Sometimes pro sports organizations make decisions. Sometimes decisions get made for them.
The Maple Leafs, in the matter of Auston Matthews allegedly caught on surveillance video with his pants around his ankles, appear to have been blindsided by a case of the latter this week.
As recently as Monday, after all, Matthews was widely presumed to be days away from having a “C” sewn onto his game sweater. As a 22-year-old NHL star on the rise, as a franchise golden child since he was selected No. 1 overall in the 2016 draft and made its highest-paid player in February, Matthews seemed, in the eyes of many, a natural fit to fill the three-plus-year vacancy as captain of the club.
Then news broke Tuesday that Matthews has been facing a criminal charge of misdemeanour disorderly conduct stemming from a bout of allegedly drunken off-season stupidity. Nothing’s been proven in court, but if you’ve seen the police report, wherein it’s alleged Matthews and some friends made loutish sport out of menacing a female security guard in the wee hours of a late May morning, you know it’s hard to fathom a way Matthews comes out of this looking anything other than entitled and immature and possibly predatory.
So when Wednesday morning rolled around, and Matthews was put before the media, it was already obvious: Matthews simply isn’t fit to be captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs — certainly not this season, and maybe not for a while.
That’s not a conclusion that hinges on the ultimate outcome of a case still before the courts — a case that’s serious enough that Matthews has hired a heavyweight defence lawyer who once represented the likes of Charles Barkley.
And even if there are those who will minimize the situation as a boys-will-be-boys prank gone wrong, it’s the kind of incident that calls into question the player’s judgment for a multitude of reasons
For one, startling strangers in parked cars in the gun-crazy U.S. seems like a good way to get shot. For another, menacing a woman in the age of #MeToo, never mind the part about it being thoughtless and unempathetic, seems like a great way to get sued.
And as for not telling your team about your springtime run-in with the Scottsdale police — that, folks, seems like a surefire route to proving you’re not quite ready for a leadership position.
On Wednesday head coach Mike Babcock said he only learned of the incident Tuesday, which suggests either (a) team management was similarly in the dark until then or (b) Babcock was left out of the loop. Let’s just say (b) is highly unlikely. If a savvy, cutthroat organization gets wind of an incident like this with the right kind of notice, common sense tells you they have the means to make it go away.
Now the Maple Leafs can only wonder: If Matthews was hiding this, what else don’t we know about No. 34? What’s his next surprise?
That’s not to say Matthews can’t overcome this. Ideally, it’ll be a blip in a glorious career. But to name him captain now would be ignoring the reddest of red flags. Effectively wearing the “C” for the Maple Leafs, after all, requires a considerable aptitude in the art of crisis management. History tells us this club is never far from its next controversy, so the face of the franchise ideally needs to represent the team with dignity and grace and maybe even an occasional dash of eloquence no matter the temperature of the most recent garbage fire.
If Wednesday was the closest thing to a live-mic audition that Matthews will probably ever get, he flopped pathetically. Four months after he was allegedly caught on camera with his pants around his ankles, on Wednesday he was seen tripping over his tongue, delivering a mumbled mess of a statement that was unbecoming of a would-be team spokesman.
“Obviously not something that I think any of us really wish we were talking about today, but unfortunately the situation we’re in,” Matthews said. “I mean, I, you know, regret any of my actions that would ever, you know, put a distraction on the team or distress any individual. I take a lot of pride in, you know, preparing myself for the season and representing the Toronto Maple Leafs as well as I can. So unfortunately, due to the situation I’m afraid I can’t really make any other comments.”
Matthews did not take questions, and perhaps that was for the best. The robotic reading of a prepared statement probably would have been a better option. He clearly wasn’t equipped to handle the freestyle option.
There are those who’d say: Ease off. Who hasn’t been young and dumb and drunk? And surely most 22-year-olds, if they were plopped amid such a media horde, wouldn’t have performed any better. That misses the point. Most 22-year-olds aren’t under contract for a guaranteed $58 million (U.S.), as Matthews is. Most haven’t been groomed for this, as Matthews has. To whom much is given, much is expected. If this is a sign that Matthews is already cracking under the pressure of living up to his groundbreaking contract, he’s about to have more problems than an Arizona court case.
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As for the captaincy, the Maple Leafs have older, wiser options at their disposal. Morgan Rielly is one. He’s carried himself as if he’s captain for years now, always available to speak for the room, boom or bust. Accused last season of uttering a homophobic slur during a game, he subsequently ran a clinic in transforming a negative into a positive, promptly denouncing the use of such language and marching in the Pride parade. John Tavares is another. He wore the “C” for the Islanders. He’d no doubt wear it well here. If the Maple Leafs are still bent on handing out the big letter this year, that’s the short list. Matthews isn’t on it.
How can he be? For springing this needless circus on Leafland on the cusp of a crucial year, there ought to be consequences. The Maple Leafs can only hope Matthews navigates the season better than he’s handled this self-created sideshow.