On August 6, 2015, the Buffalo News reported an investigation into allegations that Kane had sexually assaulted a woman at his home earlier that month.
On October 17, 2015, with the potential of criminal charges looming, Kane scored an empty-net goal, the first point in a franchise-record streak that ultimately stretched 26 games.
And as every twist and turn in Kane’s curious legal case and stunning on-ice success unfolded, the sports world wrestled with the question of how to regard a star athlete dominating his sport amid an ongoing rape investigation.
In an era in which off-field actions recorded by TMZ can garner as much attention as in-game highlights on ESPN, no hockey player occupied the spotlight more than Kane in 2015, both basking in its glow and enduring its heat.
Kane’s year epitomizes a modern quandary: How do you reconcile athletic greatness with societal shortcomings? It’s the reason he transcends his sport and clearly belongs among the most intriguing and relevant athletes in the year that was.
The greatness of the foremost American hockey player is easy to showcase. Kane’s 50 points lead the NHL through Dec. 27 and put him on pace for 111 at a time when scoring is on the decline league-wide; 87 points was the top mark by any player in 2014-15. His 11 goals and 23 points in the 2015 playoffs led the Blackhawks and helped them to their third Stanley Cup in six seasons.
The investigation was still ongoing when Kane began the 2015-16 season with six points in his first three games. Then, in mid-October, he began the NHL’s longest point streak ever by an American player and the league’s longest such streak since 1992-93.
But then there were the accusations of the summer, the ongoing investigation, a story from the victim’s mother that the rape kit was tampered with and left anonymously on her doorstep. It all painted a dark picture, particularly when paired with past stories of him striking cab drivers. Is this man, the one dominating the game of hockey, a hero or a villain?
The picture soon cleared, if only slightly. The alleged evidence-tampering was labeled by the authorities as an “elaborate hoax.” Kane’s accuser told prosecutors she no longer wanted to pursue a case against him. On Nov. 5, the Erie County (N.Y.) district attorney announced that Kane would not face criminal charges.
The drama may have dissipated, but the mystery over what exactly happened between Kane and his accuser may always linger. As such, fans and pundits have wrestled with the uncomfortable position of applauding Kane’s accomplishments with the possibility that he may have committed a serious crime. Though some fans appeared to forgive him well before he was cleared, the scrutiny of the investigation forced a re-evaluation of how to view an athlete whose accomplishments are muddied by scandal away from the game — even if they ultimately avoid legal consequences.
Through Kane’s year, the sports world was presented with a dynamic now common in an era in which the increasing reach of media, both social and traditional, reveals more and more of the lives of stars we so want to celebrate on the ice, court or field. The two-dimensional depictions of sports legends captured on trading cards have been replaced by ever-shifting 3-D images colored constantly by the 24-hour news cycle. And with the increasing revelations, the stark contrast of sports disappears. Sports stories used to seem simple: winners and losers, heroes and goats. But Kane’s story is a reminder that life is more complicated than a game.
In 2015, Adrian Peterson is closing in on another NFL rushing title a season after child-abuse charges. NBA rookie Jahlil Okafor was recently filmed drunkenly brawling in the street just months removed from a national championship at Duke. Now the impulse to cheer, to jump from one’s seat in appreciation, is sometimes short-circuited, tangled with moral dilemma. When the goal light glistens at United Center, it is supposed to prompt unbridled enthusiasm to the tune of “Chelsea Dagger,” not questions about the character of the man who lit it. Kane may not have been charged, but he did not emerge unscathed.
More and more, athletic greatness these days is tinged with questions and qualifications. Once, we could cheer unabashedly for such sparkling success. In cases like Kane’s, exhilaration gives way to self-reflection and a grappling with the imperfections of heroes. More often now, it seems, exclamation marks are bent by surrounding circumstances.
The Washington Post’s Sports Figures of the Year