“Stick to sports” is a common notion that media members and athletes alike have heard ad nauseam. “Shut up and dribble,” was the version of the saying impressed upon LeBron James. For some, the motivation is an avoidance of politics they do not like. For others, the problem may not even be the beliefs themselves, but the desire for sports to be a sanctuary away from the “real world.” The idea is that sports and real-world societal issues should not meet.
This premise is flawed. It presupposes that sports are separable in nature from Everything Else. That we can eliminate societal implications from the events happening on stage.
More specifically, it misconstrues what is and is not political. It supposes that action is political but that the lack of action isn’t. That a challenge to the status quo is any more political in nature than the standing precedent. That opposition to barriers in place is any more a distraction than the barriers themselves. It confuses the internalization of already existing institutional politics as an absence of politics. A fish has no concept for the water in which it has existed its entire life.
Believing that we can keep societal issues separate from sports requires a metaphorical lack of object permanence. A belief that, as long as political, economic, or social issues aren’t right in front of our faces, then they don’t exist in sports.
Last Friday, many in the media were trying their best to stick to sports at a time when sports have essentially ceased to exist. TSN was promoting new content with some of its top personalities discussing 2019-20 NHL storylines currently in limbo. For Blueshirt Banter, I was watching the second period of a game between Minnesota-Duluth and Western Michigan in preparation for an article about two recently signed Rangers prospects.
“Anticipates the right places to be,” was part of a more in-depth note I had begun to write for MN-Duluth center Justin Richards, signed to his entry-level contract on Thursday.
The Rangers, too, were providing interesting content. Hyped 2018 first-round pick K’Andre Miller had also signed recently, and the team was hosting a Zoom video conference call with Miller where he could answer light questions about hockey and his interests, letting the fanbase see the bright personality of an exciting player for the future. And it was interactive.
Then, one idiot ruined everything. Zoom has been under fire for its lack of protection against breaches. In this instance someone was able to disrupt the conversation between the Rangers and Miller. We’re not going to link to the video, but an anonymous user spammed the chat with racial slurs directed at Miller, who is black.
With that, a fun mood geared towards hockey changed for everyone. My notepad abruptly transitioned from a whimsical hockey discussion to a very serious one about harassment and race. The Rangers released a statement and reportedly involved the FBI in investigating the matter.
A request to “stick to sports” is privileged thinking because it indicates having a choice in the matter. K’Andre Miller logged onto a computer last Friday to make his first public appearance as a professional hockey player and within literal minutes was confronted with racial slurs. Chris Watkins, a black hockey fan who has been following the NHL for over a decade, says that Miller will never be able to stick to sports because his mere existence as a black man within a sport dominated by white males is inherently political.
“Don’t you think K’Andre wishes every day that he could come and play and just do what everybody else does?” Watkins said. “(K’Andre) can’t just enjoy it and stick to sports because situations like this happen.”
Ending racism, like achieving world peace and ending many other forms of human suffering, is a seemingly impossible goal that we must nevertheless relentlessly aspire to accomplish. We must push further along the asymptote, recognizing that a potential inability to cross the line simultaneously means a never-ending opportunity, and obligation, to progress towards it. We may not be able to prevent 100-percent of ignorance. What we can do, though, is reflect on ourselves and the structures in place which enable it.
In his book How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi asserts that the opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist,” but rather “antiracist.” It is not enough to not endorse racist language and action, but we must also actively and vigorously fight to tear down the forces that serve racist ideologies and ambitions. Kendi insists we must “focus on power instead of people” and “changing policy instead of groups of people.”
In applying Kendi’s thesis to this situation, it is not enough to condemn the gross, prejudiced comments towards Miller. Rather, we — fans, the New York Rangers, and the NHL — must assess power dynamics and policy, both official and unofficial, which not only allowed this person to spew hate, but to feel empowered in doing so.
Kendi writes that “the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it — and then dismantle it.”
The Rangers’ immediate response as an internet commenter racially attacked Miller was to hide the hateful comments and continue with the interview as normal. The attack occurred shortly after 3 p.m. The Rangers issued a press release at 7:26 p.m. An organization that has historically protected its image against far more minor transgressions, swiftly confronting anyone or anything it feels threatens that image, was suddenly incapacitated the moment that its vulnerable 20-year-old employee was bullied in the most awful and straightforward manner possible.
Watkins, who saw a replay of the video, said it was “difficult to watch” Miller uncomfortably answer lighthearted questions while the elephant in the room was ignored. He praised Miller for his handling, though he emphasized that a less diplomatic reaction would have been equally warranted and justified. However, he was disappointed that the Rangers failed to interject with a prompt response that confronted the problem as it occurred and protected Miller in the moment.
