just because the customer is king and has a right to express his opinion. It's not because the league has enough of an image problem without having an owner resort to a scene right out of "Slap Shot."

It's simply because someone needs to stand for basic civility, even in the face of truly emotional circumstances. It's also because every fan in every sport needs to know he has a certain guarantee of well-being at the place he has chosen to spend his entertainment dollar.

Even if he is acting like a jerk.

That's a basic tenet of the sports business, and Leonsis violated it.

Leonsis had options. He could have used his considerable people skills to defuse an ugly situation. He could have called on the security guards to remove a person who has simply come too close to his personal space. He could have opted to do what many great men have done and simply walked away.

He didn't do any of those things. Be it a lapse of judgment or a flaw in what otherwise always appeared to be his outstanding character, Ted Leonsis made the wrong choice. He got down to the level of the very person who affronted him

That's a level that demeans him, the game and the many good people who have supported both Leonsis and the sport, and have tried to make it better than it's oft-sullied public image. His actions will make fans and potential fans wonder if they should ever invest their time, money and families' well-being in a sport where an owner acts every bit like some of the toughest thugs on ice.

In a matter of seconds, Leonsis created an image that both he and hockey may never fully erase. He did damage that cannot be undone.

Viewed in that context it really doesn't matter how good a man Ted Leonsis has so often shown himself to be. Viewed in that context, a week and $100,000 doesn't seem like nearly enough.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.