Why NHL can still do more on social-justice issues

Matt Dumba discusses his opportunity to speak on behalf of changing the culture of hockey and around the world to be more inclusive and less racist, noting that he had some help from Jonas Brodin and Alex Galchenyuk in practicing for the big moment.

It’s with mixed feelings that I watch the baton being passed from the cultural-awakening conversations we’ve had over the past few months to the excitement around the return of sports this week. The ebbs and flows of emotions have bounced from a sense of purpose and passion to one of pride in what so many leagues are doing as they restart. But then one of the last leagues to come back left me with a sense of apathy.

As most of our North American sports return at the same time, it provides the opportunity for a litmus test on where they and their players stand on social-justice issues. And if we’re grading on a curve, the NHL and the hockey community are falling behind the rest of the class.

The “Wubble” at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., has been the best example of activism with a purpose.

The WNBA has a long and ongoing commitment to social justice. It’s dedicating its season to Breonna Taylor and the “Say her name” movement, which raises awareness of female victims of police violence and specifically Black women who suffer police brutality but don’t receive the same amount of headlines. Every player has Taylor’s name on the back of her jersey underneath her own last name.

“The reason why you hear so many people talk about it is Black women are so often forgotten in this world,” said WNBA president Nneka Ogwumike regarding the decision to make “Say her name” the mantra of the season. “In a league where we have 70 per cent plus Black women, this is our reality. I’m just happy to be in a position to represent the players as we band together for this season.”

On opening night, WNBA players left the court before the national anthem, then returned afterward for a 26-second moment of silence — one second for each year Taylor was alive.

“Kneeling doesn’t even feel like enough to protest,” New York Liberty guard Layshia Clarendon explained. “I don’t want to hear the anthem. I don’t want to stand out there.”

NBA players have followed the WNBA’s lead. On opening night, first the New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz and then the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers had a united national anthem display. Players linked arms and knelt along the sideline, where — as on the WNBA playing surface — the words “Black Lives Matter” are written on the court.

Throughout the restart, the NBA has chosen not to enforce a 1981 anthem policy that says “players, coaches and trainers are to stand and line up in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver even released a statement: “I respect our teams’ unified act of peaceful protest for social justice and under these unique circumstances will not enforce our long-standing rule requiring standing during the playing of our national anthem.”

Not all players felt compelled to kneel. Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac became the first NBA player to stand for the national anthem as the league resumed play.

Isaac explained his position that he didn’t think “putting that shirt on and kneeling went hand-in-hand with supporting Black lives.” He was also the only player not to wear a Black Lives Matter shirt.

But the fact that those shirts even exist is noteworthy. The NBA, already viewed as progressive, is showing some evolution.

Four years ago, Eric Garner said, “I can’t breathe,” as he died at the hands of police, and NBA players broke the uniform code by donning custom-made T-shirts. At the time, the NBA showed support by looking the other way. This year, George Floyd said the same words when he died the same way, and now the league is actively making Black Lives Matter shirts and finding real estate on jerseys to send a message. The jerseys will be auctioned off to further provide economic empowerment to these matters.

And that’s just what the league has done. Its players have gone above and beyond.

Putting his money where his mouth is, Kyrie Irving committed $1.5 million to help support WNBA players who opted out of playing — some of whom did so to focus on social-justice issues. Jrue Holiday is donating the salary he makes from playing in the bubble, over $5 million, to social-justice causes.

After his first exhibition game in Orlando, LeBron James used his media availability to advocate not for his own MVP candidacy but on behalf of Taylor, who was killed in her home when plain-clothes officers exercised a no-knock warrant. James redirected questions about other things back to awareness, using the same energy he brought on the court to seek justice for Taylor and fix voter suppression with his More Than a Vote campaign.

James went on to say, “A lot of people kind of use this analogy, talking about Black Lives Matter as a movement. It’s not a movement…. I don’t like the word ‘movement’ because, unfortunately, in America and in society, there ain’t been no damn movement for us. There ain’t been no movement.”

The four-time NBA MVP is not alone. Even role players like Jerami Grant, the first NBA player to use his entire press conference to speak on these issues, are stepping into the spotlight.

And it’s not just Black players, either. Alex Caruso did the same thing with his time.

From the court and jerseys, to post-game comments and signage, you can’t hide from the social-justice issues if you watch an NBA game. That’s doubly true for a Toronto Raptors game. Every member of the team has chosen to wear one of the 29 social-justice message options the NBA provided to replace last names on jerseys. The coaches also did their part in the opening game, with Nick Nurse and his staff all donning shirts that simply said “Vote” on the front.

