It has been almost two years since former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the American national anthem. To Kaepernick, this symbolic gesture is an act of protest against racism and police brutality (Thiel et al, 2016). Later in the season, teammates and other players throughout the NFL joined Kaepernick in dropping a knee during the national anthem (Stites, 2017).
NBA players are even more vocal. During a pre-game warm-up, athletes wore shirts with the words “I can’t breathe” in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Even superstars like Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, and Carmelo Anthony have spoken up about racial tensions in the USA, including police shootings of people of colour (Garcia, 2018). James, in particular, uses his celebrity status to challenge racism (Coombs and Cassilo, 2017), as well as the Trump presidency.
As the NFL and the NBA delve into politics, attention turns towards the NHL. Fans have wondered if hockey players will join the conversation about anthem protests and the role of athletes as activists. The NHL’s move? Sit on the sidelines.
“If any of my players sit on the bench for the national anthem, they will sit there the rest of the game,” said John Tortorella, Team USA coach at the World Cup of Hockey.
The league would prefer its players stick to hockey.
Striving for Neutrality
Historically, the National Hockey League has strayed away from social and political debates (Strashin, 2017; McIndoe, 2017). In the wake of the Kaepernick protests, the NHL remained neutral while other professional leagues engaged in political discourse. League commissioner Gary Bettman tells players to remain apolitical at the rink (Burns, 2017).
Do NHL players share the same sentiment? Canadian player P.K. Subban claims that he will never take a knee as a sign of public protest. Other players like Kyle Okposos, Auston Matthews, and David Backes also said that they will not kneel during the U.S. anthem.
“Stick to sports” may as well be the mantra of a culture that avoids rocking the boat. In the NHL, the ideal player keeps his head down, focuses on the puck, and speaks without stirring controversy. Consider the case of Sidney Crosby. Off the ice, he is presented as a humble and unassuming team player (Allain, 2010). He sticks to generalizable answers when speaking to the press, avoiding bold statements that can be deemed scandalous. For those who consider Crosby as the NHL’s golden boy, his mild demeanour is an example of proper conduct (Allain, 2010).
In today’s political climate, it seems that Crosby and the NHL cannot avoid polarizing debates. In 2017, Crosby was put under fire for accepting an invitation to visit Trump at the White House with the rest of his Stanley-cup winning team. Critics compared this decision to the NBA’s Steph Curry, who expressed ambivalence towards a White House visit. When asked to comment, Crosby simply said, “It’s a great honour for us to be invited there.”
Does this confirm Crosby’s moral and political views? It is impossible to tell. What it reflects is the neutral and homogenous culture of the NHL. With little support from the league, standing out as an activist requires a bigger risk (Kaufman, 2009).
The Role of Race
Explaining the apolitical nature of the NHL can be rooted in sociological studies. Some scholars and journalists point to the issue of race (Kaufman, 2008; Adams, 2006; Lorenz and Murray, 2014; Leonard, 2017). In sociological discussions, race is a salient topic when talking about sports (Kaufman, 2008). Compared to the NBA and the NFL, there is less ethnic variety within the NHL. A large portion of NHL players are of white European descent (Adams, 2006; WSB-TV Atlanta, 2011). Although the league has not released any recent data about its racial composition, an average person who is exposed to popular media can likely make this observation. WSB-TV Atlanta reports that in 2011, the league was nearly 93% white with 32 black players in the roster.
What does this mean for activism? Few NHL players came from ethnic groups who are the subject of these racial protests. This is unlike the NFL and NBA where the majority of players are black (Cillizza, 2017). Coming from the same ethnic group can make players feel more connected to the Black Lives Matter movement. The NBA, in particular, is less hesitant to be vocal since league superstars like James and Curry are black men.
How about the NHL’s black players? J.T. Brown was among the first NHL players to express support for the Black Lives Matter movement. During the singing of the “Star-Spangled Banner”, Brown extended his right fist in the air as an act of protest (Schlager, 2017). He also used social media to bring attention to police brutality. But unlike Kaepernick and James, he received little solidarity from the league.
Public Protest or Stay Silent?
Sports and politics. Traditionally, the two are considered as separate spheres of social life (Thiel et al, 2016). Some say that sports should be solely reserved for entertainment. They provide a spectacle—an escape from the harsh realities of everyday life (Friedman, 2010). To NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, sports provide a sense of unity that “transcends political divide” (Burns, 2017).
On the other hand, professional athletes have the opportunity to use their fame to drive social change. Athletes like Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James, and J.T. Brown have used their status to stand up against racism and police brutality. However, doing so means accepting the risks of bans and backlash (Kaufman, 2009)—especially within the homogenous culture of the NHL.
Should the National Hockey League play a bigger role in politics? The debate remains.
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