Today is an important day in American sports history, and indeed in American society.
Today, after US President Donald Trump referred to those athletes choosing to take a knee in protest at racial and societal injustice in America on Friday as “sons of bitches who should be fired”, the NFL has finally responded en masse.
For more than a year, Colin Kaepernick and many other African-American athletes who have chosen to publicly show their disgust for the current state of society in America through the peaceful protest of not standing for the US anthem at sports events. The protests, which were initially instigated by Kaepernick to challenge and bring attention to widespread racism and police brutality against African-Americans in the US, something which remains the primary motivation for many protesting. However, they have come to symbolise a wider protest against the government’s policies thanks to media coverage. Particularly in the NBA and NFL, they have been publicly vilified by large sections of the American public, particularly those supporting Donald Trump’s increasingly divisive rhetoric and policies as president.
Those opposing Kaepernick’s protests and those like it have attempted to paint those doing so as “unpatriotic”, “disrespectful” and worse. Many right-wing commentators also attempt to claim that it disrespects those who fought for the right of free speech, despite many military veterans of all ethnic backgrounds supporting the protest.
Finally, though, it appears that Trump publicly challenging the NFL has unleashed some sort of tide that has been building the past year.
Numerous NFL teams releasing statements condemning the comments and stating they would back their players in any peaceful protest. Already today we’ve seen the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars engage in mass protests in shows of support for Kaepernick and others.
Last night, Bruce Maxwell of the Oakland A’s became the first MLB player to kneel for the anthem - this is also seen as significant by many as Maxwell comes from a military family himself. The first white athlete, incidentally, was Megan Rapinoe of the USWNT soccer team.
The NHL, however, has been noticeably absent in these protests.
Not only that, but the prevailing rhetoric has been condemnatory of them, with John Tortorella, coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, claiming that he would bench any player who did so himself. This brought out inflammatory, abusive memes across hockey Twitter in the worst kind of “please like my sport”-ery. If not that, then articles like this are often met (and no doubt this one will be by some, too) with the refrain of “stick to sports” from people either not affected by the issues being raised or not remembering that sport is a reflection of society and often inherently political.
Remember, by the way, that this is a league that likes to claim it’s a sport for everyone-indeed only 18 days ago the NHL boasted and trumpeted the release of a “Declaration of Principles” claiming that this league was one where every player and fan, regardless of race, gender, sexuality or any other defining characteristic, could feel welcome.
That “principle” has today been proven to be a lie, not only by the NHL themselves but by the current Stanley Cup Champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Penguins released a statement today regarding their White House visit, one that they had earned as Stanley Cup Champions. One that flies in the face of both the NFL and NBA.
“The Pittsburgh Penguins respect the institution of the Office of the President, and the long tradition of championship teams visiting the White House. We attended White House ceremonies after previous championships - touring the historic building and visiting briefly with Presidents George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama - and have accepted an invitation to attend again this year.
Any agreement or disagreement with a president's politics, policies or agenda can be expressed in other ways. However, we very much respect the rights of other individuals and groups to express themselves as they see fit.”
To be clear, while the NBA champions decide to turn down a visit to the White House due to their unwillingness to fraternize with a President who has made both misogynistic statements and statements in support of open racists (viz: Charlottesville and the “very fine people” quote.) the Penguins, it seems, see no problem with doing so, nor do they feel an issue with supporting a President who has openly called those protesting against very real societal equality and racism in America “sons of bitches” and repeatedly called for PoC journalists and sportspeople challenging his rhetoric to be fired.
This statement from the Penguins was timed to be released on the same day that predominantly African-American athletes are using their platform to unite for change against the very toxic values the current President appears to support and defend. Intentionally or otherwise, the optics of this are horrible - they show as nothing less than a counterpoint to the protests and a statement of support in the face of them.
This is a slap in the face to every fan of hockey and the NHL.
It’s a clear statement against the protests, and one of the clearest indications to date that while the NHL may like to claim that hockey is for everyone, they are lying - because not even their own teams believe that any attempt to promote societal equality is really worth doing - whether it be shown by the many missteps over LGBTQ issues, or this.
Compare this support for the Presidential office to the statements from NFL and NBA teams. Consider how this looks in a league that has a history of openly questioning ethnic-minority athletes and coded racism in the media (see comments about P.K. Subban and Josh Ho-Sang and their personalities from some within the game, for example).
This statement and the timing of it from the Penguins is unforgivable. It’s time for NHL players to react.
In a league that traditionally has the most affluent player backgrounds and demographics, and also one that discourages any controversial involvement, it’s going to be hard for NHL players to break the mold and step forward to challenge this overwhelmingly white, affluent, conservative worldview.
Indeed, the few NHLers so far to even really speak out on political issues recently - Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler and now Jacob Trouba are doing so despite something which will doubtless earn him criticism. Arguably the only fanbase that is more conservative and likely to speak out against any such public protest (as evidenced by the meme quoted earlier and many others like it) is NASCAR - and indeed they have, stating any NASCAR person or team who wish to protest will be fired if they do so.
Not only that, but Sidney Crosby, the Pens captain, is no stranger to what racism and racial tension can do - his home town of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia was the scene of some of the worst racial tension and racial violence seen in Eastern Canada in modern times, with several incidents breaking out during his lifetime. In the light of that, perhaps his lack of worry over supporting, fraternizing with and giving legitimacy to someone who relies a lot of the time on stoking these tensions-tensions that supposedly don’t exist in hockey but have already led to Tampa’s JT Brown receiving Twitter death threats against “you doing something”. The NHL media is choosing to focus on Auston Matthews saying that he doesn’t personally believe in kneeling rather seemingly omitting or downplaying that his comments fully support others’ right to protest.
Many believe that the NHL behind closed doors is one of the most conservative, reactionary sports leagues in North America, and this is a belief only further strengthened by the Pens actions today. By JT Brown receiving death threats by dint of being an outspoken person of colour.
But it’s time for the NHL to take a stand, and join every other sports league in North America.
It’s time for teams to accept that there are players within their ranks who, like it or not, will be affected by Trump’s policies (witness, for example, Brandon Saad and Mika Zibanejad’s troubles with Trump’s attempted immigration ban when he first took office.)
If the NHL wants to truly convince its fanbase that its Declaration of Principles is more than just PR fluff - if it truly believes that its “Hockey is for Everyone” claim is more than just bullshit formulated to try and deflect from the fact that the sport has a major culture problem when it comes to accepting female fans and minorities of any kind, then it should allow its players to take a knee when the season starts if they wish to. More than that, it should defend their right to do so.
And the Pittsburgh Penguins should follow the champions of one of the biggest sports leagues in the US by refusing their invitation to the White House. By not doing so they are allowing hockey to give legitimacy to the policies and rhetoric of a divisive and hate-filled President, and openly proving that in saying hockey is for everyone, the NHL and its current champion, despite declaring them publicly, has no real principles at all when it comes to supporting equality.
Anything else is merely confirming what many have been saying for ages - that the NHL will talk a good game when it comes to equality, but when it comes down to it, they’re just as bad as the bigots they claim to despise.
Your move, NHL. Do the right thing. Take a knee.
Managing Editors Note
Paul is a British citizen and has an outside look of how political America is changing sports culture in the United States.
I fully stand behind this piece and its content, as we as journalists and lovers of sport, cannot allow the government attempt to squash the First Amendment.
Five For Howling will continue to be progressive and speak out minds about issues that continue to come into sports.