Dear NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman,
It is with some trepidation that I initially began to write this letter. I’m a fair weather hockey fan that’ll watch the NHL only during the playoffs, and only if the New Jersey Devils or New York Rangers are in the Conference Finals, and only if there are no NBA playoff games being aired the same day.
However, I will admit that the feats of some of your very best players – those who possess agility and reaction time while wearing skates – is about as close to being super human as a mutant. This impresses me. But as an African-American male, truth be told, I’m not that into your league.
Honestly, with all due respect, the average brother just isn’t that into your product. Have you ever wondered why? Some would jokingly say that brothers don’t like the sport because we don’t play it. Other say we don’t play the sport because it takes place on ice and brothers aren’t big on being cold. But that’s something of a misnomer. As you know, Mr. Bettman, the NHL has been making attempts to…ahem…darken the complexion of its league for some time.
Willie O’Ree is considered the Jackie Robinson of your sport, he was the first African-American to grace the ice of the NHL back in 1958. That’s 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the MLB color line. Legally blind in one eye, O’Ree faced rampant racism from opposing fans, home fans and teammates alike. But his constitution was stern enough to carve out a 21-year career despite that. Since then, there have been multiple NHL players of African descent. Although saying “many” is actually a relative term here - relative to the NBA, NHL and MLB. There have barely been a little over 50 players of African ancestry to play NHL hockey in its entire history.
It’s no surprise that racism has frequently reared its disgusting, gorgon-like head from the moment O’Ree took the ice until the present. There would be no need to rehash any of this instances for the sake of educating you. But the progressive Shadow League readership always wants to know.
For example, there were the recent racist Twitter outbursts from Boston Bruins fans that came as a result of the winning goal scored by Montreal Canadians’ black defenseman P.K. Subban. There was the Wayne Simmonds banana incident of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2011, when a fan threw a banana peel at him during an exhibition game. A similar incident involving former NHL goalie Kevin Weekes and a retired NHL enforcer Peter J. Worrell took place in 2003. That’s not to mention the racial slurs that have been hurled at black players, unrecorded by cameras or unmentioned by black NHL players who have probably come to see these things as normal.
But racism should never be looked upon as typical or swept under the rug for the sake of fitting in. However, it is somewhat understandable that some incidents go unreported. Black players are a small minority in the NHL. In fact, professional hockey is the one American team sport where African-Americans have not dominated. The crowds are without a significant black fan base as well.
So could it be that the dearth of black players and fans is a reason why some whites seem more emboldened to “come out their face” in a racially-insensitive manner toward black players? Perhaps. You see, Commissioner Bettman, racists look for comfortable places to hide when the overall societal consensus runs counter to prejudicial slurs and overtures toward a minority. It is because of these aforementioned things that racism seems to persist in your league.
Every so often, there’s some racially-charged matter that gets lots of media attention. Op-Ed pieces are written, TV talking heads debate, and then it returns to muck only to rear its head another day. During the recent incident where every racially-motivated slur one can think of was aimed at Subban by surly Bruins’ fans, Boston Bruins President Cam Neely released the following statement.
"The racist, classless views expressed by an ignorant group of individuals following Thursday's game via digital media are in no way a reflection of anyone associated with the Bruins organization."
The Anti-Defamation League also released a paragraph long statement. And you said, like, three sentences.
“We endorse and support the comment that Cam Neely and the Bruins issued. We are about diversity and inclusiveness. We condemn bias and hatred. It has no place in our game is not acceptable.”
Why didn’t you say more?
One wonders why you did not see it fit to address this issue from the very top of the NHL business structure with Adam Silver fire and fervor. Perhaps you truly believe that these incidents are simply the beliefs of an ignorant few?
That may be true, but the purity of your sport is compromised whenever these things occur. A person dying of thirst will drink just about anything. However, they would readily prefer a clean, crisp glass of water if given the opportunity. Purify your waters, Commissioner Bettman.
There’s no way in the world African-American hockey fans are going to patronize a sport that is, fair or not, deemed as a haven for racists. It would have behooved you to speak out in length regarding the Subban issue. Your failure to do so appears as if you don’t think it’s a big deal. Is this true?
African-Americans know the NBA and NHL are not free of racism. But hearing Silver speak publicly and enlist a lifetime ban on Sterling was as refreshing as a cold spring on a hot summer day in comparison to what you’ve done in response to the NHL’s drama.
And businesswise, as the least lucrative professional team sport in America, it would do your league some good to make an attempt to not alienate current black fans and players, as well as potentials. Some may think it’s up to the black players themselves to speak out and be more boisterous in condemning these acts, but their power is as limited as their numbers.
Because of a failure to see themselves represented throughout your league, many black potential fans simply don’t become emotional attached to the NHL and eventually stray to leagues deemed as more inviting. And as a business man who knows money is the bottom line, having fewer black fans in the NHL than any other team sport makes it a good idea to move toward conscientious overtures in diversifying and reaching those, like myself, who show mild interest. It is clearly an avenue of growth that needs to be expanded.
Having more black people and players may not eliminate the racists, but it shines a light of diversity into the dank crevices where bigots and racists love to crawl and hide.