The Athlete is Political
NHL misses the mark in a big way, as fellow atheletes stand in solidarity with social movements.
In August of 2016, National Football League Quarterback Colin Kaepernick remained seated during the American National Anthem prior to a preseason game. While his silent protest gained little attention at first, by the end of the month and into September, it had taken the NFL and the nation by storm.
Colin Kaepernick didn’t remain seated to protest the United States military or the American flag. Rather, he decided to use his position of notoriety to draw attention to the systemic discrimination and violence that Black Americans face at the hands of American police on a daily basis.
Kaepernick’s protest was embraced in small amounts over the last year, with some fellow players deciding to take a knee or raise a fist during the anthem. However, it really took off two weekends ago after President Donald Trump decided to chime in, encouraging team owners to fire any “son of a bitch” player who decided to join in the protests. As is now well known, the NFL, its owners and its players responded with a somewhat surprising show of defiance and unity, with many teams releasing statements criticizing the President’s comments and locking arms or kneeling together during the anthem prior to their weekend games.
Kaepernick is not the first professional athlete to use their position to advocate for social justice and change. At the 1968 Summer Olympics, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised a single fist during the Star-Spangled Banner after finishing 1st and 3rd respectively in the 200-meter sprint. This protest occurred in the midst of the black power movement and played an important role in gaining attention for the movement back home.
The year prior, World Boxing Champion Muhammad Ali refused to be conscripted by the American Army to fight in the Vietnam War. As a Black American and a faithful Muslim, he opposed the violence and the idea of going to fight for the United States against a minority in another country while his race continued to be discriminated against back home. As a result of his refusal, Ali was stripped of his boxing title and faced jail time, sending shockwaves throughout the United States. More importantly however, his protest provided important momentum to the civil rights and anti-war movements.
In recent years, other athletes have taken up the fight against police brutality. In 2014, National Basketball Association players, including star Lebron James, wore shirts in the pregame warmup with the words “I can’t breathe” spread across the front, evoking the final words of Eric Garner before he was choked to death by police in New York City.
That same year, members of the Women’s National Basketball Association’s New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury and Indiana Fever donned “Black Lives Matter” shirts during their pregame warmups.
As a result of his refusal, Ali was stripped of his boxing title and faced jail time, sending shockwaves throughout the United States. More importantly however, his protest provided important momentum to the civil rights and anti-war movements.
Also in 2014, 5 members of the St. Louis Rams walked out of the tunnel before their game with their hands up, evoking the “Hands up, don’t shoot” slogan that had become an important rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. Both the WNBA and NFL protests occurred in the aftermath of the unconvicted murder of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was shot and killed by a White police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
Fast forward to 2017. As of September 26th, American police had killed an estimated 730 people since the start of the year. Of that total, an estimated 207 people killed were Black. In 2016, police killed 309 black Americans. Black Americans are 3 times as likely as White Americans to be killed by police, and 9% more likely to be killed while unarmed. While the Black Lives Matter movement has gained traction and attention in recent years, this has mostly been within the Black and progressive white communities. BLM still operates on the fringes of the mainstream and faces a substantial amount of criticism from politicians, the media and a large proportion of North American citizens.
In many cases, they have realized that their relative place of privilege and fame provides them with a platform where they can make a substantial difference, and unfortunately in some cases, they have not.
Which brings us back to professional sports. In 2016, 16.5 million people watched an average NFL game. Roughly 17.8 million people attended NFL games in 2016. Without making overt assumptions about the political leanings of sports fans, it is fair to assume that professional sports reach an audience not typically accessed by social movements. Sports stars are idolized and their actions carry a lot of weight. Seeing athletes—both Black and white—taking a stance against systemic police discrimination and violence will lead to increased public awareness and hopefully, a shift in political momentum.
Of course, it is possible going forward that athletes will continue to protest during the national anthem not specifically against police brutality but against any of the Trump administration’s countless discriminatory decisions. The usefulness of dividing the protest can be questioned and dealt with in and of itself in another article, but one thing is clear: more and more athletes are embracing their role as conveyors of political and social protest and change. In many cases, they have realized that their relative place of privilege and fame provides them with a platform where they can make a substantial difference, and unfortunately in some cases, they have not.
No professional sporting league in North America appears to be as oblivious and indifferent to the current social climate and to the weight of its actions as the National Hockey League. Before continuing, it’s important to remember that the issues of police violence and discrimination are not isolated to the United States but can also be seen and experienced in Canada. Canadian political institutions and its law enforcement organizations are faced with a continued legacy of discrimination against the country’s minorities, specifically its Black and Indigenous populations. The NHL is the most watched professional sporting league in Canada and hockey players are revered across the country. This makes recent comments by teams and players regarding the protests in the United States even more disappointing. The Pittsburgh Penguins, last year’s Stanley Cup champions, released a tone-def statement saying that they would continue to honour the tradition of the visiting the White House following a championship win, a tradition that the Golden State Warriors, the NBA champions, decided to turn down last week. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, Canadian, and also the most influential player in the game, has defended the statement, arguing that the Penguins are simply choosing to not take a political stance. Coach Mike Sullivan has echoed a similar opinion. However, by trying not to take an overt stance, the Penguins’ players are doing just the opposite. They are normalizing Trump’s comments and behaviour, and as the championship representatives for a predominantly white league, are undermining the very real struggles of their fellow Black athletes, and of minorities dealing with police violence all across North America.
Athletes have often been criticized for turning a blind eye to the social realities around them. They have been accused of being ignorantly privileged. That is no longer the case. Professional sports stars are embracing their roles and the immense influence they can wield to fight for social and political change. It’s time we take them seriously, and it’s time that they all get on board.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the McGill Left Review's editorial board.