As the world continues to march for meaningful change that will address systemic racism and racial injustice, Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan has been listening.
He spoke with Toronto FC general manager Ali Curtis. He spoke with Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri and read his op-ed, which encouraged leaders to call out racism in order to “stop that cycle,” all in an attempt to better understand the pain coursing through this moment in history.
“When something like this happens, as a white person, you feel embarrassed,” Shanahan explained during a candid conversation with Tim and Sid on Friday. “You feel ashamed. What I said to Masai is I feel like I should just be quiet and slink into a corner and just not be heard from. His op-ed said just the opposite.”
Through those conversations, through listening and learning, Shanahan began to recognize the role both he and the Maple Leafs have in building a better future, for hockey and the world.
“I think it was important for us as a hockey organization — which is a very white sport — to let the Raptors and to let the Argos and TFC and our wonderful leaders there take the lead,” Shanahan said. “The one thing I wanted to make clear to them and make clear to all of our fans, and our Leaf fans and our employees is where we stand as Toronto Maple Leafs, and where I stand as an individual.”
As Shanahan describes it, Toronto’s call to action right now is to “educate ourselves” and to learn. He recognizes there is tension in that statement, too. After all, he is a 51-year-old man, surely in those years he should have learned the requisite information about racial injustice.
But knowing and understanding are different things, and for Shanahan, understanding meant more reflection.
“I looked back at my friends that I grew up with that were Black, or teammates that were Black, I never witnessed them, you know, dealing with racism,” Shanahan said. “So I made an incorrect assumption that things must be fine. Looking back and reflecting, I don’t ever remember going to them and saying, ‘Well, you know, I’m sitting back and thinking that things are OK for you, but why don’t you tell me how things are for you?’
“…And I think that that’s an important time period that I’m in personally, and that we’re all in — regardless of where we feel we’ve stood through our lifetime and through our actions.
“This is really a time for us to listen more and learn more. And it’s just not enough to sort of say, ‘Well, you know, there’s no racism in my heart and my children have not been raised that way and no one does it,’ … I feel like it’s time for us to be more. I think it’s time for more activism and that is currently where we are.”
As Shanahan noted, after listening carefully, some degree of action must follow. Statements are not enough. And so as the Maple Leafs executive sees the importance of posts on social media, he feels that the responsibility to affect change should go beyond that — especially as time marches on and the protests become less prominent in the headlines.
“Where [we feel we have] a responsibility, a responsibility we are happy to have as white leaders at MLSE or in Toronto, or in the sport of hockey, we have an ability to actually have a tremendous impact, I think, and not just step aside and ask and wait for Black leaders to do this on their own,” Shanahan said.
“And as news cycles shift — and they always do — I just think that people need to know that, myself, Kyle Dubas, our Maple Leafs players, we’re not waiting for this new cycle to shift, this has been a changing moment for the entire world.”
The world has seen moments that should have changed it before, though. Shanahan knows that, too.
He remembers the Central Park Five, when five teenagers of colour were wrongly convicted of raping a woman and spent six to 13 years in prison for a crime they did not commit; he remembers Rodney King, whose 1991 videotaped beating by the Los Angeles police became a symbol of America’s racial tensions and led to a week of deadly race riots after the officers were acquitted; he remembers Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager who was fatally shot by a neighbourhood watch volunteer; and of course, he remembers George Floyd, who died in May after a Minneapolis police officer pinned him down and knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
“To assume these things weren’t happening before is incorrect,” Shanahan said. “My children ask me, ‘Is this happening more often?’ And I say ‘I don’t know if it’s happening more often, but it’s certainly being captured more often.’ What we all saw with that policeman, casually kneeling on a man’s neck for over eight minutes, is so sickening to everyone. And it’s so painful to everyone, that I do think that there’s an opportunity for change here.
“…As a white leader in a very white sport, in an organization in which we recognize we can be better and we can do more — and we will do more — I just think that now is really a time where we have to make real plans so that this isn’t something where we say ‘We made a donation, we made a Tweet,’ and we’ve moved on.
“We need to have some immediate results, and more importantly we need some long-term results because this is something that has developed over 400 years. We’re not going to fix it in a week, we’re not going to fix it in a year, but we have to be part of the solution.
“…If they want us to lead, we’ll lead. If they want us to be led, we’ll be led. But we are right with Black Lives Matter.”
When asked whether Leafs players have anything planned in terms of peaceful protests and, if they do, how the organization would support it, Shanahan says he expects something but that it hasn’t been communicated yet.
“I haven’t talked to the players specifically about what they have planned or if they have anything planned. I’m sure that they do. And they’ll be supported by us.”