“Republicans buy shoes too” we heard a young Michael Jordan say when he was asked to back a young black politician in his home state. And it’s been a quote that has haunted Jordan’s life since it was published in Sam Smith’s book “The Second Coming.” For all the accomplishments that Michael Jordan has had, the championships, the Olympic glory, the records, the prestige, the sneakers, the title of best basketball player of all time, this quote has followed him as an example of his so-called apolitical and pro-capitalist over everything stance. It spits in the face of the image of the strong leader that Jordan wanted to be, that when it came to time to show support for something other than himself, he cowered.
This week, as the NHL returned to play exhibition games in Hub Cities Toronto and Edmonton, we saw the “Republicans buy shoes too” of sports activism.
Lest we forget that the murder of George Floyd sparked protests in the streets of the US as well as around the world and that the NHL (along with a lot of other companies) was forced to come out with statements of solidarity. #BlackLivesMatter was in their tongues. Other North American sports like the NBA, MLB, and MLS have returned to play as well as other major soccer leagues around the world, including the prestigious Premier League in England. All of those leagues had prominent displays stating their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, either through placards, bus signs, jersey badges, or even through the simple act of kneeling while the anthem plays.
Yet when it was time for the NHL to show what kind of prominent display they had for their anti-racist values, all we got people standing side by side in a lily weak attempt at so-called “solidarity.” Not one placard stating Black Lives Matter, no jersey badges, not even one fist raised. Not only that, but only some teams participated. This Oilers fan when he tuned in to watch the Flames and the Oilers play, did not see any sign that a protest happened. The only thing he saw was Colby Cave’s memorial and that Ethan Bear’s name placard was in Cree (in one of the better pro-diversity moves that the NHL has done). The Oilers, who have been hosts to many players of colors throughout the decades from Grant Fuhr to Georges Laraques to Darnell Nurse to Caleb Jones, should’ve known better. They not only balked at kneeling, but they also didn’t even do the half-ass attempt at “solidarity.”
It’s a head-scratching decision especially when you know that the NHL is not one to come out in front of something, yet they had ample time and ample examples of how to do this properly, and they still messed it up. The story goes that this was the player’s decision and honestly, it just shows what kind of people deal in this league. It’s disappointing especially that racism in sports has a unique NHL story attached to it, Akim Aliu’s story sent ripples down the league, a story that happened in this 2019/2020 season. A story that the ramifications are still being felt today. During that time we had players like Evander Kane asking players like Sidney Crosby by name to speak up, a time where NHL players set up an independent diversity committee. A time when JT Brown admitted he had death threats when he raised his first during the anthem back in 2017.
Let’s be clear on one thing, the work of diversity and inclusion in the NHL is one of high importance for the survival of the league. More and more people of color are playing hockey, and one day we may see the first black generational talent or first overall pick. Auston Matthews, who is half-Mexican, is proof of that. Having a culture where players of color feel safe and accepted needs to happen for the NHL and hockey to survive. Especially if it plays in places that claim to be multicultural like in Canada and the US. So even if we’re looking at this purely from a financial perspective, putting diversity and inclusion as a priority is a SAFE MOVE (which by the way I don’t see this purely at, but I would like to put it out there as such).
Let’s also be clear on another thing as well, it is an open secret that the majority of NHL players either are or come from traditionally conservative backgrounds. I don’t want to paint everyone with a broad brush, however, I will say that a lot of the dissenting opinions of BlackLivesMatters come from conservative voices. So having Tuukka Rask wear a “Boston Police” hat for an interview during these times, is not just an innocent gaffe, it’s a nod in that direction. And this not only stretches to white players but even prominent black players like Seth and Caleb Jones who have also promoted Trump-style rhetoric on their social media. So it’s very obvious that the NHL and its players, coaches, and executives want to keep their conservative values by being “apolitical.” But even that it’s no excuse when you see a conservative and white led league like NASCAR take a very bold and risky stance by banning Confederate flags from its events.
And there is this: pic.twitter.com/IKGS9y6sRc
— Matt Porter (@mattyports) July 28, 2020
Yet the NHL and its players again showed what a weak league it is. It showed that it’s political interest don’t match their fans. Kneeling during the anthem was honestly a safe decision right now. It would’ve been roundly accepted, and almost at this time feels like the status quo. But because of the culture of the NHL and the culture of hockey full stop demands an almost fervent display of team-first alliance standing beside another team seemed edgy.
I will mention that at the time of writing, during the Play-In rounds, the NHL will have placards displaying “#WeSkate For Black Lives” as an attempt of aligning with the Black Lives Matter campaign, but again it’s showing it faces when it won’t even say the words Black Lives Matter, something that other leagues have no issue portraying. Again, a weak move. In the words of Avalanche player of colour, Nazem Kadri when asked about the NHL’s policies against racism and racial injustice, that “we’d like to see a little more.”
The NHL has been weak this whole time. It’s weak in trying to be apolitical when it’s not. It’s been weak with it’s anti-racism messaging. It’s been weak with the promotion of players, especially players of color. And most importantly it’s been weak at a time when they needed to be bold. Especially when a lot of their fans not only come from different backgrounds and ethnicities but across the gender spectrum.
And right now, when it seemed like the safest time to stand up (and in this case kneel) for black players, it’s taken the weakest approach. It’s just as weak as when Jordan said “Republicans buy shoes too” and just like that quote stayed with Jordan for the rest of his life, the NHL’s actions today will haunt them too.