It’s Not Cancel Culture, It’s Accountability Culture – Especially In Sports

Have a bad shift? Benched. Less ice time.

Miss your defensive responsibility, giveaway the ball repeatedly? Off the field or court, onto the bench.

Belittle a referee? Penalty, or ejection. Out of the game.

Do these things repeatedly? Released, cut, demoted.

See how that works in sports? It’s not called ‘cancel culture,’ but rather ‘accountability culture.’

I know there are issues with using the term accountability as well. Who are we accountable to? According to Ligaya Mishan, in a piece about the history of cancel culture for the New York Times, ‘accountability culture’ is often “deployed in the corporate and public sector to support the need for a hierarchy or external authority to hold employees and institutions to their commitments, with an eye to boosting results: a measure of productivity, not behavior or values.”

In sports, teams definitely want boosted athletic productivity. But coaches for decades have also touted sport as an opportunity to benefit society through the teaching of values and behaviour.

It’s simple. As human beings, we can hold each other accountable for our words and actions. We’ve been taught from a young age that words and actions have consequences; not that we can defend ourselves and condemn others by saying it’s just ‘cancel culture’ coming for us. Psychologically, we’d refer to this as projection and displacement.

After all, if stopping racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia is what you consider ‘cancel culutre,’ perhaps you should ask a more important personal question: “what culture is my ‘culture’?”

In some ways, the definition of the word ‘cancel’ actually can work in context for fighting back against wrongs.

Cancel can mean to “match in force or effect,” or to “destroy the force, effectiveness, or validity of.” In this manner, we do want to cancel the forces of racism, gender inequality, and oppression of marginalized groups.

At the same time in sports, we’ve been taught about accountability from day one, and that our on ice/field/court/track actions have consequences. Skip training or practice, don’t put in the effort, make repeated in game mistakes without correcting them or improving… see what happens in sport. You will quickly find your way off a team or out of a league, whether it’s immediately at higher levels, or in youth sports, in the seasons to come.

It’s not just playing semantics to move toward using ‘accountability’ in place of ‘cancel,’ and there should be no overarching fear of some Orwellian future for the ramifications of our hateful words and actions.

In the idealistic version of sport, where all are welcomed, you would see teammates holding each other accountable (along with leagues, organizations, and coaches), with a commitment to remediate wrongs, and move forward pedagogically to bring deeper understanding to what happened, and how to avoid repeat offences in the future.

Accountability would allow for education, reparations, and the willingness to accept responsibility for our actions, and to acknowledge those wrongs to others, without trying to hide from our misdoings. In some instances, that may result in ‘cancelling,’ but ideally it would result in learning, deeper understanding, and a solution to harmful beliefs, words, and actions. It would result in change. It would result in truth, and reconciliation.

If you don’t learn, and can’t take accountability for your actions, in the truest sense of the word, then yes, you are cancelled.

And in many instances, your words and actions might be so heinous, that the accountability, the acceptance of ones actions, comes with the consequence of being removed from a role.

In sports, it takes about three seconds of scanning interviews with athletes and coaches to find dozens of examples of how teams are demanding, in the words of Toronto Maples Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe, “internal accountability.”

“Accountability is something that has to become a staple around here,” current Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ron Hextall said while working with the Philadelphia Flyers. “Accountability is demanded of each other, it’s demanded of yourself.”

Ben Simmons kneels for Black Lives Matter

Or NBA player Ben Simmons, “Accountability is a huge part of winning.”

The NFL’s own website uses the term, “Accountability” as the title of their page outlining player conduct.

But it’s not just saying sorry, and recognizing there is an issue, it’s indemnification, it’s fixing the root issue.

Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch said it this way, “Accountability is first and foremost. I think you need to establish that on every team. I think we just need to be accountable for our mistakes and keep being accountable. But at some point, we’ve got to fix them.”

At some point, when an individual is unwilling to fix their mistakes, or has proven their actions will continue to be a threat to others, or society, then removal from a role in the structures of sport due to inexcusable actions is a measure of accountability. This holds true whether it is an athlete, coach, official, commentator, analyst, manager, or media member.

When the Washington football team changed their name, it wasn’t cancel culture, it was truth and reconciliation of decades of anti-Indigenous racist representation. When Don Cherry was removed, it wasn’t cancel culture, it was time to move on from an overt celebration of bigotry and xenophobia. When Dan Dakich got called out for sexist remarks, it wasn’t cancel culture coming for him, it was a recognition of years of on air and online hate, and that the harm he was causing to people was not entertainment. When Bill Peters was removed from the bench of the NHL’s Calgary Flames for anti-Black racist remarks to Akim Aliu, it was not cancel culture, it was a consequence, and his resignation was the accountability for the action.

In professional sports, coaches are fired all the time. Players are traded, and demoted. Both for actions during games and competition, and after.

Somehow however, this debate rages on and a line is drawn between social wrongs and physical wrongs. Wrongs of verbal abuse and harassment, versus wrongs of physical abuse and harassment.

In the NHL, Los Angeles Kings defender Slava Voynov was suspended from the league for “unacceptable off-ice conduct,” which was the physical abuse of his wife – kicking, pushing, and choking her.

Pundits didn’t label this cancel culture.

As then Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi said, “We have a bigger responsibility now. Just like we expect them to train, and we provide access to training physically, we provide meals so they eat properly, well, you know what? We’ve got a responsibility here now to train them in other areas, and I don’t just mean having a guy come in and give a speech once a year. This is as much our organization’s responsibility as anything. We have an obligation here, too. We have to do a better job in some of these areas.”

When Don Cherry was removed from air for verbal wrongs, it was ‘cancel culture.’

It’s not a binary situation, but we must understand that we are responsible, and yes accountable, for the ways that not only our physical actions hurt others, but how our words, habits, and systems hurt others.

It’s a timely reminder for the NHL, and other leagues like the NFL (remember during the Super Bowl, playing the tomahawk chop mere seconds after playing an ‘Inspire Change’ video), who have been accused of performative activism.

In other words, they’re acknowledging that accountability for actions needs to happen, but these leagues are not actually holding themselves accountable, or acting in any physical way. The gap between words and tangible action persists.

Obviously, we can’t ‘cancel’ the NHL, or the NFL, and we’ll never ‘cancel’ the media coverage of these leagues, nor should we want to.

What we can do, is hold people within these institutions and structures accountable, and we can replace people from their roles who are racist, homophobic, transphobic, or minsogynst. We can replace them with athletes, coaches, and commentators who are talented and capable, but who also understand that their actions and words have an impact.

We can be accountable.

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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