“I think that’s where they should have stepped in. The correct response from the organization would have been, ‘Hey, we’re going to take five minutes, check in on K’Andre to see if he wants to continue, and see how we can rectify the situation going forward.’ And then obviously coming out with a statement a little bit quicker than they did to acknowledge what happened.”
Watkins noted similar recent discussions, such as virtual discussions hosted by the Black Girls Hockey Club and Hockey Analytics Night in Canada, which both took extraordinary steps to prevent and disarm any harassment. In those instances, the organizers and contributors represented a diverse group that knew what potential problems to anticipate, as well as how to deal with them spontaneously and decisively. It’s an effective example of the importance of diversity, as marginalized groups often have perspectives and prescience that others might have blind spots for.
How did the Rangers reach the decision to quietly hide the offensive comments and proceed with the interview as normal? Were any people of color consulted by the team when planning the interview and determining the best way to handle the discussion? Do the Rangers currently have any people of color employed in their communications, public relations, and media departments?
SB Nation reached out to the Rangers for comment on these specific items. They referred us to the team’s already published release on the incident and did not comment further.
The NHL, too, released a statement on what happened:
“The National Hockey League is appalled that a video call arranged today by the New York Rangers to introduce their fans to one of the league’s incoming stars, K’Andre Miller, was hacked with racist, cowardly taunts. The person who committed this despicable act is in no way an NHL fan and is not welcome in the community.”
There are many good sentiments in this statement, but sandwiched in-between is a dismissive line where the league claims that whoever did this is “in no way an NHL fan.”
Kendi wrote that “denial is the heartbeat of racism.” The league is employing a version of the No True Scotsman fallacy. The NHL doesn’t participate in racism because anything racist is not a true part of the NHL, and so, therefore, there’s no racism in the NHL.
“It’s a very useful tool for an organization to reduce the burden and accountability that they have (for racism) when they just say, ‘those are bad apples and this does not represent us,’” says Watkins. “You haven’t really addressed the underlying problem. Those types of responses are not helpful.”
The message that one prejudiced person sent on the chat was, in its literal usage, transparently repugnant. But the more thematic sentiment shared was a message to Miller: “You don’t belong here.” It’s the same oppressive message conveyed by those who racially abused Joel Ward online in 2012 after his goal eliminated the Bruins from the playoffs, caused Jonathan Diaby to leave the LNAH to escape racist taunts, intimidated Givani Smith into requiring police escorts to OHL playoff games, and threw a banana peel at Wayne Simmonds.
The NHL assuredly detests this message that some of hockey’s fans propagate, instead opting to rally behind a mantra that “Hockey is For Everyone.” The NHL may very well have a genuine belief in that initiative as a theoretical concept, but it must reckon with the ways it has failed to enforce it in practice.
Playing in the NHL has not been for everyone, generally speaking. Ninety-three percent of NHL players during the 2018-219 season identified as white. Some of that is a direct consequence of dynamics the NHL controls, such as a lack of diversity among decision-makers, which creates a self-perpetuating cycle where executives, coaches, and scouts have an inherently more difficult time relating to, understanding, and accommodating players of different backgrounds. Other factors, such as socioeconomics, are rooted in systematic problems that predate the NHL by hundreds of years in the US and Canada. However, that’s definitive proof that the only way to make hockey for everyone is by refusing to “stick to sports.”
Black people have not been shown to a sufficient degree that they belong as coaches. In the entire history of the NHL, Dirk Graham’s 59 games in charge of the Chicago Blackhawks in 1998-1999 represent the only example of a black man as an NHL head coach. Currently, New Jersey Devils Assistant Coach Mike Grier is the only black coach behind an NHL bench during games. There are currently zero black head coaches employed in North American men’s professional hockey. Not to mention the lack of women and Europeans behind an NHL bench; a European has not been a head coach in the NHL for two decades, while NHL front offices are 96-percent male.
Bill Peters was told that he belonged for well over a decade after racially abusing his own player, among other allegations. Four different NHL teams — the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Carolina Hurricanes, and Calgary Flames — were either oblivious or indifferent as they helped him move up the coaching ladder until Akim Aliu, one player he targeted, tweeted about his experiences in this thread.
