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Toxic team chemistry around Blackhawks scandal is an old formula

Sexual assault and harassment are often mishandled by organizations, legal experts say. The consequences are steep for victims.

Former video coach Bradley Aldrich, seen here in February 2010, allegedly assaulted a Blackhawks player in May 2010.
Former video coach Bradley Aldrich, seen here in February 2010, allegedly assaulted Blackhawks prospect Kyle Beach during the team’s run to the Stanley Cup. Team officials waited weeks to act on the allegations.
Al Podgorski/Sun-Times file photo

Team leaders’ fumbling response to sexual assault allegations against a Blackhawks assistant during the team’s 2010 Stanley Cup was an all too common story in the corporate world a decade ago.

And the story remains a common one today, said Deborah Tuerkheimer, a professor at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of law and author of “Credible: Why We Doubt Accusers and Protect Abusers.”

The team’s handling of allegations leveled against video coach Brad Aldrich by former top draft pick Kyle Beach mirrored the way many corporations have shirked the duty to protect employees, especially low-ranking ones, from harassment and abuse in the workplace, Teurkheimer said.

That the Hawks’ tarnished title run happened before the #MeToo movement gained momentum is no excuse, she said.

“These are all very familiar dynamics,” Teurkheimer said. “These stories are important because they describe someone’s reality, but they also reveal our real failures to systemically confront that reality.

“There was plenty of awareness 10 years ago that sexual assault was wrong and prohibited, and employers had a responsibility to deal with it.”

Employers’ obligations to address sexual assault and harassment in the workplace, whether an NHL stadium or a Starbucks, has been made clear in employment law dating back to the 1990s, said Michael LeRoy, a labor law professor at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and author of “Collective Bargaining in Sports and Entertainment.”

Indeed, LeRoy notes, the team policy in place then mandated a swift investigation. The fact that, according to several accounts from executives in the report, team President and CEO John McDonough announced he would handle things rather than the team’s human resources department was atypical — and a bad sign, LeRoy said.

“Frequently, when there is a scandal of this kind of upsetting nature, HR is kind of out of the picture,” LeRoy said. “They’re either told what to do, or organizations create a bypass around them.”

The motivation for the delay seemed to be preserving “team chemistry” during the championship run, though LeRoy isn’t sure it would have been handled much differently at another point in the season.

“There’s never a good time for a sports team to have a scandal,” he said.

After a decade in the shadows, the scandal tarnished the Blackhawks’ first Stanley Cup win after a four-decade title drought and had career-defining fallout for some very successful executives. McDonough was fired last year, which LeRoy said likely had nothing to do with the allegations that only become public when Beach filed a lawsuit against the team this summer.

But General Manager Stan Bowman’s resignation last week almost certainly did, as did former Hawks coach Joel Quenneville quitting his job as coach of the Florida Panthers.

When McDonough did tell Hawks human resources staff about allegations against Aldrich days after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, the situation — at least for the team — seemed to resolve itself quickly, said University of Chicago Law School professor M. Todd Henderson, an expert in corporate law and a Hawks season ticket holder.

Aldrich was told the allegations and given a choice to stay on while the team conducted an investigation or resign. While Aldrich maintained his encounter with Beach was consensual, he opted to resign.

“They were three weeks late, but I don’t know that the outcome would have been any different,” Henderson said. “If they sat him down on day one, as they should have, and said ‘We’re going to do an investigation or you can resign,’ it appears he would have tipped his hand and resigned.”

Teurkheimer noted the three-week delay was not inconsequential for Beach. In interviews, Beach has said he was appalled to see Aldrich with the team throughout the playoffs and join team celebrations. Beach, a former first-round draft pick for the Blackhawks, never developed into an NHL player.

“It’s really important for people to understand that the aftermath of abuse, this kind of lack of response, is often described as being as bad as or even worse than the abuse itself,” she said.

“It’s not uncommon for someone who’s been abused in a workplace setting to suffer all kinds of intangible consequences, and that’s especially true when the response from the community is lacking. It’s just a huge betrayal by the organization.”

The discreet handling of Aldrich’s dismissal also allowed the coach to find other jobs. Aldrich worked briefly at Miami University in Ohio, where an investigation by the school turned up allegations Aldrich had assaulted a summer camp intern and an undergraduate who worked at the ice rink. Aldrich in 2013 pleaded guilty to charges of sexual conduct involving a 16-year-old on a high school hockey team Aldrich coached.

That also fits a familiar pattern, Teurkheimer said.

“That’s not atypical, and by no means am I saying it is not a big deal,” she said. “Our failure to take seriously these kinds of allegations can result in this kind of movement from job to job, because nobody wants to intervene.”