Determining the weight of words in sport

How a brawl in a U Sports hockey game questions disciplinary action in varsity sport

15 players and two coaches received suspensions for a brawl in an Acadia vs. St. FX hockey game on Feb. 2.
15 players and two coaches received suspensions for a brawl in an Acadia vs. St. FX hockey game on Feb. 2.
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When it comes to extreme circumstances, there’s never a correct answer.

Extreme circumstances are exactly what the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) officials have faced over the past two weeks after 15 men’s hockey players and two head coaches were involved in a bench-wide hockey brawl on Feb. 2.

The brawl was incited by comments from Acadia Axemen men’s hockey player Rodney Southam, 22, telling St. FX X-Men forward Sam Studnicka, 24, that he looked “like a fu— rapist.” St. FX player Regan Spears initiated the fight after Studnicka and Southam were paired up for a face-off at centre ice after the comments were made. 

The incident has since garnered intensive media coverage.

Videos of up to four minutes long show players from both teams fighting, with gloves and sticks strewn over the ice as referees and other players try to end the altercation. Both teams’ coaches can also be seen screaming profanities at one another. 

The fallout of the brawl begs the question of how to differentiate friendly trash-talking from hate speech: how can a university’s governing body discipline the type of indefensible behaviour that occurred in the AUS?

Each coach received a 10-game suspension following the incident. Six Axemen and nine X-Men players were handed automatic suspensions, with supplementary discipline added after further review. The suspensions currently total 39 games, and will carry into the 2019-20 season if necessary. 

Studnicka received a two-game suspension without any additions. Southam initially received two, with five additional, adding to a total of seven games.

The AUS men’s ice hockey regulations list the consequences of game misconduct penalties—but with gross misconducts such as this, penalties are subject to AUS disciplinary review. 

The situation gets muddier from here.

In the OUA, Ontario’s equivalent to the AUS, gross misconducts are automatically subjected to review. “Making a travesty of a game”—ambiguously labelled as a gross misconduct—can lead to a three-game suspension. 

At Queen’s, the Student Code of Conduct is upheld by the Non-Academic Misconduct (NAM) system, which extends over the Athletics & Recreation (A&R) department. They outline a code of conduct for student athletes, as well as a list of sanctions and procedures for misconducts. When these rules are broken, individuals are subject to disciplinary review under A&R, who have the option to assess the case through the university’s NAM system.

Universities are, historically, removed from disciplinary action. But with comments that cross over the athletic sphere and into the personal, they can cause harm to more people than its target. 

These athletes didn’t just participate in a fight: St. FX reacted defensively to a comment more harmful to Studnicka as a person than an athlete.

As such, disciplining athletes outside a multi-game suspension is a situation the according athletic bodies and universities should consider. Systems like NAM have the ability to dole out punishments outside of the rink for problems exceeding athletic misconduct. 

But the next question we have to ask is: How exactly do you discipline athletes for their words?

No players were reported to be seriously injured as a result of the brawl. Though Studnicka and Southam both released statements declaring a level of emotional hurt, players involved weren’t concussed or injured. Despite the altercation, the consequential physical damages were minimal. In short, the suspension length for each player involved was highly subjective.

In a specific situation like this, there are bound to be gaps in policy, and to no fault of the OUA or AUS.

The problem then, it seems, is cultural. 

It’s unfair to make a blanket statement on the culture of hockey. But according to reports, similar cases of verbal abuse have followed Studnicka for much of his career. The OUA can formally suspend players for trash talking, discriminatory slurs, and as mentioned, “making a travesty of the game.” 

Most athletes would argue that if leagues were to crack down on trash talking, droves of players would spend games on the sidelines. But situations like this call to question what is deemed “trash talking.” 

In this case, it’s hate speech.

If these instances are normalized as a form of trash-talking, this needs to be addressed by regulators of the sport. Language that carries such impact shouldn’t be shrugged aside because it’s heard on the ice.

The coverage that’s come from the situation in the Maritimes is encouraging. With the strong media coverage and statements from both sides, the sport’s been able to address underlying conduct issues that have followed a player—and likely others.

With the spotlight on university hockey, the conversation must continue after media coverage ends to enforce the difference between healthy competition and damaging behaviour. 

The issue at hand has ultimately amplified a problem that remains blurry for referees and governing bodies. It’s something that can’t be decided with the blow of a whistle. 

But with a proper investigation, players should know the implications of using destructive language. It’s bigger than acknowledging there’s an issue; it’s about holding athletes accountable for their words.

If the situation in the AUS shows us anything, it’s that hockey has room to grow.

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