It's not just the NHL that has a Problem
Last week, a former student of mine went to pick up lunch. She, this beautiful, intelligent African-American woman ordered and was handed her take out box, complete with a sticker of a monkey and watermelon.
In the fall of 2016, I was directing a show at a Hispanic serving institution (HSI). Shortly after the election, my stage manager told me a white woman spat in his face and told him to go back to the other side of the wall.
This weekend, Devante Smith-Pelly was harassed by four Chicago Blackhawks fans as he sat in the penalty box during their game against the Washington Capitals. The word used to taunt him, "basketball."
While that word is not one often associated with words used to demean or discriminate, it's important to note 98% of all players in the NHL are white. The NHL knows that statistic is problematic. Ironically, coinciding with February being Black History Month in the U.S., for the past 20 years it's also been the NHL's Hockey is for Everyone month, a time for everyone to feel welcomed to the sport. I guess those Hawks fans missed the memo.
The American flag projected over the ice during "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the United Center on Nov. 8, 2015./Photo: Mary Kroeck
Growing up, I wasn't a Hawks fan. The only exposure I had to hockey was playing floor hockey during gym class. I loved floor hockey. I thought it was fun, but real hockey? I don't think I had much of an idea what it was. I watched the winter Olympics. Growing up, Michelle Kwan was my main reason for watching figure skating. I thought she was incredible. Yet, for all the exposure I had to ice sports (meaning figure skating and Disney on Ice), hockey wasn't a part of the picture. My mom and brother watched baseball and basketball so I watched baseball and basketball. Even into my early adult years, I saw hockey as a sport for the wealthy. To play it, you had to have access to a rink, skates, the right padding, etc. All of that equipment cost way more than a bat, glove and ball. Even today, the ticket price for a Hawks game tends to be too rich for my blood. I've been to one game, because someone gifted me a ticket. The Bulls dynasty of the early 1990s may have built the Madhouse on Madison, but there's no doubt the Hawks' Championships of the 2000s have provided a financial boost and made it "look cool," with flashing screens on the building's exterior.
I wholeheartedly admit to being into a Hawks fan now. I'm a Chicagoan. Chicago is a sports town. We need someone to root for and in the past decade, the Hawks have consistently been that team. However, centuries of racism and oppression still permeate the games we love and a jeer like "basketball" is not just "all in good fun." It's loaded. In context, it's just as bad as saying any other racial slur, and it's not difficult to understand why. Approximately 75% of players in the NBA are Black. So, when white hockey fans yell that word to a Black hockey player, it's clear someone needs to say, "Excuse me. Your ignorance is showing." In essence, the Hawks did just that. The fans were quickly ejected from the game and the Blackhawks issued an apology to Smith-Pelly and the Capitals. The Blackhawks even took it a step further and banned the four fans from future Blackhawks home games.
I wonder if the incident would have happened if those rude fans knew Smith-Pelly is Canadian. Their national sport is hockey. I wonder if the comments would have been made if the Hawks were losing that game. Mostly, I wonder why those people thought what they were doing was acceptable. It's the same wonder I had when I heard about the incidents that happened to my former student and my stage manager. What incidents like these point out is racism happens everywhere, in every walk of life. Some incidents are overt, some are more coded. None are acceptable. How do we change? Maybe it starts with calling people out on their biases and waking folks up to their prejudices. The NHL did just that this week. If the one of the whitest sports in the nation can stand against racism, we all can, and should.