And the NBA and WNBA weren’t even first out of the gate on these issues. The Black Players for Change in Major League Soccer held an emotional demonstration ahead of the first MLS is Back Tournament game between Inter Miami CF and Orlando City SC on July 8. Players stood with their fists in the air in silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time it was initially reported that police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck.

The following morning, Philadelphia Union players unveiled their shirts, with each sporting the name of a Black victim of police brutality on the back of his jersey. A special patch was created on the back of uniforms for players to write whatever they wanted with a Sharpie.

Manager Thierry Henry multi-tasked and knelt while coaching his side for the first 8:46 of the Montreal Impact’s opening match. Given his stature in the game, the photo of him kneeling and video of him eventually rising immediately went viral.

Black Lives Matter was similarly prominent on opening day in MLB.

All New York Yankees and Washington Nationals players held a 200-yard black cloth that stretched from one edge of the outfield, wrapped around home plate and extended to the other side of the diamond as a message recorded by Morgan Freeman played over the stadium speakers. Then the players all knelt by the cloth and bowed their heads.

The Boston Red Sox put up a 259-foot Black Lives Matter banner at Fenway Park facing the Massachusetts turn pike.

The Minnesota Twins held a moment of silence during their home opener. They honoured George Floyd by halting the game in the fifth inning at precisely 8:46 p.m. local time.

Last Friday, the Tampa Bay Rays’ official Twitter account posted the following message:

The Rays followed up the tweet by announcing a $100,000 annual donation to local groups, meant to “build power within communities that have been historically overlooked and purposefully disadvantaged because of systemic racism.”

More locally — at least in spirit — the Toronto Blue Jays warmed up in Black Lives Matter shirts, and four players knelt. And when Cavan Biggio realized Anthony Alford was hesitant to draw attention to himself by kneeling, he showed how united the fight for awareness and justice is.

“He’s an up-and-down guy, not a starter, so I told him, ‘Hey, man, if I did it, would you feel more comfortable doing it?’” said Biggio, currently in his second year with the team. “He said, ‘Yeah,’ so that was my thought process going through with it. I just wanted to show support to not only a teammate, but someone I consider a brother. I was proud to do it with him. I think we can all agree that there needs to be change, and I’m just trying to do my part.”

The NFL, which has yet to return to play, will have “It Takes All of Us” and “End Racism” stencilled on end-zone borders for the home openers. Players will have the option to wear helmet decals honouring victims of systemic racism. “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” considered the Black national anthem in the U.S., will be played during pre-game ceremonies. The league has also said it is relenting its stance on anthem protests.

One of the reasons you know there has been a cultural shift is because leagues feel they need to address these issues and answer these questions. Some steps might seem like token gestures, and that’s where the media and players come in to keep the pressure on for tangible and actionable steps. But when a league doesn’t even measure up in terms of gestures, you realize how far behind the rest of the culture it exists.

Enter the NHL.

On opening day on Saturday, players wore #WeSkateFor Equality helmet decals, and each received a hoodie to personalize with the name of whom or what he skates for. Within each arena, the message “#WeSkateFor Black Lives” was displayed on digital screens and seat coverings.

That said, the league did not go as far as a message on the boards or a slogan painted on the ice. And the anthem for the game between between the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes looked like any other anthem aside from the fact there were no fans in the stands. There was no pregame acknowledgement or message sent, and none of the players kneeled.

The recently formed Hockey Diversity Alliance exists to be a resource on such issues, but there was little evidence of their involvement. NWHL player Saroya Tinker has some basic ideas that could have gone a long way:

The most powerful moment of the opening-day program came courtesy of HDA member Matt Dumba, who was approached by the league and asked to speak at centre ice ahead of the Edmonton-Chicago game.

The Minnesota Wild defenceman denounced racism before becoming the first NHL player to take a knee. Malcolm Subban and Darnell Nurse placed their hands on Dumba’s shoulders during the American anthem before he rose to his feet for the Canadian one.

“Black lives matter, Breonna Taylor’s life matters,” said Dumba during his speech.

In doing so, Dumba said three words — “Black lives matter” — that the NHL failed to fully embrace during their restart, though the league did air a video in arena and on broadcast ahead of a primetime game that also included the phrase:

Kim Davis, the Senior Executive Vice President, Social Impact, Growth Initiatives and legislative affairs for the NHL, spoke to Ron Maclean during the first intermission of the Hockey Night in Canada broadcast.

“For the past number of months, our players — over 250 players and alum — have used their social platforms for supporting equality and respect,” she said, “and now we have the opportunity to see them on the ice.”

The only player or person I saw on the ice using that platform was Matt Dumba, and he wasn’t even playing that day.

Davis went on to say, “I often talk about moving from emotion to action, and this has been an emotional moment, but it really is time for us to look at this not as a moment but a movement.”

