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Whatever happened to due process?
Morgan Rielly got it almost three years ago, but the rush to judgment on Jacob Panetta over his alleged racial gesture in the ECHL is unsettling to say the least
If Jacob Panetta is indeed guilty of making a racial gesture toward Jordan Subban in an ECHL game Saturday night, he should have the privilege of playing professional hockey at any level taken away from him for a long, long time. That will in no way solve the problem of racism in this sport, or change the culture of a game that still sometimes treats BIPOC participants abysmally, but it’s a start. Racism in hockey is both the fault and problem of the culture of the game, and any change has to be much more impactful than a suspension.
(Or two, in the case of Krystof Hrabik of the San Jose Barracuda, who was suspended 30 games by the American Hockey League for a racial gesture toward Boko Imama of the Tucson Roadrunners. Hrabik can apply for reinstatement after March 12, which would reduce the suspension to 21 games if he were successful, fewer if any are postponed because of COVID. That’s not enough.)
To say there is “no place” for this kind of thing in hockey is, of course, an enormous understatement. But there should also be “no place” for the kind of mob mentality that would have Jacob Panetta banished from the face of the hockey world immediately, despite the fact that he claims the incident between him and Subban was not racially motivated. In case you haven’t heard, Panetta was suspended indefinitely by the ECHL pending an investigation for an alleged racial gesture toward Subban in a game between his Jacksonville Icemen and Subban’s South Carolina Stingrays Saturday night.
The indefinite suspension pending a review was swift, coming only hours after the incident. And that’s exactly what the ECHL should have done. Countless people weighed in on the incident, including Jordan Subban’s oldest brother, new Jersey Devils defenseman P.K. Subban, and denounced it. The Icemen, after initially announcing that they were cooperating with the league’s investigation and “intend to make comment and decisions after completion of league review,” hours later announced they were releasing Panetta. “Though the investigation and review is (sic) ongoing at the league level, the Jacksonville Icemen will be releasing the player involved effective immediately and will continue our mission of sharing our love of community and hockey.”
The Icemen talked a lot about “core values,” but nowhere in the statement did it say anything about one of those core values being due process. You might be familiar with the concept since it is one of the most crucial underpinnings of any properly functioning justice system. Because what a lot of people seem to be willing to set aside as a footnote at best, and completely omit at worst, is the fact that Panetta has claimed that this is a complete misunderstanding and that none of what he did was racially motivated.
Panetta came out with a statement of his own via Twitter, saying that what people mistook for an ape imitation was actually him making, “a tough-guy bodybuilder-like gesture towards (Subban),” something he claims he has done, with video evidence, to several other players in the league. “I want to reiterate that no racial slurs, noises or anything of the like were said by me during the incident,” Panetta went on to say.
So was it a racially motivated incident or a case of a silly taunting gesture that went terribly wrong? Well, one would think the league investigation and Panetta’s hearing will go a long way toward determining that. But that has not stopped a number of people from continuing to condemn Panetta and demand he never see the inside of a hockey arena ever again. The Jacksonville Icemen, in particular, should be ashamed of the way they handled this. And if it does turn out that Panetta was guilty of nothing more than stupid hockey taunting, any player who wants to continue his career in professional hockey should think twice about joining an organization that would so quickly and decisively abandon its player before getting all the facts.
This actually reminds me a lot of the 2015 incident in which Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks was accused of sexual assault by a Buffalo woman the summer after the Blackhawks won their most recent Stanley Cup. When the allegations surfaced, there was an enormous hue and cry to not only bar Kane from training camp, but to void his contract and cut him loose. The only problem is that the allegation was flimsy and full of inconsistencies, including what the district attorney called “an elaborate hoax” involving the rape kit. The same district attorney later said the sexual assault claim was “rife with reasonable doubt,” and referred to it as “this so-called ‘case.’ ”
Kane was not sanctioned by either the league or the Blackhawks, who instead allowed the case to come to a conclusion. The NHL and the Blackhawks, we’ve since learned, don’t always do the right thing when it comes to dealing with sexual abuse, but they did in that case.
Or perhaps the ECHL could give Jacob Panetta the same due process the NHL gave Morgan Rielly almost three years ago. In a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning in March, 2019, cameras picked up what sounded like a homophobic slur from the Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman toward referee Brad Meier. Rielly maintained his innocence and within one day, the league backed him up following an investigation. The league did not find a slur had not necessarily been uttered, simply that if it were, Rielly was not the one who said it. “Some people rushed to judgment,” Leafs GM Kyle Dubas said at the time, “and that’s what happens in 2019.”
It still happens in 2022.
So perhaps we should all just take a step back here and allow the ECHL to investigate what actually happened. And if it is found that Panetta actually made a racially motivated gesture, he should have to deal with severe consequences. Because that kind of thing should not happen to anyone. But you know what also shouldn’t happen to anyone? To be tried and convicted by his team, his league and the court of public opinion and to lose his livelihood without due process. Because that’s almost as bad as a player having to endure a racist taunt.