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Pittsburgh Penguins, and NHL, Reveal Unsurprising Tone-Deafness, but Players of Color Are Thankfully Speaking Out

The Penguins made clear their intentions to visit the White House not long after Donald Trump disinvited Steph Curry from doing so, and trashed football players for kneeling during the National Anthem. It's only par for the course for the NHL. But there is reason for optimism.

By Steve SmithPublished 7 years ago 6 min read
The Pittsburgh Penguins will once again be visiting the White House as defending Stanley Cup champs, but this is a bit more concerning than when they visited then-President Barack Obama last year. (Image courtesy of Susan Walsh/AP.)

On August 14, 2016, Colin Kaepernick didn't get up for the national anthem before the San Francisco 49ers' first preseason game. Less than a week later, he again did not rise. He piqued the public's interest when it occurred a third time, before the 49ers' third preseason game, on August 26. He announced he was doing so to bring attention to and combat the oppression of people of color, as well as police brutality.

For the final preseason game, he was joined by fellow 49er, safety Eric Reid. On the same night of September 1, only a few moments later, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane remained on the bench during the anthem. Not long after, U.S. Women's National Team member Megan Rapinoe took a knee during the anthem.

The protest continued to spread throughout the sports world through the end of 2016, as Donald Trump, whose campaign pandered to and was aimed at white supremacists, was elected 45th President of the United States.

Fast forward to now, just over nine months into his embarrassing presidency, when he publicly condemned those who have taken a knee during the national anthem, specifically the "sons of bitches" in the NFL that have done so. In fact, he implored NFL owners to fire anyone protesting during the anthem, and later demanded them to enact a rule banning anyone from this demonstration. He also encouraged fans to boycott the league, and disinvited Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors from attending the White House, as defending champions are wont to do.

Enter the NHL and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The predominantly white NHL and Pittsburgh Penguins. Amidst the unrest that begun this weekend, the Penguins organization thought it would be just swell if they declared their acceptance of the president's invitation on Sunday.

In their official statement, they promulgate their "respect for the institution of the Office of the President," and go on to state there are other ways to protest the president, though they respect the rights of individuals to express themselves as they see fit.

First of all, how goddamn tone-deaf do you have to be to examine the current political landscape in the context of athletics and surmise that the best solution is to pronounce your support for "the Office of the President?"

As Ryan Lambert reminds us, these are largely rich and white athletes, so they were assumedly going to go anyway, if not already Trump sympathizers. Releasing this statement, now, was not even remotely necessary. But the fact that they did speaks volumes. And, as Travis Yost pointed out on Twitter, not taking a position in this situation is a position. Especially at this time. Amazingly, but predictably, tone-deaf and obtuse.

The Pittsburgh coaching staff, and specifically head coach Mike Sullivan, also doubled down on the team's original release, effectively removing the already reduced leeway the official team statement left for protest. Jashvina Shah articulated this point much better than I could have, but as we know, hockey culture doesn't like those that go outside the box, that speak their mind. Those who do are generally criticized and/or ostracized. The crux of the issue, though, is that the league is mostly rich and white. This protest isn't something that is necessary for them. It doesn't affect them personally, so they choose "not to take a stance."

But again, not taking a stance in this instance is very much a stance. Sullivan keeps reiterating that this decision is "politics aside," but it is factually impossible to separate anything from politics. Politics affect every facet of life, and while we can't constantly focus on them for the sake of sanity, they don't ever go away. And of course, it shouldn't be, and isn't, a requirement for a societal ill to affect you personally for you to care about it.

Not to mention, there are so few players of color in the league, and especially on the Penguins—Ryan Reaves is the only non-white player on the team, and he will not be attending the White House because he was not a member of the Penguins until this summer, after their Stanley Cup victory. (Reaves has disclosed his feelings of whether he would or not attend, given the choice: "Probably not, no." Asked why, he wouldn't divulge much more than stating that he doesn't agree with "certain things" the president has said or believes in.) I don't want to project my thoughts onto Reaves' statements, so I can't say for sure if he recognizes that the protests aren't against specifically against Trump—I would certainly bet that he does, unlike the organization he will have to suit up for—but even if he vehemently disagreed with the Penguins' decision to go, do you think he would vocalize it? He's a fourth line grinder/enforcer coming to a new team. He is probably going to make the team, but his spot in the lineup isn't a guaranteed one. He would, potentially, be risking his livelihood, which is tough to ask of anyone.

Hockey's culture of not breaking from the pack, ever, is going to be tough to change, especially when these thoughts extend all the way up to commissioner Gary Bettman, who told his players to remain "apolitical" at the rink back in May—he has been the only commissioner of a major sports league, thus far, to ask his players not to protest.

However, there is hope. Some of the few players of color have made comments that would certainly be breaking the mold (though it should be noted that those who have spoken up have a bit more solid standing on their teams than Reaves does).

One of the more respected players in the NHL, San Jose Sharks forward Joel Ward, a veteran who wears No. 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson, has said that he might kneel for the anthem in protest. He conveyed that he experienced racism from the first time he ever played hockey, as well as on a day-to-day basis. He was the recipient of numerous racial slurs after his goal in overtime of Game 7 advanced his Washington Capitals past the Boston Bruins in the first round of the 2012 playoffs.

Often misguidedly criticized, Josh Ho-Sang is a notably outspoken twenty-one-year-old winger for the New York Islanders. He's a young player who will be going into his first full season in the NHL, and he understands that even though he's not American, the protest has nothing to do with one's country or one's political leader. Racism and police brutality may still very well a part of his life living in the United States as a person of color, and he's glad that players are using their voices in other leagues. It isn't hard to interpret that what he's also saying is that it would be difficult to imagine such unity in the NHL even if a player did speak up.

Ward and Ho-Sang are incredibly brave for having revealed their feelings in this situation. Unfortunately, as the Penguins and the commissioner have demonstrated, they are probably going to be among outsiders, thus furthering the problem. These rich, white men aren't likely to take a stand against this matter, as it doesn't directly affect them. Which is infuriatingly sad, especially for a league that continues to insist that hockey "is for everyone."


About the Creator

Steve Smith

Staff writer for Unbalanced and Lighthouse Hockey.

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