If you ever needed more proof that hockey has work to do with race, I submit Exhibits A & B for the record.
A black man in the OHL has been suspended for flipping off a group of people making racial comments towards him with no corresponding suspensions or punishment of any kind given to the other parties.
A “known pest” white man has licked two people without so much as a penalty, fine, or suspension in the NHL.
Unequal punishment isn’t only an NHL phenomenon. It happens everywhere. Earlier this month a report was released studying punishment in schools.
“The analysis shows that students of color suffer harsher discipline for lesser offenses than their white peers and that racial bias is a driver of discipline disparities,” [Rep Bobby} Scott [D-Va.] said in a statement.
So naturally when Givani Smith, younger brother of Dallas Stars forward Gemel Smith, flipped the bird to the Soo Greyhounds bench strangely ironic hell broke loose against him.
The incident sparked a series of racially charged comments on social media. Some called the Toronto native a “coward” and a “douche bag” while others stooped lower.
One man sent a photo of Smith to his personal Facebook account with “Hockey N—–” in the caption.
He also received a death threat.
“There were threats, physical threats after Game 6,” said Rangers general manager Mike McKenzie.
“Before we went up to the Soo there were racial things in his inbox on social media. It was pretty disgusting to see some of the stuff that he had to deal with.”
Things got so bad that the Rangers needed a police escort from the Soo airport to their hotel and from the hotel to the Essar Centre for Game 7. Smith watched the affair from the press box with a security guard posted at the door.
All because he flipped someone off. Sure, civility is important. We don’t need to be flipping people off, but this is absurd. None of these reactions are ever justified, and they look even the more ridiculous when they come in response to a common mildly vulgar gesture.
The sad thing is that this is an unfortunately common situation that black hockey players are forced to confront. Gemel talked about his own experiences in the OHL with Sean Shapiro last year.
“I’ve been through that stuff, even when playing in the OHL. To me I just block it out, none of it really bothers me. I think of it like just words, that stuff doesn’t effect me.”
“Definitely happened more when I was younger and in the OHL, I think it was a maturity thing. The fact that it happens at that age is a good thing, it teaches guys how to cope,” Smith said. “I had some really high-end players say some stuff to me, I’m not going to say any names, and to be honest I just laugh now. None of it really bothers me.”
The fact that at least one black player thinks it’s “a good thing” that they experience racism at an early age in hockey so they learn “how to cope” with it is a telling indictment of where hockey and society still are racially. No one should have to put up with this nonsense anywhere, and sure as hell not at work.
I work at an urban school where 97% of the population is Black or Hispanic. On my first day of school six years ago I was very aware that most people didn’t look like me. I’ve never been treated the way Givani Smith was treated in this one instance, and presumably others, in my entire time there. This isn’t just a race issue. It’s a white society issue and it isn’t ok.
This is why actively working towards inclusion is important. From Sean’s story:
“My first triple-A team when I first started taking hockey serious, my coach was black and there were four other black players on my team. It kind of helped us kind of get through at first,” Smith said. “I know stuff like that is going to come up as long as I live, and the best thing to is don’t break. You can bend, but don’t break.”
I still can’t get over how much the kids in my building flocked to Black Panther. Representation matters.
Remember all of the little girls running around dressed like Wonder Woman? Representation matters.
Hockey can’t show representation the way Black Panther or Wonder Woman did yet because there simply aren’t enough black NHL players to do it on that scale. That’s also why inclusion is important. Every single story like this that happens and spreads limits the potential audience for the sport. How can you expect any of the 42 million black people in the US to feel comfortable coming to an arena seating 17.000 almost exclusively white people when these things keep happening?
This is why Hockey Is For Everyone month is important. It’s easy for members of the majority to say “oh, of course everyone is welcome” because they don’t see or feel the impacts of how much racism is so easily thrown around.
The NHL needs to take a more active role in including everyone.
The NHLPA needs to take a more active role in protecting their members. No union worth anything should ever let a member treat another member like Givani Smith was treated in the OHL.
NHL teams need to take a more active role in the arena to make sure this behavior isn’t tolerated from fans.
It’s 2018 and this garbage keeps happening. Enough is enough. A white man licking people in the face has faced less consequences than a black man justifiably responding with a non-violent gesture to racists. I can’t.