Phil Kessel, Toronto’s Resected Tumor

Steve Simmons’ recent red-faced column in the Toronto Sun lambasting Phil Kessel for, among other things, eating hot dogs, is a jarring piece of vitriol. By Simmons’ estimation, this man, this professional athlete, is the malignant causa sua behind an entire organization’s atrocious second half of last season. Simmons gifts Kessel with influence over several aspects of the team, then tells us in what malevolent manner he abused it. With terms like ‘disruptive’ ‘condescending’ and ‘critical’ he shows no restraint in painting Phil Kessel as a deliberate dick, epitomizing evil with metastatic efficiency.

Despite this, the widely circulated column isn’t just an exercise in letting loose; it also offers an interesting lesson in what not to say.

No Restraint

It worked out rather well that on the very day that Simmons displayed no restraint in destroying Phil Kessel, the Sun also ran a story on Canadian serial killer Paul Bernardo and his application for day parole. The sadistic Bernardo, whose place on the Mount Rushmore of hideous human beings produced by Canada is assured, knew nothing of restraint, and qualifies as someone who might epitomize evil, too.

One doesn’t have anything to do with the other; but I think most of us hope that those with platforms like the Toronto Sun will first inhale, show some restraint, and provide some perspective before unloading ad hominem attacks the way Simmons did, if for no other reason than to avoid appearing hell-bent on self-gratification, as opposed to contributing something useful to the conversation.

Simmons, like many Leafs fans, has likely made a heavy emotional investment in Phil Kessel over the years; his column therefore reads like someone scorned. His gravely serious tone is unbelievable in its overkill because hey we’re still just talking about hockey. He could have subverted that gravitas by hinting somewhere that he knew he was overreacting, but he appears to lack the needed insight, and instead comes off sounding like Eminem’s Stan: “Dear Mister-I’m-Too-Good-To-Call-Or-Write-My-Fans …”

The absence of restraint; the vacant perspective; this is what the comments section is for: holler your point, drop the mic, and out. Simmons’ explosive tirade against an athlete is not just juvenile, it’s confounding. You almost have to believe that Simmons is so angry because he’s been paying Kessel’s salary all these years, despite the fact that indirectly the contrary was true. As Public Enemy’s Flava Flav once notoriously rapped,

“Yo New York Post, don’t brag and boast / Dissin Flava when he’s butter that you put on your toast.”

Kessel has been every Toronto writer’s butter for years. Maybe that’s the real source of his outrage; the gravy train that was the Phil Kessel Economy has left town. Who’s left to rag on, Kapenen? Harrington? Dion Phaneuf?

But whereas towards Kessel he shows no restraint, elsewhere his restraint is almost admirable.

Uncommon Restraint

In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy tells the story of Ivan, sick with a disease that everyone in the book is too scared or embarrassed to mention by name. So humiliated is Ivan that he’d rather die than say what’s killing him.

No, he doesn’t have syphilis, he has cancer.

In his column, Simmons’ primary metaphor is medical. Kessel, he informs us, was a disease (“an illness”, synonymous here with disease). And he or it ‘had to go’ if there was any hope that the Leafs would endure.  But much like Ivan Ilitch, Simmons refuses to say ‘cancer.’ This is more profound than it appears.

After her diagnosis with breast cancer, Susan Sontag wrote the book Illness as Metaphor. In it, she notes how often cancer is used as a metaphor: During Watergate, Deep Throat was a cancer within the White House; DH Lawrence said masturbation was a cancer on civilization; Trotsky called Stalinism the cancer of Marxism.

She also notes that into the 1970s, doctors didn’t tell patients they had cancer; the term was so loaded with images of death that instead, doctors would tell patients they had a tumor.  This, believe it or not, was considered a reasonable concession.

I don’t know why Simmons does not come out and say ‘Kessel was a cancer that needed to be removed’ since he says everything except that, but I’m glad that he didn’t. Perhaps he didn’t because former mayor Rob Ford just finished his cancer treatment and that somehow might have been awkward. Or maybe, as it is for so many, cancer is highly personal for him. Or perhaps he’s aware of the fact that many people over the years have objected to the use of the cancer metaphor to describe just about anything that is remotely disabling a system from within. Just like everything from TV shows to chocolate to smart phones is now clinically ‘addictive’, so too is everything from your annoying in-laws to an ill-fitting cushion on an otherwise awesome couch somehow ‘cancerous.’

The problem is that Simmons does a lousy job of disguising this and by the end of his column he’s written himself into a corner: having laid out Kessel-as-cancer, he has nowhere to go but towards nonsense.

Here and elsewhere, Kessel possesses every trait of a tumor:

“Separation between the Leafs and Kessel became necessary when it grew more and more apparent with time that everything Shanahan values was upended by Kessel’s singular, laissez-faire, flippant, mostly uncoachable ways.”

Kessel neither ate right, trained right or played right. His attitude affected those around him the way a tumor manipulates its microenvironment.

Now, here’s author and physician Sherwin Nuland writing about cancer in the book How We Die:

“Far from being a clandestine foe, [cancer] is berserk with the malicious exuberance of killing. The disease pursues a continuous, uninhibited, circumferential, barn-burning expedition of destructiveness, in which it heeds no rules, follows no command, and explodes all resistance in a homicidal riot of devastation.”

He calls cancer a nonconformist, and cancer cells “a mob of maladjusted adolescents” that knows no rules.

Fortunately, the Leafs intervened in language that sounds like a surgical resection.

“Kessel … [has been] removed from everywhere.”

But after all that, Kessel becomes a poison:

“When you have an illness, you must get rid of the poison.”

And then, an infectious disease:

“[The Leafs] treated their own infection — the Penguins playing the part of antibiotic.”

Ultimately, Simmons gives in to the seduction of this metaphor but he does so without calling it by name, which I suppose is better than the contrary. As Sontag wrote,

“The people who have [cancer] are hardly helped by hearing their disease’s name constantly being dropped as the epitome of evil.”

Or, to offer an update that fully illustrates the absurdity of that column, people with cancer are hardly helped by hearing their disease being compared to Phil Kessel. And I’m guessing he wouldn’t really care for that either.

Other Links

Cancer Compared to ISIS
Cancer and Metaphors
Positive Thinking is for Bullies
Use of Metaphor in the Discourse on Cancer