Canadian hockey commentator controversies are not usually news stories in the U.S.–thank God—but yesterday was an exception. Broadcaster (and former NHL `player and coach—I remember him from his days coaching the Boston Bruins) Don Cherry, 85, who has the fame and following that few U.S. sportscasters ever attain (Howard Cosell, perhaps? Curt Gowdy? Vin Scully, maybe?) talked himself out of a job by using his “Coach’s Corner” segment on the “Hockey Night In Canada” TV broadcast to criticize Canadian who didn’t wear poppy pins to commemorate the nation’s Remembrance Day, the counterpart to Memorial Day in the states. Veterans groups sell the pins, which signify recognition of the sacrifice of soldiers who died in service of the nation.
In typical rambling fashion, Cheery had said,
“I live in Mississauga [Ontario]. Very few people wear the poppy. Downtown Toronto, forget it. Nobody wears the poppy. … Now you go to the small cities. You people … that come here, whatever it is — you love our way of life. You love our milk and honey. At least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that. These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada. These guys paid the biggest price for that.”
The presumed translation of the brief rant was that Cherry was criticizing immigrants (“You people”…”who come here”) for being unpatriotic and too cheap to buy a pin as a gesture of thanks and respect to fallen soldiers. Social media and most of the Canadian sportswriting community immediately condemned the remarks, and called for Cherry’s dismissal.
Everyone connected to the broadcast quickly shifted into apology mode. Sportsnet president Bart Yabsley said,the day after Cherry’s outburst, “Don’s discriminatory comments are offensive and they do not represent our values and what we stand for as a network. We have spoken with Don about the severity of this issue and we sincerely apologize for these divisive remarks.” Mississauga mayor Bonnie Crombie had a particularly incoherent one, calling Cherry’s remarks “despicable” on Twitter, and adding, “We’re proud of diverse cultural heritage and we’ll always stand up for it. New immigrants enrich our country for the better. We’re all Canadians and wear our poppies proudly.”
Wait–is she saying that immigrant Canadians do wear the poppy pins? That the ones who don’t aren’t Canadians? Oh, it doesn’t matter: the point was to signal her virtue and not get into details. Cherry’s on-air co-host, Ron MacLean, had been seen by TV viewers giving a “thumbs-up” to Cherry’s words during that segment, and realiazed that thump could cost him his gig, so he quickly grovelled apologies on social media and on the air during the following day’s Sportsnet NHL coverage, and threw his long-time broadcasting partner to the wolves under the bus. “Don Cherry made remarks which were hurtful, discriminatory, which were flat out wrong. We at Sportsnet have apologized. We know diversity is the strength of the country. I owe you an apology, too. I sat there, I did not catch it, I did not respond,” he said.
With friends and long-time colleagues like MacLean, who needs enemies? MacLean could have apologized for his apparent endorsement of Cherry’s statement without piling on. He could have said that he was sure his partner didn’t mean to denigrate immigrants, rather that he was trying to promote the pins on behalf of Canada’s veterans, and that was the reason for the upwards thumb. Well, I’m happy that you still have your job, Ron, you weasel. Whatever it takes.
Cherry does not. Yesterday, Yabsley announced that Cherry was gone saying in a statement,
“Sports brings people together. It unites us, not divides us. Following further discussions with Don Cherry after Saturday night’s broadcast, it has been decided it is the right thing for him to immediately step down. During the broadcast, he made divisive remarks that do not represent our values or what we stand for. Don is synonymous with hockey and has played an integral role in growing the game over the past 40 years. We would like to thank Don for his contributions to hockey and sports broadcasting in Canada.”
Cherry refused to apologize or soften his sentiments. “I know what I said and I meant it,” Cherry told the Toronto Sun after he was fired. “Everybody in Canada should wear a poppy to honor our fallen soldiers….To keep my job, I cannot be turned into a tamed robot.”
Should Cherry have been fired? Sure. If this was his first undiplomatic foray into sensitive non-hockey, non-sports issues, I might argue that his employers and his public should give him a warning and a pass, but it wasn’t. He was outspoken in his support for Toronto’s former buffoon Mayor Rob Ford, and referred to climate change believers as “cuckaloos.” He used “Coach’s Corner” to criticize Canada’s lack of support for the the U.S’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. For a while, the Canadian network carrying “Coach’s Corner” placed him on a seven second delay.
That tells you what you need to know, doesn’t it? Cherry was untrustworthy, and increasingly irresponsible. At 85, he had reached the point where he was going to say what he wanted to say, and his judgment was suspect. No organization can afford to employ someone like that who refuses to acknowledge any boundaries. Everyone had long given him the benefit of “The King’s Pass,” and this is how lazy and cowardly suspension of standards for a lucrative star usually works out: badly.
When an organization realizes that any employee’s risks of continued employment exceed his or her benefits to the organization’s image and the bottom line, firing for cause is the only responsible course, and a completely ethical one. Cherry’s rant crossed several lines that I particularly hold want to see maintained, and I assume many others do as well. Don’t tell me what charities I have to support or be considered selfish and without compassion. Don’t tell me that I have to do something you do to qualify as patriotic. Don’t tell me what messages I have to convey to others.
In fact, don’t give me your opinions on anything but what you are on TV to talk about due to your experience and special expertise. Who cares what an old hockey coach thinks about the issues of the day? I place this in the same category as NFL players presuming to impose their political views on fans who just want to watch football. It’s presumptuous, it’s disrespectful, and it’s a bait and switch. The fact that Cherry’s employers let him get away with doing this for so long makes them complicit and enablers, but it does not and should not prevent then from taking the correct action, however tardy.
This isn’t a matter of punishing a public figure for being politically incorrect. This is a removing a human loose cannon who apparently thinks being obnoxious on television is his right. He’s wrong. Broadcasting for compensation is a privilege, and Don Cheery abused it.