Three years ago, on Oct. 7, 2017, J.T. Brown raised his fist during the national anthem in an act of peaceful protest against racism and police brutality.
At the time, he was heading into his seventh year of pro hockey with the Tampa Bay Lightning organization and was prepared for the possibility that his decision to peacefully protest might risk his chance of having an eighth.
One year earlier, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt for the anthem in an effort to raise awareness of social and racial injustices happening across the nation, and Brown was beginning to face questions about whether he’d do the same.
He wrote about the experience — what led to his decision, and what came after — in a powerful piece published on NHL.com on Friday.
“I had a choice. I could shut up and play hockey, or I could do something so loud that the entire hockey community would hear me. Nothing will ever get accomplished if we all keep our heads down and our mouths shut. So, during the national anthem in Sunrise, Florida, I raised my fist to protest police brutality and racism,” wrote Brown. “In 2017 I had an opportunity to sacrifice for something bigger than hockey, and I knew that I needed to do it.”
In the piece, Brown also details his own lifelong, lived experience of being a Black man playing an overwhelmingly white sport:
“I will be honest, most of the time, we’re all just teammates. We joke, we play videogames, we play cards, and we bet on the football game. Then there are times when I’m the only player asked by arena security for my credentials when I’m just trying to get to my locker room. Or when I’m asked by hotel security to leave the hockey players alone and leave the hotel lobby when I’m just waiting with my teammates for our bus.
“Let’s not forget the classic line that every Black hockey player knows too well, “go play basketball,” which I heard during a hockey game at the highest level from an opposing player,” he wrote. “I worked hard my whole life to prove that I belong in the NHL, and when I made it, I was still reminded that I was a Black man playing a white sport.”
Brown wrote that he received death threats and hateful messages online after raising his fist back in 2017 — messages he still receives now whenever he speaks up against racism.
“The backlash reinforced my belief that I did the right thing. I know the hockey community, and specifically, the Black community heard me acknowledge their pain and understood that I took an oath that game to always fight for equality.”
Now, as professional sports make their long-awaited return this summer, the stage is set not just for thrilling feats of athleticism in the quest for championship crowns but for real, powerful, and impactful conversations led by athletes and leaders using their platforms for good.
After spending the 2019-20 campaign with the Minnesota Wild‘s AHL affiliate in Iowa, Brown won’t be playing when his Minnesota teammates hit the ice this weekend, he continues to lead with his actions and words and sees promise in others in the NHL beginning to do the same.
“For the first time, I saw a glimpse of a League consisting of predominately affluent white males speaking out against issues that were once ignored. It has been promising to see activism in the NHL progressing,” he wrote of seeing his white peers begin to speak out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s death in May. “The urgency for social change does not cease as the roars from protests fade and disappear from our timelines. So whether you use your hands for giving donations, volunteering, holding signs as you march in a protest, being vocal online, or raising a fist in solidarity, we all have a responsibility to fight for equality. History cannot continue to repeat itself.”