By now you are probably aware of this past weekend’s incident involving Devante Smith-Pelly. The Washington Capitals forward had racially-motivated taunts of “basketball” yelled at him by Chicago Blackhawks while seated in the penalty box.
Unfortunately, these incidents occurred during the NHL’s “Hockey Is For Everyone” month and while the NBA is celebrating Black History Month.
Although the two messages were delivered in different ways, they share the same insidious inferences.
Following his incident Saturday, Smith-Pelly decided not to speak to the media. I received texts from caucasian friends of mine wondering why he was so distraught They assumed racist treatment is something Smith-Pelley sadly would be accustomed to as a black hockey player.
When Smith-Pelly did address the incident at practice on Sunday here’s what he said:
“It’s pretty obvious what that means,” he said. “It’s not really a secret, Whether it’s that word or any other word, I got the idea. And I’m sure they got the idea, too.”
While the message behind the fans’ words may be obvious, what’s less clear to many is why that specific message hurts. Far be it from me to speak for Smith-Pelley and what he was thinking in that moment. The feeling of black people aren’t monolithic.
From my perspective, Smith-Pelly’s ordeal isn’t upsetting simply because it was racist. What was particularly offensive was that the words used by the fans were attempting to ascribe to him activities that are and are not acceptable for a black male to participate in.
Screaming “basketball” at a black male is stating a belief that in society is often implied but rarely said openly: As a black person, you are allowed to display proficiency, but only in areas that some deem acceptable (i.e. basketball).
Race-based assumptions are made about us all the time. They include our interests, taste in music and occupations. These microaggressions reinforce that the world views you first and foremost by your skin colour and not your individual personality.
Like what Smith-Pelly endured, it’s why Laura Ingraham’s “shut up and dribble” comment was offensive. She was saying James’ physical talent in a traditional black sport is welcome, but his ideological views are not. Hence why the “basketball” comment directed at Smith-Pelley strikes such a chord.
So, for minorities who have made the choice to pursue non-traditional black activities such as coaching in the NHL like Paul Jerrard, being a referee like Jay Sherrers, a Nascar driver like Bubba Wallace Jr, or a black hockey player like Smith-Pelly, the idea that they don’t belong is terribly upsetting because it speaks to a greater social construct they are actively trying to counteract.
It’s why the box office record-setting “Black Panther” film has been so important for those of African descent. The movie allows them to see there is power in the portrayal of Black people as protagonists on screen and see black people as directors behind the camera.
It’s funny: I don’t recall Ingraham telling Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr to “shut up and hold a clipboard,” when he said government has to play a role to counteract the NRA or telling Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs to “shut up and make substitutions” during the countless times he has used his media availability to criticize Donald Trump.
She went on to further perpetuate negative stereotypes by saying: “This is what happens when you attempt to leave high school a year early to join the NBA. And it’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball.”
Of course, James didn’t leave high-school early. He graduated on time and that he doesn’t earn $100 million per year from the NBA. Her lie of omission is designed to characterize James solely as a basketball player and not a mogul with a net worth north of $400 million with entrepreneurial ventures in tech, media, Hollywood, athlete representation and the restaurant industry.
In her own way, Ingraham was using her platform to chant “basketball” at James and place him in her own penalty box.
What Ingraham did was covert (or so she thought). What the heckling Blackhawks fans did was overt but they were both communicating the same message: Stay in your lane. This is who you are as a black man.
But James and Smith-Pelly, two proud, black athletes, weren’t willing to accept the box some people want to put them in.
And neither should you.