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NHL’s statements on racism are empty words until they are backed by action

The NHL has begun using their platform to speak, but what will they do?

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Protestors gathered outside the Ohio Statehouse on May 30, 2020.
Rachel Bules

George Floyd was killed on Memorial Day - May 25, 2020, exactly three weeks ago today. He was arrested on the allegation that he used a counterfeit $20 bill - he was beaten, forced to the ground, and former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until Floyd died.

This could have been just another police killing of a Black man; God knows America has seen this play out before. But this particular man’s death became the eye of the perfect storm. First of all, it was recorded by a bystander. For better or worse, the whole world saw George Floyd call out to his Mama one last time before he suffocated to death, pressed against the pavement under Chauvin’s knee.

The whole world saw Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck, despite Floyd’s protestations that he couldn’t breathe. The whole world saw Chauvin’s fellow police officers stand by, hands in their pockets - just another day on the job. The whole world saw the violence by which George Floyd died and decided that enough is enough.

The outrage was visceral, instantaneous, and widespread. Activists jumped into action, and protestors flooded the streets in all 50 states and around the world, calling for justice for George Floyd, but also for Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and all of the other Black lives that have been violently snuffed out by police brutality and white supremacist vigilantes. People protesting police violence were met with police violence in the forms of tear gas, rubber bullets, beatings, curfews... yet they continue to come back for more.

Why? Well, this movement feels different than others in the past - civil rights activist Angela Davis has even said so herself, saying: “This moment holds possibilities for change we have never before experienced.” That’s why this is a perfect storm: America is tired, beleaguered by a lack of cohesive political leadership. Change is in the air, and many are ready for it - in the absence of being able to look to our elected officials, we’ve looked to companies, celebrities, and sports teams for their leadership and direction.

How is the NHL handling this? Let’s take a look.

A contributor to The Athletic and to SBNation’s own Blueshirt Banter, Shayna Goldman (@hayyyshayyy on Twitter), put together a handy graph that helps us chart the NHL’s various responses to the Black Lives Matter movement. See here:


This graph clearly and concisely charts what each team mentioned in their statements in regards to topics and keywords like George Floyd, police violence, Black Lives Matter, and the expression of solidarity, or lack thereof.

Please note that not a single statement contained any mention of police violence or any “actionable” verbiage - they were all just words; empty, recycled, tired platitudes. Sure, they condemned the concept of racism, but no team was able to offer a list of actions they were taking to ensure that racism truly does not have a place in the league.

In my opinion, one of the weakest shows of solidarity and understanding came from the Columbus Blue Jackets. You’ll notice every single check across the board for the CBJ in the above graph is red, which denotes a negative response - they are the only team to have a negative response in every category of this graph.

Someone in the PR department dusted off their thesaurus for this one - to toss a giant blanket statement like this over the specific pain point that is racism is not even addressing the problem. Don’t worry, they posted a black square too! Racism = solved.

Fortunately, several team members made their own personal statements - Nick Foligno’s, for example, which piggy-backed off of Anthony Duclair’s tweet calling for supporting voices and condemnation of silence:

Good ol’ Cam Atkinson came through for us as well, and he brought the receipts to prove it - yes king! Open your purse! We love a man of financial action.

Elsewhere in the NHL, Tyler Seguin posted photos of himself at protests, which sounds corny, but the presentation and his accompanying words felt authentic to me and I think it’s important that he’s showing his fans the solidarity he provides by simply showing up and being supportive - hopefully he inspired others to follow in his tracks.

And finally, in a wonderful reversal of opinion and powerful example of personal growth, John Tortorella changed his stance on players kneeling during the anthem.

Previously, Tortorella, while serving as Team USA’s coach in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey tournament, told ESPN’s Linda Cohn: ‘If any of my players sit on the bench for the national anthem, they will sit there the rest of the game.’”

The anthem is deeply personal for Tortorella, whose son Nick is an Army Ranger. However, after listening and learning from others who don’t share his experiences, he’s changed his tune.

“When I stand for the flag and the national anthem, my reflection is solely on the men and women who have given their lives defending our country and constitution and freedom, along with those who are serving today,” Tortorella told The Athletic.

“I have learned over the years, listening and watching, that men and women who choose to kneel during this time mean no disrespect toward the flag.”

He said he hopes that if one of his players wants to protest during the anthem, the player(s) would talk to him first and they could create a team dialogue and discussion around it.

“We would bring it to the team to discuss it, much like it’s being discussed in our country right now. How can we rectify some of these problems?”

Tortorella also suggested a moment of silence before every pre-game anthem to give everyone pause to reflect on America’s history of racial injustice.

