Line Change: “One Bad Apple Spoils The Bunch”

The saying is not, “don’t let one bad apple spoil the bunch.”

The saying is “one bad apple spoils the bunch.”

This proverb or metaphor has been used a lot lately in terms of police violence and corruption, as well as in the sports world when people point to one athlete or individual who is ‘giving a bad name to others.’

But it isn’t about giving a bad name to an organization or league, it’s the fact that in these systems and cultures, the blight is already there, and it is spoiling the bunch.

This phrase stems back in the English language to to the mid-1300s where it could be translated to “a rotten apple quickly infects its neighbour.”

Later, it appeared in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and then again through Benjamin Franklin in 1736 when he reworded the saying as “the rotten apple spoils his companion.”

Now, it seems like a popular defence of a larger group when faced with misdoings. It’s used it to assert that just because one person acts in a certain way…

All police officers are not racist…and

All hockey players are not misogynists or homophobes or upholding toxic masculinity.

Obviously, all people in these professions and sports are not those things. There are wonderful humans playing hockey.

But, a few bad apples spoil the bunch.

Meaning, that although there are good apples, police officers and hockey players, the systemic issues exist, and the blight of one has affected many.

We need to plant good seeds in our organizations and leagues, and nurture that growth. Until we can help to change the actions and ideas of the perpetrators, and then develop programs and systems to keep the ‘bad apples’ from infiltrating the greater population, the bunch will be spoiled.

In a study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington, this theory of one spoiling the bunch was examined. Researchers found that:

Through various individual cognitions (e.g. inequity, negative mood, and distrust) and group level constructs (e.g. lower mood, potency, safety, and group-based trust), the key processes that make groups effective (e.g. motivation, creativity, learning, cooperation, and task conflict) will be undermined. These individual and group effects mean that the ultimate outcomes for the group include poor performance, low viability (e.g. a weakened social structure), and an unhappy team. Group performance will suffer as measured in terms of quantity, quality, and timeliness.

In other words, a bad apple does spoil the bunch. It can spoil a team, a league, an organization.

We might not notice it, but the ‘bad apple’ is holding back the full potential of others around them. We may not perceive other athletes on a team to be performing or behaving poorly because of this, but in the world of sport, where we continuously search for ways to maximize performance across a number of determinants, any dip in output is significant.

We know ‘bad apples’ exist. We know Derek Chauvin is the murderer-police-officer who killed George Floyd. We know former NHLer Tony DeAngelo is a racist and a bigot.

We also know implicit bias exists. If you don’t know, implicit bias states that:

People act on the basis of internalised schemas of which they are unaware and thus can, and often do, engage in discriminatory behaviours without conscious intent.

Athletes and coaches (or police officers) we view as being “good people,” can still act in a prejudicial manner that oppresses marginalized groups, even if the act is without intent or conscious awareness. We are part of the system, and our implicit bias may in fact cause us, even subtly to perpetuate and support these systems of oppression.

I know that not everyone reading will, but let’s say, even for a moment, that we agree that racism, sexism, gender inequality, misogyny, socio-economic inequality, and other issues exist in some degree in sport.

What now? What do we do? If the system is broke, how do we fix it? And if problems actually exist, why aren’t more people screaming for change?

Saroya Tinker with the NWHL’s Metropolitan Riveters

Why do we only hear the loud voices shouting in defence of the status quo in sport?

Why are the voices of Akim Aliu, or Saroya Tinker less important to Canadians than the voice of Don Cherry?

Why did we lash out so vehemently at Jessica Allen?

Why aren’t we listening to the voices, and amplifying the voices, of hockey scholars like Dr. Courtney Szto, LGBTQ+ advocate Brock McGillis, or Black Girl Hockey Club founder Renee Hess?

What is so threatening about these voices? Why do people react with such anger when the traditions and systems that keep the imbalanced hierarchy of power in place?

Why are we allowing the voices of the ‘bad apples’ and those that support them to drown out these incredible people?

Why is change so threatening to those in the hockey world? Why aren’t more leagues, coaches, and athletes standing up and doing the right thing?

Well, there is the bystander effect, which states we are less likely to help a victim when others are present.

As athletes, however, aren’t we taught to defend our teammates, to stand up for them? This is part of the fabric of traditional hockey culture… unless however, we’re standing up against a teammate of our own, or our coaches. Then the ‘us versus them mentality’ causes us to be bystanders, and allows the cyclical blight of ‘bad apples’ to spread.

And of course, when we speak up, there is significant personal risk.

