Recall that a few years back, the loathsome Rob Ford was elected mayor of Toronto. He was loathsome, that is, to all the people who counted, not the voters. At his swearing-in as mayor, he invited Don Cherry to be on hand. Doubly loathsome, except to the voters.
Rob Ford’s rise – followed later by Brexit and Donald Trump – was identified as the malign fruit of many things, usually said to reflect the racism, xenophobia or assorted hatreds of the voters. There was much about Ford that was indefensible, and the voters knew that. What attracted them was his sincerity.
With Ford, who you got was what you saw. He spoke his mind. He was not the product of consultants and media managers and spin doctors. He was not a product at all. He was a man, a flawed man, in the flesh. A very flawed man very much in the flesh, sweating and shouting and red-faced.
Cherry was much the same, without the personal indiscipline and in much better clothes. For 39 years (!), Grapes was the only place in the entirety of sports television where sincere things were always said. Blame politicians all you like for their insincerity; they have got nothing on athletes, whose cliché-ridden interviews and potted answers make even the most robotic corporate communications flack seem like a loose cannon. Grapes spoke his mind and earned admirers for doing so.
One didn’t have agree with Cherry to appreciate him. On the drum he beat the loudest and longest – celebrating fighting in hockey – I didn’t.
He will be replaced in the first intermission by someone who will be wholly interchangeable with every other sports commentator, saying entirely predictable things in an entire predictable way in an entirely predictable suit. It won’t much matter if he believes what he says or not; there will always be another just like him if a replacement is needed.
So, count me out of those piling on Don now that his firing – expected for 38-and-a-half of those 39 years – has been accomplished. Count me out of those preening with faux outrage and sneering at Cherry’s lack of sophistication and working class background. Count me out of those who speak about immigrants like my family as though we are such delicate flowers that the blustery protests of Cherry about poppies supposedly wounds us to the core.
For me, I want to say thank you to a great Canadian who brought attention to a lot of ordinary Canadians who are otherwise overlooked. Or when noticed at all, are disdained. The sort, for example, who, like Grapes, shop at Fabricland. Yes, Fabricland, as I explain here.
Let me add, then, three observations about the Cherry firing – the comic, the cowardly, and the CBC.
First, the unintentionally comic. It was breathlessly reported on Monday that the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council was so “overwhelmed” with complaints about Saturday’s Coach’s Corner that it pleaded with the public not to file any more. So, it was an unusually lively time over at CBSC, not to be confused with the CBSA, the trusty customs officials who are never overwhelmed, no matter what the volume. Perhaps the CBSC could learn from the spiffy new electronic kiosks the CBSA has installed in airports to speed things along.
In any case, of course the CBSC got more complaints about Grapes than they had before. People actually watch him. Consider, if you will, if one of the four anchors the CBC employs to replace Peter Mansbridge on The National had said something outrageous. How would anybody know?
Can anyone name two of the four? I can’t, and consider it a professional obligation to follow the news. Yes, perhaps if someone had said something, a few complaints would have trickled in to the CBSC.
By the way, how do people know to complain to the CBSC? I mean, do ordinary folk watch Coach’s Corner, get aggravated by Grapes and know to fire off a missive to the CBSC? It seems a bit, as Cherry might put it, whiny, no?
Perhaps there was a little bit of organization; perhaps the CBSC thought it might benefit from a little moment in the sun? Or perhaps not, and legions of Canadians – but not likely from the Legion Hall – truly got in touch to complain. For me, I find it a challenge enough to coordinate the multiple remotes in order to watch television, let alone know how to complain about what I watch.
Second, the cowardly. I certainly don’t mean that our minister of defense, Harjit Sajjan, is a coward. To the contrary, he has a brave and admirable record in combat, even if he apologized for exaggerating the extent of his role in Afghanistan. What is cowardly is Sajjan making the media rounds to denounce Cherry for his remarks, when during the recent election campaign he couldn’t manage to denounce the Quebec government law that would ban people like Sajjan, who wears a turban, from public sector employment.
Sajjan can facilely denounce Cherry’s words, as there is no cost to him. But he won’t stand up to the Quebec government’s actions, backed by force of law, when there is a political cost to him. That’s cowardly and insincere, two things Grapes is not.
Third, the CBC, where Grapes worked for the first 33 of his 39 years in TV. Much of the commentary about Cherry’s firing was that it was a long time coming. How did he manage to stay on the air so long? The answer is that the CBC loved having him there, the more outrageous the better. Not for ratings, but for ideological reasons.
It was not an accident that Grapes was fired by a private company, where he has been working for the past six years. Private companies, especially large corporations, always have a bus warmed up and ready to go in case any inconvenient employees need to be thrown under it.
Not so for the CBC, which is accountable to no one. But it is a public broadcaster, so how do you consistently operate a network that reflects a certain small-l liberal view of the country, an ideological take on the news? Well, you put Rex Murphy on the radio on Sunday afternoon and The National on Thursday night, and keep Grapes revved up for Hockey Night in Canada. See everyone, here are our conservatives!
CBC bosses would revel in the fact that their most watched five minutes was Don Cherry on Coach’s Corner. To any charge that the CBC was incorrigibly leftist, the response was at the ready: How could we be, when our most popular personality, our most watched segment, is Grapes? Then they would get on with the other 167 hours and 54 minutes a week of programming.
Grapes is gone. After 39 years, he will not be soon forgotten. But what follows will be entirely forgettable.