The only player or person I have seen in the restart use his emotion to move people to an action was Matt Dumba.

Civil rights activist C.T. Vivian once said, “Leadership is found in the action to defeat that which would defeat you. You are made by the struggles you choose.”

Matt Dumba showed leadership by choosing a struggle — a specific struggle — and speaking eloquently about it.

All this isn’t to say the league hasn’t taken some positive steps. Currently a member of the Wild’s AHL affiliate, JT Brown was given real estate on NHL.com to explain why he raised his fist in protest during the anthem in 2017.

It’s just that too few of those positive steps are showing up before and during games — where the hockey-viewing public would see them, and where they would matter most.

The restart coincided with Emancipation Day in Canada, which commemorates the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act that freed more than 800,000 people of African descent throughout the British Empire. The league had an easy opportunity to speak directly to the Black community, and acknowledge the continuing struggle faced by people of African descent and minorities in general.

But the league didn’t take it.

And you don’t need to look far for the negative impact of NHL inaction on these issues. The fact there was no kneeling ahead of an exhibition game between the New York Rangers and Islanders was seen as a win by some who have distorted the message behind anthem protests for political gain:

The NHL did not respond to the above tweet. So, roughly 24 hours before the puck was dropped on the season, #Kneel4Hockey began trending on Twitter. A quick scroll through the hashtag produced a stream of fans, mostly white, kneeling while wearing their favourite team’s jersey. Most included captions with a call for the sport to do more to visibly fight racism and inequality so that hockey is actually for everyone.

But, in large part, those fans are still waiting.

Masai Ujiri has said the Raptors are using the NBA bubble as a platform to make a statement. In that vein, I ask: What is the NHL using its hub cities for?

If Black lives actually do matter to everyone, why would just the Raptors have their bus wrapped with that slogan? What message would it send if NHL teams had their buses wrapped in the same way in Toronto and Edmonton? No, there aren’t as many Black players in the NHL as the NBA, but should that matter? Wasn’t the point of this entire reckoning that moving forward everyone was going to care?

The passengers on the Raptors’ bus know Black lives matter. The message isn’t for them — it’s for everyone else.

To their credit, the team’s Scotiabank Arena neighbours, the Maple Leafs, have done and said more than most with Kyle Dubas and Brendan Shanahan at the helm. The team wore Black Lives Matter shirts to work out, and the photo op made waves in the hockey world.

But the issue is where the bar has been set. The Raptors wear Black Lives Matter shirts and masks and hats, and speak in front of a Black Lives Matter backdrop, on a daily basis. That difference in consistency is glaring.

As we’re all listening and learning, I’ve learned how delicate a balance this is for many white athletes, coaches and executives. The messaging can be mixed even for those who are well intentioned.

Be an ally, but don’t be a white savior.

Speak up, but don’t take up space.

Listen, but don’t be silent because silence is violence.

There is a thin line between being an ally and doing too much.

I get that this can be tough, but how can every league be better at it than the league that may need to demonstrate it understands the most?

The NHL is still trying to grow its audience in the U.S., so it can’t afford to rest on its laurels in terms of cultural inclusion and diversity. The league knows it needs to reach out to a broader range of customers, and existing BIPOC fans are extending the benefit of the doubt that change is something the NHL is motivated to see.

But the league shouldn’t take our kindness for weakness. If you want us to be your audience and continue to bring colour to your game, you have to value our lives — both within the sport and in greater society.

No matter the carefully manicured PR statements — what you don’t do speaks volumes. And the NHL’s failure to meaningfully address the on-going conversation about equality within its restart tells me it isn’t ready to be part of the solution. Because it doesn’t seem to understand the problem. And that in itself is a problem.

Shaming doesn’t lead to learning, so I’m not hating on the NHL. I’m expressing why I’m disappointed by the NHL.

“#WeSkateFor better days” is one of the slogans the NHL unveiled connected to the “#WeSkateFor” mantra. But what does that mean? A better day for a Black person is not being profiled at your job or carded on the street. A better day for a Black hockey player is not having to suppress your own personality to fit in with the group.

Legendary civil rights leader John Lewis — who died on July 17 at the age of 80 — famously said, ”Get in good trouble, necessary trouble,” on social-justice issues. Rather than continuing to play it safe, I wish the NHL would exhibit some of the bravery that is a basic tenet in the culture of its game and got in some good and necessary trouble for the good of our culture.

Here’s hoping that by the time Lord Stanley’s Cup is handed out, the NHL has caught up to and maybe even surpassed the level of awareness and empathy being shown by the other sports leagues it’s currently competing with. The sport’s future depends on it.

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