Recently I witnessed this first hand when a Duke University athletic scholar, who I greatly respect, Nathan Kalman-Lamb, spoke up on social media in defence of the mistreatment and exploitation of college athletes. His point was then backed up by the incredible Dr. Johanna Mellis, another sport-historian and scholar. Then came the vitriol of the old guard. ESPN / 1070 The Fan radio personality Dan Dakich overtook the conversation spewing sexist and misogynistic comments and personal insults at the duo in response to a simple analysis of the systems that govern college sport. Then Dakich used his tremendous on air platform to call Kalman-Lamb a “d-bag,” and insult his appearance. Some might say he went as far as doxing Kalman-Lamb by physically spelling out his last name to listeners and repeatedly discussing his office hours in a hostile manner. When it came to Dr. Mellis, who Dakich simply referred to as “some lady” who was “bitching” at him, Dakich continued his tirade by discussing “going at it” in a pool with Dr. Mellis, saying that if he did, because it was a public place, he’d “have to get divorced.” I’m not sure how to take that – it’s either referencing a physical attack or a sexual one, and neither is acceptable. Dakich even used the fact that he is married to a former college athlete and coach who happens to be a woman as a defence that he could not possibly be sexist.

And that’s why many feel it’s dangerous to speak up.

When educated scholars can be slandered online for simply speaking in support of the equal and fair treatment of athletes, and the voice of the slanderer is louder, the system continues to perpetuate itself… even when the person, like a Don Cherry, or in this case Dan Dakich have a history of divisive and unethical actions.

Locally, we’ve had the same experience. We now know not to use the word “toxic” in our columns or reporting, especially related to hockey. A 2019 article we published related to an expletive laced, abusive, and ableist episode at a hockey game being played locally by 11-year-olds, was followed up by repeated calls to my home at all hours of the night, and emails, threatening my family, and myself. I was also called out for my apparent personal weakness and mocked for not physically confronting the five men and two coaches at this game. I wish I had, but based on the direct threats and comments from a few of these men in the days that followed, I’m glad I went with my gut in that moment.

In 2020 I published another article, discussing the idea, just the idea (as if I have the power to make it happen), of the pandemic being a good opportunity to move on from fighting in hockey. The online “discussion” that followed told me to “take up figure skating,” and to go play “tennis for some girls.” I was called a “pussy” and a “snowflake” in public forums, and it culminated with a local hockey coach calling my home saying “you better hope I never see you at our f%&king rink,” and that my recount of online homophobic slurs from local players as a follow up to this article and the comments that followed, had crossed the line of disrespecting the tradition of his organization.

Even local OPP and Chatham-Kent Police Service members got involved in 2020, messaging colleagues and family members of mine seeking to educate me about the wrongdoings of Black people, and to how interviewing a local descendent of slaves, who has been involved in training athletes in our community, and in organizing a local Black Lives Matter march, was sending the wrong message. Bad apples. It was racist. And for my family it was intimidating to be relayed messages from police officers through mutual contacts telling me to be careful what I publish.

And so, when speaking up turns into threats and online slander, the ‘bad apple’ or ‘bad apples’ are often left to spoil the bunch, because it forces the voices who are afraid to speak, to remain silent.

I know many athletes, including locally, in every realm of sport who are advocates and allies, and who do amazing things in our community. I know coaches who instil the inclusivity of all people while masterfully teaching skills. Yet, in that batch, ‘a rotten apple quickly infects its neighbour.’

My hope for this “Line Change” article series is that we can read, and then discuss together, even if your view is greatly different from my own. I love sport. Honestly, I know I haven’t always belonged in the hockey culture I’ve spent my entire life in as a player or coach, despite desperately loving the game. But I know I had the easiest of easy streets to travel on, so I can’t imagine what marginalized people who also love hockey feel when they arrive at the rink, if they even have that opportunity.

Although the first few articles in this series have had a mix of racist responses, a lot of comments calling the ideas “hot garbage” or expletives, and the normal group of people calling me a “coward” and an “embarrassment,” there were also thoughtful questions and comments related to systemic racism, trans rights, and inclusivity. In other words, there was hope.

I think sometimes people who are called ‘bad apples’ look at the rest of the batch and feel like everyone is yelling for them to be discarded. They fear no longer having a place in the orchard. But I personally don’t think that’s the case. Sometimes a bruised apple turns into the prize winning pie, or the fallen fruit becomes sweet apple cider.

After all, that fear of being cast out, or unwelcomed is the exact existence women, BIPoC, and LGBTQ+ communities have felt since the invention of organized sport.

We can all change, and we can all play an important role in creating safe spaces for every individual in sport, and in removing the structural barriers that restrict access to sport.

We can make way for others, we can open the door, wave someone new onto the ice, and yell ‘line change,’ and then watch them step into the world of sport we love. We can cheer them on from the bench as true teammates.

By Ian Kennedy

Line Change is an article series produced by through the contributions and consultation of various authors and academics, looking at social issues in sport. The series, which aims to open discussion with sports fans, will focus on issues of inequality, and serve as a portion of our anti-oppression education and reporting. Line Change will look at issues related to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, gender inequality, socioeconomic divides, and much more, as they relate to sport and athletics.

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