This could be the most serious business post I have ever tagged as serious business. I’d also like to put up a trigger warning: this post talks about sexual assault.
But truly this is serious; this is a case of a man in a position of power taking advantage of and violating young boys who trusted him because of his position of power. The case of Graham James is sickening–and it started surfacing around the same time as the Penn State scandal. American media focused more on that, obviously, although I’m sure Canadian media focused more on the James scandal. Both are equally despicable.
James was a coach in the junior-level WHL. As a scout for the then-Winnipeg Warriors (now Moose Jaw Warriors), he recruited two budding talents to the team, Theoren Fleury (no relation to Marc-Andre) and Sheldon Kennedy. James became the Warriors’ head coach upon its 1985 relocation to Moose Jaw. Later he helmed the Swift Current Broncos all the way to the 1989 Memorial Cup, an accomplishment considering a bus crash had killed four players just two and a half years prior. This achievement earned him the Man of the Year award from The Hockey News.
Literally that exact night that he was feted for the award, he was put up in a hotel room paid for by the magazine and used that as a space to assault Kennedy.
What a monster.
Kennedy came forward in 1996 and spoke out about assault he endured at James’ hands from 1984 to 1995. Yes, that’s nearly a decade. (Another player, who chose to remain anonymous, came forward too. I respect his decision to remain anonymous; sexual assault is still immensely hard to talk about, especially when done to men by men in the context of sports.) Worse yet, other players knew this was happening. Whenever James was grooming someone to assault, they referred to him as James’ new favorite.
James pleaded guilty to 350 instances of assault against the two players. No, that’s not a typo. Three hundred and fifty times. He got three and a half years in prison, where I’m sure he was treated really well by his fellow inmates, because child molesters are super popular behind bars. End sarcasm.
After being paroled in 2001, and pardoned in 2007 (seriously), James kind of went off the map a little. Canadian hockey officials learned he was coaching in Spain and alerted European officials, resulting in his firing. Then he disappeared again. Rumor had it he was in Montreal. In 2010 a reporter found him living in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Back to Fleury. Fleury wrote a 2009 autobiography called Playing With Fire. In it, he came forward about his own terrible experiences with James starting at the age of 14. It had taken him some time to find the courage to speak about it, but he did it because he wanted to ensure that no other player would ever suffer like he did. The abuse, he said, led to him abusing drugs and alcohol, sending him down a spiral where in 2004 he quite nearly committed suicide, a terrible nadir. He’s clean now, but suffered so much. Fleury’s cousin Todd Holt also endured assault from James and these two formed the basis of the most recent case against this monster. I read a report that said the two boys grew tired attempting to fight off James’ advances, so he took advantage of their fatigue and took advantage of them.
Once again, James pleaded guilty to hundreds of instances of assault. On March 20, he was sentenced to two years in prison. He must also submit a DNA sample to a national sex offender registry in Canada and may never hold a position in which children trust him.
But I don’t think that’s enough.
What happened to these young men is despicable. Their bravery in speaking out is admirable (Fleury has become an advocate for victims of assault). But what about other kids? What if he assaulted others and they’re too scared, ashamed or otherwise emotionally unable to come forward? Sure, James already served time, and he’s going to serve more, but what about other coaches out there? What about other kids? This case, frighteningly, may not exist in a microcosm in which it is the only one like it. (The Penn State scandal exemplifies that.)
I know the Canadian justice system differs from America’s. (Krista might be able to testify more about the differences, since she studied criminal justice.) I also know that sometimes I personally am a bit more vindictive and angry about certain criminal cases than I am for others because of how they set off my moral barometers. But in my mind, taking advantage of a child sexually is absolutely unforgivable, no matter what. I would’ve handed down a much, much longer sentence. In fact, I think it’d be alright if he just got to stay behind bars forever. Just languish away between four cement walls, unable to ever come into contact with children again. Send a message: this is unacceptable, this is intolerable, this should never happen again.
By the way? The Hockey News revoked the 1989 award and got James to return the plaque he received.