John Vanbiesbrouck was told by USA Hockey that he belonged when they hired him in 2018 to be the Assistant Executive Director of Hockey Operations. Vanbiesbrouck was Head Coach, General Manager, and a part owner of the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in 2003 when he was forced to resign when team captain Trevor Daley left the team after Vanbiesbrouck shouted racial slurs at him. Vanbiesbrouck has not shown any publicly discernible proof that he has fundamentally changed and, when asked why he has not personally apologized, blamed Daley for not taking the initiative to reach out to him.
The NHL can claim they do not control USA Hockey and had no role in Vanbiesbrouck’s hiring, but to reiterate Kendi, identifying as Not Racist is insufficient. When US Soccer court documents revealed blatant misogynistic arguments on the part of the federation, Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber wasted no time publicly and aggressively expressing outrage and told the media that he contacted US Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro to give him a piece of his mind. Cordeiro was forced to apologize and resign. The NHL could have shown similar public resistance to Vanbiesbrouck’s hiring.
USA Hockey released a statement on Friday in support of Miller.
We support K’Andre Miller, an incredible leader, teammate, friend & person.— USA Hockey (@usahockey) April 4, 2020
Racial & derogatory slurs have absolutely no place in the game or society.
Blueshirt Banter emailed USA Hockey on Monday requesting comment on reconciling their statement on Miller with the 2018 hiring on Vanbiesbrouck, as well as if they can confirm the participation of any people of color in the interview and hiring process of Vanbiesbrouck. As of the publishing of this article, USA Hockey has not responded.
The NHL continually tells former NHLer Bobby Hull that he belongs despite media reports in 1998 that Hull had praised Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler and expressed concern that the black population was “growing too fast.” Along with allegations of spousal abuse. Despite that, the NHL has welcomed and celebrated Hull on numerous occasions. The Blackhawks named him an official team ambassador in 2010. He dropped the ceremonial opening faceoff to raucous applause in Chicago at the 2017 Winter Classic. He was a guest of the Winnipeg Jets during their 2018 playoff run.
The NHL told musician Kid Rock that he belonged when it made him the main musical act for the 2018 All-Star Game. Kid Rock has routinely displayed the Confederate flag at his concerts and responded to protesters by telling them to “kiss his ass.” He has also repeatedly verbally attacked Civil Rights leaders.
The NHL voiced immense contempt for the person who attacked Miller and insisted that it does not want a person who acts in that manner to be part of the NHL family, which is commendable. But in looking at this thorough, yet incomplete list of transgressions, one might see how that lowlife may have concluded otherwise.
Kendi writes, “The good news is that racist and antiracist are not fixed identities. We can be racist one minute and antiracist the next. What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what — not who — we are.”
Racism is not a binary, permanent state of being. Every individual and every institution has at various points contributed to racism and has been racist. Much of what Kendi writes is about his own internalized racism. I personally can think of moments in my life that I look back at with immense shame. Hockey is far from immune to this reality.
The NHL and the Rangers have definitely embraced steps that are antiracist. The MSG Networks family, which broadcasts Rangers, Devils, and Islanders games, has led the way in camera-facing heterogeneity. Anson Carter and Bryce Salvador are black analysts for the Rangers and Devils respectively, while the Islanders’ broadcast boasts prominent female personalities in Shannon Hogan and AJ Mleczko. The Rangers have a strong partnership with Ice Hockey in Harlem and recently brought Amanda Kessel on board as an ambassador for the team’s youth girls program.
The NHL has also taken positive initiatives, such as the inclusion of many top female players in All-Star Game festivities and the hiring of Kim Davis as a Vice President to tackle diversity and minority engagement, among other causes. Watkins mentioned that he believes the league leans on Davis as a “crutch,” but nonetheless offered vehement praise for both her and the league’s proactive decision to hire her.
But an immense tally of wrongdoings, most recently Friday’s conversation with Miller, expose the league still needs massive, systematic change. The Rangers’ lack of a prompt, assertive response left Miller to internalize the racism alone in real-time, while the league’s painting of the evil-doer as an isolated miscreant and outsider undermined its obligation to proactively identify and dismantle the racism that very much exists within its walls.
Making changes for the better will require a broadening of what we all understand “sticking to sports” to actually mean. Sports are the result of an amalgamation of factors that go beyond what the scoreboard dictates. Sports are socioeconomics. Sports are multiculturalism. Sports are physical and mental health. Sports are racial, gender, and LGBT rights. Sports are politics. We can either embrace that and confront it head-on, doing our part to make sure the pendulum swings towards justice and equity, or we can complain about the inconvenience of it and withdraw, leaving the burden exclusively to marginalized people who inherently lack that option.