Black Mark on the Blackhawks: Alleged Organizational Failure to Address Sexual Assault
Image via TSN
Content warning: This story contains details about alleged sexual assault.
In 2010, the Chicago Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years. The front office and the coaching staff were lauded, alongside the players. But according to a report released Tuesday, that same front office and coaching staff knew about an alleged sexual assault of a player by a coach. Instead of investigating, they chose to focus instead on the playoffs:
“At a minimum, the senior leaders, including then-President John McDonough, were informed of alleged sexual harassment of a player by a coach, including efforts by the coach to engage in unwelcome sexual activity with that player. Several witnesses recalled or later told others about a discussion that ensued during the meeting [held after the decisive Western Conference Finals game] regarding whether the time was right to address the allegations against [the coach] in light of the need to protect team chemistry and avoid bad publicity during the ongoing playoffs. What is clear is that, after being informed of [the coach’s] alleged sexual harassment and misconduct with a player, no action was taken for three weeks. … We found no evidence that any action was taken to address the issue until after the playoffs ended.”
The report follows a months-long investigation by independent counsel from Jenner & Block, prompted by the filing of two civil lawsuits against the Blackhawks, alleging sexual harassment and assault by former video coach Brett Aldrich, including a former player referred to as John Doe. Its based in part on 139 interviews of current and former Blackhawks executives, coaches, players, and staff, including Doe and Aldrich, and it details a stunning and disappointing lack of action by Blackhawks management regarding the alleged incident.
Almost immediately after the report was released Tuesday afternoon, the dominos started to fall: the Blackhawks were fined $2 Million by the NHL for inadequate procedures and insufficient handling of the matter; President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Stan Bowman resigned; former head coach Joel Quenneville (now coach of the Florida Panthers) and former Assistant GM Kevin Cheveldayoff (now GM of the Winnipeg Jets) are also implicated in the report and have to be feeling uneasy about their future job prospects. The report’s findings and conclusions could have ramifications on the two pending civil lawsuits as well.
The allegations themselves are shocking: Doe alleges, that while he was a 20-year-old member of the “Black Aces,” a group of minor leaguers that practiced and traveled with the club during the 2010 playoffs, Aldrich not only sexually assaulted him, but threatened him:
“John Doe stated that Aldrich threatened John Doe by telling John Doe he needed to act like he enjoyed the sexual encounter or John Doe would never play in the NHL “or walk” again, forcibly performed oral sex on John Doe, masturbated on John Doe’s back, and then threatened John Doe again before John Doe was able to escape Aldrich’s apartment.”
The report goes on to lay out how Doe reported the incident to team management, which not only failed to properly investigate the matter, but chose not to deal with it until conclusion of the playoff run. Aldrich was allowed to remain with the team, not only coaching, but interacting with players and staff including Black Aces players and Doe. After further being allowed to celebrate the Cup victory—even getting the privilege of a customary day with the Cup trophy, on which his name is engraved—Aldrich was allowed to quietly leave the team, and no investigation was ever conducted. “As a result, the Blackhawks’ own sexual harassment policy—which required investigation of all reports of sexual harassment to be conducted “promptly and thoroughly”—was violated.”
In May of this year, Doe filed a civil lawsuit against the Blackhawks in Cook County, Illinois, which was followed by a similar suit on behalf of a high school player in Michigan, also alleging sexual assault by Aldrich. The Blackhawks have moved to dismiss the Doe case, arguing that the 2-year statute of limitations ran long ago regarding the 2010 incident. Doe argues that, due to repressed memories of the events, the statute did not begin to run until 2019, when Doe learned about the subsequent alleged sexual assault allegations in Michigan, at which point Doe “reflected on his own victimization and how it had affected his life.” Illinois generally utilizes the “discovery rule,” regarding when a claim accrues. When a plaintiff “discovers” their injury—which triggers the statute of limitations clock—is typically a question of fact, precluding dismissal at the pleading stage. The “repressed memory” argument is a somewhat novel one, particularly for an adult; but it has been successful in other cases, especially at the pleading stage.
The timing of the Jenner & Block report, issued while the lawsuits are still in the pleading stage, clearly changes the case dynamics. Typically, a defendant would want to avoid discovery in this type of case at (almost) all costs, to avoid the potential public relations damage; here that damage is already done. The Blackhawks’ litigation defense team has now gotten a preview of what evidence would come out during discovery, much of it damning; interestingly, the report notes that the Blackhawks’ defense team was present for certain witness interviews. Further, the report noted that the Blackhawks violated their own internal policies in handling the incident, including their failure to promptly and properly investigate. In Illinois, a defendant’s violation of its own policies generally is not negligence per se and it does not create a heightened legal duty; however, violations can be evidence of negligence or wrongdoing, and practically, it doesn’t look good when companies violate their own policies.
Of course, if the case is dismissed at the pleading stage, it’s a moot point for the lawsuit. Cook County is typically seen as a relatively liberal jurisdiction in allowing personal injury cases to go forward at this stage of litigation. For what it’s worth, after the report was released, Blackhawks CEO Danny Wirtz said “It is clear that in 2010, the executives of this organization put team performance above all else. John Doe deserved better from the Blackhawks. And while we believe we have a strong legal defense, I have instructed our lawyers to see if we can reach a fair resolution consistent with the totality of the circumstances.”
Ben Shrader is a partner at Hart McLaughlin & Eldridge in Chicago, where he serves as Chair of the Chicago Bar Association Sports Law Committee and litigates regularly in Cook County courts. You can reach Ben at email@example.com or find him on Twitter @BenShrader.