Game over: Rogers fires Don Cherry after controversial comments

Don Cherry was fired by Rogers Media on Monday, two days after his “Coach’s Corner” segment sparked outrage and accusations of bigotry and racism.

“Sports brings people together—it unites us, not divides us,” said Bart Yabsley, president of Sportsnet in a statement released just after 3 p.m. “Following further discussions with Don Cherry after Saturday night’s broadcast, it has been decided it is the right time for him to immediately step down. During the broadcast, he made divisive remarks that do not represent our values or what we stand for.

Soon after, Coach’s Corner sponsor Budweiser released a statement saying it agreed with the decision.
“The comments made Saturday on Coach’s Corner were clearly inappropriate and divisive, and in no way reflect Budweiser’s views,” said Todd Allen, VP of marketing, Labatt Breweries of Canada.
“As a sponsor of the broadcast, we immediately expressed our concerns and respect the decision which was made by Sportsnet today.”

Speaking with the Toronto Sun, Cherry described the change as a firing.

“I have just learned I’ve been fired by Sportsnet for comments made on Coach’s Corner Nov. 9… No problem.”

On Saturday night, while angrily complaining about people not wearing a poppy for Remembrance Day, Cherry seemed to suggest immigrants were among the groups failing to show their support for Canada’s military veterans. “You people—that come here, whatever it is—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.”*

How the story unfolded since Saturday night is unclear, with Rogers saying little. Some sports and media experts who spoke with The Message Monday morning wondered if Rogers would try to ride out the storm as it has in the past when Cherry has said controversial things—a not uncommon occurrence since joining Hockey Night in Canada nearly 40 years ago.

The segment still had lots of viewers and undoubtedly many agreed with his opinion. Almost certainly, said multiple experts, Rogers took phone calls from Budweiser, CBC (which still broadcasts Coach’s Corner without any control over content) and the NHL itself, which is eager to grow the game with new audiences.

But public sentiment may have forced their hand. The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council said on Monday that it had received so many complaints about Cherry that it couldn’t accept any more.

On Sunday, Rogers issued a statement apologizing for the comments, while Cherry’s long-time co-host Ron MacLean made an earnest apology on Twitter and at the opening of Rogers Hometown Hockey Sunday evening.

However, at a time when the political climate has become so fraught, with media and sponsors alike wanting to be associated with positive, unifying messages, Rogers likely felt it needed to do something more and may have insisted Cherry himself needed to apologize without Budweiser’s insistence.

One executive with knowledge of the Budweiser sponsorship deal, who asked not to be identified, said they’d be surprised if Budweiser asked for Cherry to be fired.

“I think human decency and Canadian values dictate that he had to be fired, to be honest,” said Alastair Taylor, CEO of Publicis Media. “Brands shouldn’t have even factored into the equation for Rogers, and I suspect that it didn’t.”

It may not have been a sponsor demand, agreed Havas CEO Alex Panousis. “Brands are not moral barometers, but if a program you have a relationship with doesn’t share your values, then it is time to reconsider,” she said. “Cherry’s views were inappropriate. As one of ‘those people,’ an immigrant, I still feel saddened by what he said. Free speech is not a license to say anything.”

Even if Budweiser didn’t call for Cherry to be terminated, the rant on Saturday undoubtedly put the brand in an uncomfortable position. Just last week, it released a new video ad prominently featuring Cherry calling for more support for women’s hockey. “This game is for us all,” is a key line repeated multiple times to end the spot.

While Cherry has long been a vocal supporter of the women’s game, his “you people” comments—delivered with the Budweiser logo directly over his shoulder—seemed to align more with anti-immigrant views and dated opinions about the game from a much less inclusive time.

Rogers’ next steps in terms of filling the Coach’s Corner slot—and making good with advertisers—is also unclear.

“Over the next few days, our teams will be in contact to discuss our plans moving forward with Coach’s Corner,” said Alan Dark, Rogers’ senior vice-president of media sales, in a memo to media buyers.In the meantime, if you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to reach out to me directly. We greatly appreciate your understanding and continued support.”

In a statement to The Message after Cherry’s dismissal was announced, Andrea Goldstein, senior director of communications at Rogers Media, said: “We are constantly communicating with our partners to ensure we are best delivering on their needs. Our clients have been understanding and supportive of Sportsnet’s decision today.  We look forward to continuing our partnership with Budweiser.”

“Don is synonymous with hockey and has played an integral role in growing the game over the past 40 years,” said  Yabsley in his statement. “We would like to thank Don for his contributions to hockey and sports broadcasting in Canada.”


*Don Cherry’s quote has been updated to “that come here.” See a version of the original segment here

David Brown