Chris Sandau (Photo via Twitter)
The North Delta Minor Hockey Association in British Columbia fired a coach recently for "disturbing" posts on social media that centered around Nazism and Adolf Hitler. It raises some interesting questions about the blurred lines between personal opinion and public duty.
I can honestly say I’m not sure how I would react if I found out that someone coaching my son was a Nazi sympathizer and Holocaust denier who confined his opinions to social media and never brought them into the dressing room or on the ice.
But I do know I wouldn't want a guy like Christopher Sandau around my kids. Now I have to wrap my head around whether or not it's fair to think that way. It's certainly the safe way to think and that might provide the answer right there.
The North Delta Minor Hockey Association in British Columbia, however, was not near as non-committal. It recently fired Sandau from coaching two teams in its rep program over “disturbing” social media posts from Sandau. The 33-year-old Sandau, who played six years of fourth- and fifth-division pro hockey in Germany, had a Facebook page that has since been taken down that was a shrine to Nazism and Adolf Hitler. In an interview with a local newspaper after he was fired, Sandau essentially denied the Holocaust ever happened, saying “these people were not that evil,” and that those in concentration camps were bald because of a “brutal lice infestation.”
When you see the actual material on-line and listen to Sandau justify his stance, it's impossible to defend his views because they're indefensible. This is clearly not a guy most people would want to invite for dinner and some casual conversation. But here’s the thing. The guy never breathed a word of it to his players or any of the families with whom he worked. The organization fired Sandau after being alerted to the posts from a concerned parent who came across them.
Sandau espoused the usual garbage about Jews taking over the world’s banks and how “God is with us.” It’s not the kind of thing most rational people would want an authority figure passing on to impressionable young children under his charge, but there’s absolutely nothing to suggest he ever did that. He talks about mind control and on his Twitter account and how the Germans were subject to genocide as well. One of his tweets actually says "Heil Hitler."
So it raises the question: How far do we go with this? Are the Thought Police, particularly on-line, becoming a little too powerful? Or did Sandau cross the line, not because of his beliefs, but because he chose to make them very public on social media? And by making them public, even though he didn’t espouse them while he was coaching, make them public enough that he shouldn’t be trusted around kids? Did the North Delta association fire him because it thought he might have a negative influence on his players and if so, how would it know in the absence of any evidence to the contrary?
So many questions. And this is all relatively uncharted territory here. We do know that Sandau deserved to be fired. The association had apparently warned him to take down his posts two weeks prior to firing him and he refused to do so. And BC Hockey does have a social media policy that covers all its members – players, coaches and executives – that calls for disciplinary measures to be taken against those who violate it. (We placed a call to association president Anita Cairney and left a message that was not returned.)
But again, how far do we go? What if this coach were an ardent supporter of the Right to Life movement and posted graphic photographs of aborted fetuses on his social media accounts and based his philosophy on religious grounds? Is that disseminating “hate” any more or less than putting Hitler in a favorable light? Sandau talked about his beliefs from a religious perspective, too. And just because they’re not popular, or even socially acceptable, does that make it a firing offense?
We do know that spreading hate of any kind is a crime in Canada, as it should be. But Sandau has not been charged with anything, so now you must draw the line between what is hate mongering and simply expressing your opinion, as distasteful as it might be. (Let's make one thing clear here. Saundau's views are repugnant. But the debate we should be having is about the lines that are being drawn here between personal opinion and public duty.)
It reminds me a little of a couple of years ago when Tim Thomas found himself embroiled in controversy after he refused to visit the White House because of his opposition to Barack Obama and his later Facebook posts standing with the owners of Chick-Fil-A for their opposition to gay rights and to extending benefits to same-sex couples. Thomas was roasted, not because he took a stance, but for the stances he took. I can’t say for sure, but I can imagine the public would have been a lot more sympathetic to Thomas if he refused to visit the White House when George W. Bush was president because he was against the war in Iraq or he had publicly taken the opposite view from Chick-Fil-A.
Earlier this week, two OHL players were suspended 15 games each for posting enormously offensive and sexist comments on something called Tinder, a dating/social media outlet I didn’t even know existed until this happened. OHL players are, or should be, fully aware of the league’s social media policy and the ramifications of violating it. That’s a long suspension for a 19-year-old who’s trying to find his way into professional hockey and you can bet that players will no longer be making that particular mistake.
The bottom line here is that in a world where our digital footprint stays with us forever, people obviously have to watch what they do both on the ice and off. It’s a lesson Chris Sandau and the two OHL players are learning the hard way. And it’s one the hockey world will likely have to continue to confront.