History came knocking, loud and clear. And the National Hockey League pulled a pillow over its head and refused to answer the door.
There is no other possible spin on the colossal gaffe the NHL and its players committed Wednesday evening. With the NBA, WNBA, MLS, some MLB teams and some tennis players boycotting or walking away from games and matches, the NHL chose the thoughts and prayers route.
It was about as effective and at least as laughable as politicians offering up their thoughts and prayers after the latest NRA-sponsored mass shooting. In other circumstances, a “moment of reflection” might have been enough. This time, such a response was ludicrous and hopelessly inadequate.
There are times when you either stand and be heard or you are complicit. This is one of those times.
What began Wednesday with the news that the Milwaukee Bucks had decided not to play the Orlando Magic in Game 5 of their playoff series quickly spread to include all three scheduled games. It was a pivotal moment in the history of sports and the history of race relations on this continent.
It was, perhaps, the 21st century version of the fight between heavyweight champion Jack Johnson and white challenger James J. Jeffries on July 4, 1910 in Reno, Nevada – a fight that saw Johnson pummel Jeffries unmercifully, touching off race riots and mass lynchings across the U.S.
It harked back to Jesse Owens showing up Adolf Hitler and the “master race” at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, to Jackie Robinson breaking the colour barrier in baseball, to Muhammad Ali declaring “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Congs.”
Among all the stories and the passionate pleas on the sports networks Wednesday, the one I found most affecting came from Sam Mitchell, the former NBA player and Raptors coach who is now an analyst for TSN.
It would be hard to find a less likely target for racial profiling. Mitchell, who turns 57 next week, is an 18-year NBA veteran – well-dressed, soft-spoken and non-confrontational. Yet Mitchell told of a recent traffic stop (he didn’t say where it happened) in which he was pulled over by police and forced to remain in his car with his wife for more than 30 minutes, even though he had not committed an infraction.
The incident did not end until a white motorist got out of his car (Mitchell noted that it was okay for the white man to leave his vehicle, while he himself was ordered several times to remain inside) and began berating the police officers. Finally, he persuaded the cops to let Mitchell go – but what might have happened if a white witness had not confronted police? What if Mitchell had gotten out of his car – would he now be a symbol of racial injustice like George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Jason Blake?
And what of Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, shoved and manhandled by a white security guard after the Raptors victory over the Golden State Warriors in 2019? It was not until video of the incident was released that Ujiri had absolute proof that he was the one telling the truth, because the Black man is always assumed to be in the wrong.
Now, in the span of one week in one Wisconsin town, we have seen the extremes of injustice:
First, Jacob Blake, an unarmed black man, shot seven times in the back by police as his three children looked on from the car.
Second, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse was able to walk into a protest carrying an AR-15, allegedly murder two people, and walk past police officers still carrying his weapon without being arrested.
The juxtaposition of the two incidents was stark, appalling and as clear an illustration as you can find of the inherent injustice facing Blacks who have to deal with the police on this continent.
This is a situation that has to be dealt with now. It should not be political in any way: shooting unarmed citizens in the back is murder, and those who perpetrate it should be arrested immediately, tried and jailed.
All the NHL had to do was to follow in the footsteps of the NBA, whose overwhelmingly Black players will bear the brunt of the criticism for not playing. The NHL faced the equivalent of hitting a softball off a tee and whiffed.
As the whitest league around, it was important for the NHL to take a stand and to form a solid front with athletes in other sports who are risking everything.
Make no mistake, they are taking risks that go beyond lost salary. This is a fluid, volatile, dangerous situation. Chaos is the order of the day. There is still a raging pandemic, despite White House efforts to play it down by ordering the CDC to scale down testing. California is battling almost unprecedented fires and a Category 4 hurricane has battered the Gulf Coast from Mississippi to Texas.
There is an election campaign underway, and an American president who has openly sanctioned racism and violence on the part of white militias as well as white cops.
Anyone who claims to know how this might play out is delusional. It could end in a wholesale remake of the American political landscape under genuine justice and equality – or it could end in civil war. Or anything in between.
Like it or not, the major sports leagues wield enormous influence. The NBA, WNBA, MLB and MLS have already done the right thing, but this effort must be unanimous. Everyone (including the NFL) needs to weigh in. We are already well past the point where a moment of reflection means anything at all.
Colin Kaepernick took the quiet approach, simply taking a knee during the anthem. For that he was vilified and blackballed – but Kaepernick was right. Had people listened at the time, we may not be where we are today.
This is a historic moment. Unless the NHL changes course and and changes quickly, it is on the wrong side of history.