NHL misses the mark entirely with performative gestures regarding Black lives

Performative gestures by the NHL and its teams regarding Black lives won't held up well against critical examination. (Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images)
Performative gestures by the NHL and its teams regarding Black lives won't hold up well against critical examination. (Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images)

In the four months between the NHL pausing its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resumption of the campaign this week, the world in no uncertain terms changed. The pandemic forced a new reality upon us, and the economic strife combined with increased awareness globally about how the police target and kill Black people with impunity led to a widespread call for change.

It’s perhaps naive to expect the NHL to know better by now, despite establishing its Declaration of Principles and running an inclusion campaign under the glimmering, vapid banner “Hockey Is For Everyone” when it’s anything but. Once again, the NHL entirely missed the mark on Tuesday when it resumed its pre-playoff schedule.

We’ve seen the Toronto Raptors and other organizations across the NBA make a demonstrated commitment to anti-racism and eradicating police brutality, while keeping the focus on Black lives as opposed to conflating the issue with the umbrella BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and other People of Colour) as society faces a long-overdue reckoning about how it treats Black people.

The Raptors entered the NBA bubble with three buses reading “Black Lives Matter,” a gesture that caught the attention of the basketball community. If this gesture weren’t backed up by the organization’s strong commitment to community engagement, fighting against anti-Black racism and speaking with direct action against police brutality levied against Black people, this too would feel hollow. This is what happens when well-intended gestures support real leadership, as opposed to hollow gestures trying to make the pertinent issue at hand disappear from the national discourse.

In the absence of real leadership, the NHL and its teams — notably, but not exclusively, the Boston Bruins — made numerous gestures that rang hollow, with players from opposing teams linking arms in an attempt at solidarity. These acts from teams and the league don’t match its track record of indifference to Black lives, and worst of all, it was performance advertised as genuine progress by all actors involved, media included.

Let’s start with the Bruins, who rightly bore most of the attention for exacerbating this mess Tuesday. Although the Bruins didn’t play, the players released a statement saying they would lock arms during both national anthems in an act of solidarity with the Black community. There are numerous things wrong here, so let’s go through it.

The internet remains undefeated and your track record is easy to verify. During the initial stages of the pandemic when several teams were forced to lay off their workers, the Bruins didn’t act at all, then submitted a plan saying they would donate $1.5 million to its workers with the massive contingency being they would only implement said plan if the regular season was outright cancelled. An organization that has done the least for worker solidarity can’t respond with an empty gesture and expect us all to not see through it.

It doesn’t stop there, however. Tuukka Rask wore a Boston Police hat during an interview, undermining the Bruins’ attempt at convincing the public they care about Black lives, which in itself is disappointing. When Matt Porter of the Boston Globe highlighted this discrepancy, Bruins superstar Brad Marchand tore into the reporter, stating that he’s “part of the problem” before deleting the tweet. Are we all going to back down because it’s merely uncomfortable, or are we in media going to do our jobs and ask uncomfortable questions in an uncomfortable economic and racial climate?

Scott McLaughlin of WEEI followed up with Marchand on a conference call Wednesday. Marchand’s response was equally disappointing.

Marchand’s contention that a reporter asking about a public interaction on social media equates to clout chasing is frankly ridiculous, and perhaps unintentionally, an attempt by one of the NHL’s foremost stars to silence a reporter for holding players and teams accountable for their actions. This is doubly odious if they are trying to convince both the public and media they are now engaged in genuine allyship with the Black community.

Media have a responsibility to hold players accountable and by-and-large, those at the bubble abdicated this part of it. We’re all excited by games returning, a hopeful conclusion to what’s been a riveting season across the board, buoyed by a boom of young talent who are quickly becoming the new faces of the NHL. But it can’t all be about determining line combinations, or expected goals for, or how goals saved above expected may fluctuate in a best-of-five format, or whatever the case may be. If media can’t hold players accountable, it’s just fandom with more access and clarity.

Through a non-critical lens, the picture of the Maple Leafs and Canadiens standing shoulder to shoulder before a game may evoke some feelings of nationhood or brotherhood or some ambiguous term about nation-building that is often spoken into existence in haughty pre-game monologues. Assigning credit to teams for tweeting out #BlackLivesMatter simply isn’t good enough.

This is what happens when actors enter the political space through symbolic gestures only; this is what happens when you don’t listen to Black leadership, or don’t take your cues from what other Black people are saying. It’s all too easy to point out that many in the hockey world don’t have a genuine proximity to Blackness or meaningfully examine class privilege but this has to change. And if you don’t want to do the work, open your purse. If you don’t know what to do, and if you’re an athlete with disposable income, you can simply donate money to organizations fighting anti-Black racism, which is better than an empty performance.

It’s disappointing that the hockey world often feels it’s the responsibility of Black, and other people of colour, in hockey media to critically examine any gestures surrounding race, and more to the point, systemic racism and police brutality concentrated heavily towards Black and Indigenous people. The gestures may have sufficed in the world we used to live in, but nothing that we used to know, both the on-ice product and the bystander climate of letting injustices happen, stands to exist anymore. The NHL has to do better. Let the games, and the work, begin.

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