It was always going to end this way. With Don Cherry finally crossing a line that seemed, quite frankly, non-existent at times. With the 85-year-old staple of Saturday nights saying something that no amount of damage control could fix. With an unceremonious exit for one of this country’s biggest personalities.
"Sports brings people together — it unites us, not divides us," Bart Yabsley, the president of Sportsnet, said Monday afternoon in a brief statement announcing Cherry’s bully pulpit was being taken away, effective immediately.
That’s a sweet sentiment, the idea of all of us coming together for a common cause. However, as the past few days have shown, nothing could be further from the truth. And the controversial end of "Coach’s Corner" is only serving to underline just how much of a gulf exists in this country — one that Yabsley’s network has been absolutely complicit in fostering.
Many will applaud Sportsnet for doing the right thing. But this was a problem of their own making, one you could see coming from a mile away.
For years, the organization gave free rein for Cherry to say whatever he felt like, without fear of reprisal. He paraded ridiculous views about women in sports media, about Europeans being "soft," and other hurtful stereotypes, and about the value of fighting, even in the face of damning evidence about the perils of brain trauma. And he did it all while wrapping himself in the Canadian flag, with a thumbs-up with every cringeworthy message aimed at "you kids out there."
Cherry’s weekly rants have come across as even more prehistoric, even unhinged, in recent times, as he clearly failed to adapt to a rapidly changing world around him. But as Sportsnet kept renewing his deal and trotting him out to the nation — always citing his die-hard following and the viewers he keeps bringing in — you knew it was only a matter of time before he started a fire that couldn’t be put out.
Cherry lit the match last Saturday night, seemingly singling out immigrants for not doing enough to pay tribute to Canada’s military veterans and deceased soldiers. And he did it in such a way that there was no doubt about the hateful meaning behind his message.
Don Cherry’s rant on immigrants:— Rosa Hwang (@journorosa) November 10, 2019
"You people... love our way of life, love our milk and honey. At least you could pay a couple of bucks for poppies or something like that. These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada."
Ron MacLean nodded and gave a thumbs up. pic.twitter.com/OXnIwV1n9T
"You people… you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that. These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price," Cherry barked.
Take a look around and you’ll see Canadians of all races and backgrounds not wearing poppies. But by referencing "you people," and the despicable follow-up comments, Cherry made it crystal clear who he was targeting.
It wasn’t long before Hockey Night In Canada had a full-blown inferno on its hands. The NHL quickly condemned Cherry’s rant as "offensive and contrary to the values we believe in," as did several of his irate broadcast colleagues, including many who are persons of colour and immigrants. Sponsors such as Budweiser and Scotiabank also spoke up, no doubt putting even more pressure on the network to do something.
Ron MacLean, who sat silently by Cherry’s side and will likely have this follow him for the rest of his career, issued an on-air apology Sunday night in a move that might have saved his own job.
"Don made comments that were hurtful and prejudiced and I wish I had handled myself differently. It was a divisive moment and I am truly upset with myself for allowing it," MacLean said in part.
As Cherry remained silent, the court of public opinion weighed in. Lines were drawn in the sand almost immediately, with people either denouncing the obviously racist rant or applauding Cherry for "telling it like it is," claiming this is an attack on free speech.
Of course, nobody is saying Cherry wasn’t allowed to speak his mind. He can, and he did. But free speech doesn’t mean without consequences, something many conveniently seem to forget when playing that particular card.
Twitter feeds and Facebook pages exploded, and hashtags such as #IStandWithCherry revealed just how much bigotry exists out there. On the other end of the spectrum, the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council, a self-regulatory organization created by Canada’s private broadcasters to deal with complaints, said Monday they’d reached their maximum capacity on this issue.
It appears Sportsnet did as well, cutting the cord on Remembrance Day.
"During the broadcast, he made divisive remarks that do not represent our values or what we stand for. Don is synonymous with hockey and has played an integral role in growing the game over the past 40 years. We would like to thank Don for his contributions to hockey and sports broadcasting in Canada," said Yabsley.
Cherry told the Toronto Sun on Monday that he stands by what he said — that every Canadian should proudly wear a poppy to honour fallen soldiers. Thing is, if that was truly his message, there wouldn’t have been an issue.
“Don made comments that were hurtful and prejudiced and I wish I had handled myself differently. It was a divisive moment and I am truly upset with myself for allowing it.” - Hockey commentator Ron MacLean
Don’t believe me? Check out what Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice had to say on Sunday, when asked to react to the Cherry situation and share his thoughts on the importance of the poppy. Like Cherry, Maurice believes it’s an important symbol for Canadians to display. But unlike Cherry, he made his point in a classy, dignified and unified way that offended absolutely no one.
"It would be no different in some ways for me in the way that we should support the police and we should support the firemen, the people who protect our community. In that same mind, all the soldiers, men and women, who protect our country, I never, ever have to go to work and strap a gun on to do my job," said Maurice.
"When we wake up and we lose two in a row and we think the world’s coming to an end, I never have to wake up and put a gun on and have to go to war. I’m never going to have to do that, I hope, because of the men and women who did, who sacrificed their lives and their futures and their family’s futures, so you should throw a poppy on."
It never should have come to this. Cherry, well past his best-before date, should have been given a chance to say goodbye years ago, with a proper farewell. Now, he’s going out in a blaze of self-proclaimed glory.
And Cherry will be turned a martyr of sorts to an increasingly vocal group of angry Canadians who will use this as a rallying point to further spread their messages of division and hate.
Ultimately, Sportsnet made the right call in putting Coach’s Corner out to pasture. But you’ll excuse me if if I hold my applause for an organization that was all too willing to look the other way until it was much too late.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
Updated on Monday, November 11, 2019 at 7:10 PM CST: Updates sections
9:10 PM: Changes Rogers (Media) to Sportsnet
9:20 PM: Additional Sportsnet references