Some may have chuckled the first time Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand kissed an opponent on the cheek. This was during the 2017-18 National Hockey League (NHL) regular season, and the “recipient” was Toronto Maple Leafs forward Leo Komarov.
In that moment, some of us may have had tingles thinking about when Phoenix Mercury star Diana Taurasi bestowed a kiss upon opponent Seimone Augustus of the Minnesota Lynx in what seemed to be an attempt to diffuse a heated situation during the 2013 WNBA playoffs. In that case, both players got called for a personal foul, then later joked about it in the post-game press conference.
Marchand was not penalized, though he too joked about it after the game. But as similar acts continued into the postseason, people were laughing a little less. This “tactic” was interpreted as antagonistic given Marchand’s history of fines, suspensions and, of course, penalty minutes. During game one of the first round of the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, Marchand again kissed Komarov. Some have quibbled over whether it was actually a kiss or a “nuzzle.” Regardless, the NHL demanded that Marchand stop the kissing/nuzzling. No specifics about potential penalties or other repercussions were provided.
Either word never reached Marchand, or he just didn’t care, because in the next round, he licked Tampa Bay Lightning player Ryan Callahan. This is when the league announced, via Twitter, that it had “put him on notice.” There were no further incidents, and the Bruins’ season came to an end after losing the series against Tampa Bay.
It is difficult for me to take seriously the collective “eewwwing” and complaints about inappropriate behavior because of the hypocrisy blanketing this whole situation. The NHL has failed to address its problems with homophobia, violence, and racism—all of which are exemplified in how the league reacted to Marchand’s behavior. It is not funny, and any “humor” masks the fact that these incidents were acts of antagonism and sexual assault. Yet, no one has called them that—not explicitly.
Marchand’s last victim, Callahan, was upset because he felt licking was akin to spitting. Spitting falls under the category of bad behavior and is prohibited by the NHL and subject to a (minor) fine. This is likely due to potential health issues associated with exposure to bodily fluids, but also because spitting is a tactic used to antagonize opponents. Such concerns about health would be valid if we were not talking about players in a league who regularly are exposed to bodily fluids—namely blood—in the course of sanctioned on-ice assault. Fights are tactics as well; they send messages to opponents and are used to swing momentum. Fights are not only encouraged by coaches but have become expected behavior.
Because of the existence of sanctioned violence, the league’s threats against Marchand are hypocritical and lack legitimacy. The NHL’s response to Marchand’s behavior reflects a hierarchy of assault in which licking an opponent is treated as substantially more serious than punching someone, which draws a 2-minute penalty (or 5 depending on severity) and garners the respect of fans, teammates, and coaches. The uproar about Marchand’s behavior was not due to the fact it constituted assault perpetuated by one player against another, but rather was based in homophobia/homonegativity.
Cyd Zeigler of Outsports.com wrote about this facet of the controversy, but he too focused on the need for the NHL to penalize Marchand because it prohibits spitting. He noted the deployment of homophobia as a tactic to throw off opponents, but we would be naïve to think that this was the first time homophobia was used on the ice for such a purpose. I have sat close enough to the ice to know this not to be true. The non-anecdotal research on the culture of masculinity and hockey along with stories about sexually based hazing among intercollegiate hockey teams, reinforces this fact. Given the NHL’s homophobia problem, penalizing someone for spitting when it really is not about spitting—and it is certainly not about health—does not address the underlying problem.
Zeigler has a valid point, but he misses the assault part of it; specifically, the sexual assault. Marchand is deploying sexuality in a physical way to exert or maintain power over another individual. In this #metoo moment, the lack of recognition—by everyone—of this incident as sexual assault is unfortunate but not surprising. It remains difficult to convince people that (1) sexual assault happens between men and (2) that sexual assault is not about desire for sex and does not always include penetrative sex. In this case, the NHL could not talk about the homophobia without talking about the sexual violence, so it did neither.
The NHL’s violence and homophobia problems are steeped in a culture of hypermasculinity and misogyny. These things cannot be disaggregated. There is a failure to understand the intersecting operations of power and privilege here, including whiteness. The NHL has arguably taken more definitive stances on racism within the league, primarily by fans against players. But we cannot overlook that the perpetrator in this case is a white man and that his whiteness, along with his “successful” display of heterosexual masculinity, has protected him from any real censure and violence.
What happens to Marchand in the off-season is unknown. Regardless, it is unlikely anything will change in the culture of the NHL. It will continue to allow fighting, and this will perpetuate the culture of violence that is widely tolerated until something “beyond the pale” occurs. It will remain impossible to punish a player for the same type of actions that earn him praise, a hefty salary, and a fan base, while also maintaining credibility as a sports governance organization.
Kristine Newhall is an assistant professor of Kinesiology at SUNY Cortland where she teaches courses in sports ethics and sport and sexuality. Her research interests focus broadly on the intersections of race, sexuality, and gender in contemporary and 20th century sports and fitness cultures. Current projects include athletes’ coming out narratives; the history of women’s sports spaces; applications of Title IX; sexual violence and intercollegiate athletes; and trans policies and representations.