What should the NHL do about Austin Watson?
As sports fans, sometimes we can find it hard to remember that the players are actual human beings. We remember this at times with heartwarming stories, like the Sochi dogs rescued by then-Blues David Backes, TJ Oshie, and our very own Kevin Shattenkirk. Sometimes, it’s seeing all the great work and unbelievable funding that PK Subban devotes to the Montreal Children’s Hospital, despite not living there anymore.
Unfortunately, recently the news has focused on a case of domestic abuse, a topic that is no stranger to professional sports. Austin Watson, a 26-year-old forward on the Predators (no pun intended?), was arrested last month for battering his girlfriend and mother of his child. He pleaded out yesterday to receive probation and completion of an anger management-adjacent course.
Other leagues have domestic violence policies in place — though how well they enforce them is another story. The NFL is infamous for the Ray Rice situation, and the subsequent policy is more like a suggestion box for how long the commissioner decides to (or not to) suspend guilty players. MLB is more strict and has more sanctions associated with their DV policy, despite not having specific timeframes for suspension. The NHL? Nothing.
This comes into play right now with Watson, but really should’ve been prevalent as teams considered signing Slava Voynov early this month. In case you missed it, Voynov punched, kicked, and choked his wife before throwing her into a flat screen TV and cracking her head open. The injuries sustained by his wife were consistent with the story, and Voynov fled to Russia and has been huddled in the KHL since then, until the charges were recently dropped.
So the question stands: is a league required to further punish a player for a domestic violence incident, or is state or federal law enough?
Before we judge, let’s remember something: domestic abuse is extremely difficult for so many reasons. There is a huge psychological factor to it, as you could tell by battered mates staying with their partners. Many wives (in these cases, specifically) are emotionally and financially dependent on their husbands, and feel as though there are no other options. Add in children and you’ve got custody and child support issues. Many of the abusers either grew up around the same behavior – one report states that almost 1 in 4 reported incidents were witnessed by a child.
The NHL right now has the opportunity to create a domestic violence policy from scratch, which goes in whichever direction it decides. They could have defined suspensions with mandatory psychological treatment, or they could have a more lackadaisical NFL-esque “policy” for PR purposes. Understanding the complexity of the topic, suspensions should be mandatory; whether minor or severe, statistics show that 76-81% of repeat victims had been abused by the same partner before. This means that taking a ‘minor’ offense lightly will almost certainly result in a repeat crime.
On such a sensitive topic, it’s important to remember that, although these are athletes, they are human. People are flawed, but giving free passes and pretending incidents didn’t happen because they weren’t seen through in trial is naive and dangerous. The NHL is overdue to implement a strong policy that could be seen as a benchmark in professional sports, and should do so before another Austin Watson situation occurs.
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic abuse, please know there are resources available for you. The domestic abuse hotline is available 24/7 in 200+ languages at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). You can also visit here for more options for help.