This post contains discussion of sexual harassment, assault, trauma, and other related topics surrounding the incident involving Auston Matthews.
A few days ago, news broke that Leafs center Auston Matthews, along with a group of men, had attempted to get into the car of a woman who was by herself, at night, because they thought it would be funny to “see how she would react.”
This hit so close to an incident that happened to me that it sent me into a spiral of reliving that night, and the year and a half of investigations, court dates, and sheer terror that followed, over and over again. To say that the last few days have been difficult would be an understatement.
Many will see what Matthews did as negligible: a young man, drunk in his off-season, doing things that young men often do. It was just a joke, after all. No harm was meant by it. But in reality, they were testing the boundaries of what it is feasible to get away with. From there, it grows.
Matthews’ intention in cornering that woman may just have been to frighten her without committing any further offenses or crimes. But it’s important to note that causing fear was considered amusing in the first place, and that a large swathe of the reaction has been to brush off concerns about what happened as though they’re nothing.
If someone can get away with cornering a woman and frightening her, then “mooning” her, what’s to stop them from doing it again? It is considered by many as a harmless amusement that got out of hand. The harsh reality is that — for myself and for many other women — what Matthews did is representative of a culture that has allowed this harmful behavior to fester and escalate.
When I was traveling home on a train one night from London, the other passengers gradually filtered out until it was just myself and another man left on board. He took advantage of the fact that I was trapped with nowhere to go and started to jerk himself off while watching me. The only way to escape him was to go past him. The train wasn’t due to stop again for another 30 minutes.
Imagine spending the next 30 minutes trying to figure out what could happen next. Imagine being alone, at night, and trapped, for those 30 minutes. The fear that I experienced between those stops is like nothing I’ve ever felt before. That fear was the punchline they were looking for.
I had no guarantee that I could get safely by this man, or off the train. After that, I needed to get to my parked car, which was a few minutes’ walk away. It was late. I was alone. My phone was almost completely out of battery. The scenarios that I played out over and over in my head felt like they were choking me.
Other than the man stopping me as I attempted to rush by, to make me look at him, as he said, “alright, sweetheart,” it didn’t escalate further. But in my head, I’d already played out the scenarios of what could have been. Could easily have been. They weren’t far-fetched nightmares, they were things that are terrifyingly commonplace.
“You do not approach a female at 2 AM in the morning thinking it’s funny to see how she would react to get in her car,” said Fayola Dozithee, the woman involved, as reported by Katie Strang at The Athletic. “There’s three of you, there’s one of me. You could’ve done anything to me and I was at a disadvantage because of that.”
Because like it or not, no matter who the woman was, Matthews and his friends had the power in that situation. You can have all the self-defense training in the world, but fear can make that knowledge leave you in a heartbeat.
Details and reporting from Strang’s article on The Athletic also highlighted that it was not the first time that Matthews had attempted to frighten someone on Scottsdale Road that night. But, per a friend that had been out with Matthews at the time, he “didn’t give a shit” about the potential consequences.
What those consequences are remains to be seen. The response from Matthews and the Maple Leafs organization thus far has been to apologize, first and foremost, for the distraction that this incident has caused for the team.
That it is considered a distraction at all, instead of, before all else, an incident that has been a point of distress for the woman involved, but also hockey fans and media who have suffered through similar situations and worse, is to minimize it.
Because Matthews is the face of a franchise. He is a role model. He is an inspiration for young hockey players to aspire to.
If Auston Matthews can do this, and if it is seen by many as not being a big deal, there will be a trickle-down effect. It plays right back into a culture that locks out people of other backgrounds from the sport, from slurs used on the ice, in the stands, and how those involved in and around hockey conduct themselves with others.
Matthews is not the first, and will certainly not be the last, player to take advantage of his position in the sport to attempt to cover-up and brush an incident like this under the rug. My hope, beyond anything else, is that both Matthews and the Maple Leafs organization will take steps in educating not only themselves, but also players from the NHL, down to juniors, and beyond, to the very real dangers of normalizing this behavior.
That hockey needs a change in its culture is something that has been discussed ad nauseam for years.
Because it starts with a joke. And it can get so, so much worse.
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