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- by Jennifer Conway (@NHLHistoryGirl)

A sincere thank you from Backhand Shelf to Jennifer and Ian for sharing their conversation.

***

We live in an instantaneous world. Within seconds of an event, it is tweeted, retweeted, blogged about, and judged. As poet Charles Baudelaire said, “The world only goes ’round by misunderstanding.”

A misunderstanding on several levels happened when Flyers Director of Player Development Ian Laperriere was quoted in the Philadelphia Daily News. The Daily News had written an article about Nick Cousins, a Flyers prospect, who had been arrested and charged in an Ontario court with sexual assault. The charges are still pending.

“At the pro level, teams expect you to be an adult and act like one,” Laperriere said. “He’s got a good heart . . . Let’s be honest, stuff like that has been happening forever. You can’t get away with anything now. He can’t put himself in those situations.

“He’s been in trouble with this stuff, but hopefully that’s all going to go away. Part of my job is telling him that he needs to learn from that. You need to be careful what you’re doing. All of our prospects need to learn from his situation.”

“Happening forever?” “Can’t get away with anything?” It appeared Laperriere was dismissing the victim, downplaying the charges, and acknowledging rape happens, but hey, what can we do?

Of course, this is where the misunderstanding starts. Laperriere doesn’t claim he was misquoted, only that his remarks are misconstrued because he failed to be entirely clear on what he was trying to say.

I vented on Twitter about his remarks and the article as a whole. But somehow, something felt off to me. You see, I’d met Ian Laperriere before, tweeted with him before and this just didn’t seem to be in line with his character.

After a brief discussion with Bill Metzer (who covers the Flyers for several organizations), I wrote Mr. Laperriere an email. Here’s what I offered:

Mr. Laperriere,

I’m a sexual assault survivor, and there are several things regarding the Cousins article and your quotes I would like to (respectfully) talk to you about. Perhaps I can give you a different perspective on how to say what you mean, how it affects people, and what you (and the team) can do to prevent these situations from happening again. It’s crucial to speak out and educate people on how we can fight sexual assault and prevent people from thinking it’s OK. Regardless of whether or not Mr. Cousins is guilty, this is a perfect moment for you and the Flyers to step up and speak out on a crucial issue that affects us all.

I gave him my phone number. I did not quite expect the response I got. Within minutes of sending the email, I received a call from Laperriere. He thanked me for offering the chance to clarify what he said.

“That is absolutely not what I meant to say. I would never, ever say rape is OK,” he said. “I struggle sometimes with English, and I was trying to say that these situations have happened before, and hopefully all the players will learn from this, to not put themselves in bad situations.”

It was quite clear he was rattled and upset with how he failed to be clearer on his point and how it affected him. Still, it wasn’t quite what I was hoping to hear, so I pressed a bit.

“Well, these are 18, 19, 20 year old guys who aren’t going to be rich right away, but they have more money than they know what to do with, and they think it’s time to party and do stupid things,” Laperriere said.

(In a follow-up email, Laperriere made his position even clearer: “in fact i was talking about kids/players been in trouble before and didn’t think about the consequences . I specifically didn’t  have rape in mind when i said that , we were talking about kids getting in trouble in General . it look like i was talking about rape and i wasn’t …. Not in a million years i would downplay such of cruel act .”)

In some ways, he is correct: these are young men with new found wealth, and have no idea how to go about life as adults with money. However, sexual assault is not a “stupid thing” that boys will do. It’s a serious crime. I explained to him how important it is to not use language that appears to dismiss assault as “stuff” or “stupid things,” and especially not as a consequence of partying.

Rape, I said, is a complete violation of a person. It is the violation of body, but it is also a violation of mind. Rape robs you of a certain sense of self. It robs you of trust. It robs you of safety, your friends, your reputation and many other things. Using dismissive language dismisses the survivor. It marks the survivor and what happened to them as not important.

People need to know this, and players need to know this. We talked about accountability, and education. I asked how Cousins was handled.

“I might only see him once a month, so it’s difficult, but I do hold camps for the prospects, and I have people speak to them about social media, alcohol, all of that,” said Laperriere.

How about keeping in close communication with the coaches? Perhaps calling the prospects on a regular basis?

Yes, Laperriere said. It’s something he will definitely try to implement, along with better education at the training camps.

I told him the pattern of assault charges against hockey players certainly does go back a long way, but it’s time to speak up, and make clear the players are not being shielded from consequences. I told him about assault victims who were pressured by junior teams and the community to drop charges, and about one victim was harassed so much she moved out of town. I told him how few rapes are actually reported because of this shaming behaviour. In fact, out of every 100 rapes in the United States, only 46 are reported to police.  (Statistic courtesy of RAINN.)

And victims aren’t just treated like this when athletes are involved. I told Laperriere about my own experience. I told him that when I went to my friends, didn’t want to believe it happened to me. The ones who believed me said things like, “Oh, well, if you were drinking with him…” “You were wearing the wrong clothes…” “You flirt too much…” And it meant, “It’s your fault. You were probably asking for it.”

People sided with my attacker. I lost all of my friends but one. I’ve been told to quit whining about being raped, been labeled a troublemaker. It still cuts me, right to the core.

He listened to every word. When I told him how I’d been treated, he gasped. “That’s terrible,” Laperriere said. It seemed he was searching for words.

I just want you to understand what happens to survivors, I said. I want you to understand how important it is to stop assault.

I told him about a recent poll conducted by the Campus Advocacy Network. They surveyed 6,159 college students enrolled at 32 institutions in the U.S. and found that 84% of the college age men polled committed acts of sexual assault but did not consider these acts as a crime. 43% of college age men admitted to to using coercive behavior to have sex, including ignoring a woman’s protest, using physical aggression, and forcing intercourse. (Further details on the poll and statistics can be found here.

The men in this poll are the same ages as these hockey players. It’s crucial to make the public and players understand they do not get special treatment in cases of sexual assault because they’re athletes. Did you know, I asked, that many teams don’t have policies in place that treat these accusations as a serious issue? Did you know that very few teams even cover the topic of sexual assault?

“No,” Laperriere replied. “I think this would be a great idea.”

We discussed the idea of having people speak to the players about sexual assault. Not just a police officer, but a crisis counselor or even a survivor. We discussed how these different people could educate the players in different ways, and even making this training mandatory for all teams in the Flyers’ system.

Did Ian Laperriere say the wrong thing? Absolutely. Did he meant to dismiss rape in general? Absolutely not. It was clear that he sometimes struggles with how to phrase things in English, and this was one of those times. Even native English speakers struggle to say what they mean, and this is an opportunity for everyone to learn a bit more about Laperriere and how to improve the way we phrase things.

He called, explained what he actually meant in that quote that upset everyone, and he listened. And in the end, through honest discussion, I think he saw the issue differently, and I understood him in a more positive way.

When we finished, I felt hopeful. He seems sincere about in bringing in speakers on sexual assault. He talked about having a police officer speak; I suggested asking for an officer who deals specifically with sexual assault cases, perhaps a SVU officer. I also gave him the name of the only rape crisis center in Philadelphia. Laperriere wanted to make sure a survivor spoke to the players as well, and asked if I might be willing to give a testimony to the players. ]

He sounded sincere. He took the time. I believe he will follow through.