Personal growth is possible, and it takes a big person to admit that their previously-held public opinions lacked perspective. By reversing his stance, Tortorella has set forth a standard among coaches and leaders in professional sports - it’s OK to change your mind when presented with new information.

However, some organizations were less impressive in their response.

Some teams even went so far as to make a statement on racism while thanking law enforcement in the process - the Vegas Golden Knights sent out a follow-up statement to their equally-hard-to-read initial statement that condemned an injury suffered by a Las Vegas police officer in the protests.

To assume all police “keep us safe” is to erase the experiences of the communities who regularly lose members - siblings, friends, parents, children - to senseless killings by police. To try to appease both parties in this conflict helps no one. To condemn racism in the same breath as thanking the law enforcement that allows the cycle of racism to continue is like a dog chasing its tail: pointless, circuitous, doesn’t accomplish anything, and looks stupid.

As a person who loves this league and loves this sport, I am desperate for change. I want to see a list of actionable items the league plans to take to eradicate racism from every corner of the game. Between players on the ice, between coaches, players, and the front office, between the thousands of employees who keep the arenas functioning during the season, and between fans, every single person who participates in and watches this sport has a personal responsibility to hold themselves and everyone around them accountable for their actions and words that contribute to racism.

And you know who should not bear the brunt of this burden? The Black players in the league. It’s not their job to educate us, to bare to the world the emotional pain they’ve suffered from racism at the hands of teammates, coaches, and fans. If they want to, it’s amazing, and we should all pay attention to the perspective it provides us - Akim Aliu’s personal story about his experience with racism in hockey brought me to tears when he shared his experiences less than a week before George Floyd’s killing - but Black players are under no obligation to teach the white members and spectators of this league how not to be racist. It is up to us to do that ourselves. It is up to us to make the NHL’s tagline “Hockey Is For Everyone” ring true, instead just allowing it to exist as a hollow slogan teams pull out and dust off when it’s convenient.

It has truly been amazing to see players step up and take this cause into their own hands, and the NHL’s Instagram has done a fabulous job of amplifying the words of players of all races who are sharing what they are doing and what needs to be done collectively to combat racism. South African activist Desmond Tutu famously said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” White professional athletes who may have been comfortable staying silent during Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the anthem in 2016 no longer have the option to stay silent.

Activism is not supposed to be comfortable, and coming to terms with one’s own white privilege is daunting. It requires external research, introspection, and intellectual heavy lifting. The perceived risk of criticism can be a barrier, but it appears that athletes are finally waking up to the fact that their indifference and ignorance is oppression - we are all tasked with choosing a side of history to be on right now, whether we like it or not. We need to pay attention to those who are silent through all of this, and we need to demand more from them. And for the love of God, don’t be a Drew Brees.

The notion that movements like Black Lives Matter do not deserve discussion within the realm of sports is inherently racist. As Black players like Aliu have told us, racism affects their experiences with the sport, so to suggest that athletes “stick to sports” is dismissive, cruel, and again, racist. To suggest players stay out of politics is also incorrect - racism is apolitical, it is a human rights and justice issue. To suggest that players “shut up and dribble” is an evil example of gaslighting, and anyone who makes such a statement should be removed from their platform. Instead, let’s support and uplift sports pundits like Maria Taylor:

An amazing first step that’s taking place within the NHL is the formation of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, formed by seven current and former NHL players. Evander Kane and Akim Aliu were appointed co-heads of the alliance, whose mission is “to eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey.” The group will operate independently of the NHL but plans to collaborate with the league to educate, create social impact, and carry out growth initiatives and legislative affairs, according to NHL SVP Kim Davis.

Everyone needs to start somewhere. Whether you watch something on Netflix’s new curated Black Lives Matter playlist (Dave Chappelle’s new standup “8:46” is fire), read a book that educates on racism - I’ll suggest White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, since that’s what I’m reading - donate to any number of funds to support Black Lives Matter initiatives, or head over to the nearest protest to raise your voice and fist in solidarity; anything you can contribute is helpful to the cause. This movement needs lifelong support, not two weeks of performative activism. The amount of people who care about this cause needs to reach a critical mass in society to make necessary, lasting changes.

Check out our latest podcast from this week, in which Will, Elaine and I talk about the types of changes around racism we’d like to see in the NHL. Tweet me @rachelbules or leave your comments here - it’s high time for a reckoning on racism, and there’s nothing wrong with asking questions or making mistakes in the process of learning how to become an ally. Gary Haugen, founder of the International Justice System, said, “The victims of oppression and injustice don’t need our spasms of passion, but our long obedience in the same direction.” America is already changing under the weight of these protests - which side of history will you be on?