The NHL and Commissioner Gary Bettman would love it if all of the conversation around the league revolved around its superb playoffs.
America’s clear fourth sport has had playoffs that have featured overtimes, exciting finishes, upsets, and plenty of drama.
Unfortunately, the drama hasn’t stayed on the ice. While many of the media stories have revolved around the great games (and deservedly so), there’s a major issue the NHL should be addressing.
The NHL and its fanbase may be developing a race problem.
This question of race comes on the heels of a recent photo taken at a Philadelphia Flyers/New Jersey Devils game. The Flyers have Wayne Simmonds, an African-American winger and one of the few black players in the league. Rather than support his team’s player, a fan chose to wear Simmonds No. 17 jersey, with the last name “The Black Guy” on the back.
USA Today’s Tom Weir reported the story, and did give the disclaimer that it’s possible the jersey was photoshopped. But if it’s not, this is just another instance of ignorant behavior shown by hockey fans this season.
Simmonds surely has had his fair share of unfortunate moments happen to him because he happens to be a black hockey player. Earlier this season, a banana was thrown at Simmonds by a Canadian fan when the Flyers played the Toronto Maple Leafs.
This, of course, is an awful and unacceptable act to happen to anyone. Afterwards, Bettman said in a statement:
We have millions of great fans who show tremendous respect for our players and for the game. The obviously stupid and ignorant action by one individual is in no way representative of our fans or the people of London, Ontario.
Typically I’d agree with Bettman, but this isn’t the first instance this year of racist behavior by hockey fans.
The most disgusting act happened after Game 7 of the Washington Capitals/Boston Bruins Round 1 game. What should have been the best moment of winger Joe Ward’s career turned ugly, quickly. Ward, an African-American Capital, scored the game-winning overtime goal and Twitter nearly blew up with fans calling Ward every racist name you can call an African-American. The next day, many media members showed photos of the tweets about Ward, helping to shed light on just how hateful fans became.
These incidents add up to show that there’s potentially a problem brewing for the NHL. There are still very few black NHL players — there are just 28 on rosters this year — so typically fans are used to seeing all white teams. The NHL should be looking to grow diversity amongst its sport, but incidents like this will only turn talented black athletes away.
I don’t think anyone believes the NHL is racist…yet. But that could change if the NHL doesn’t do something now.
Bettman needs to do more than read empty statements saying these are isolated incidents. He needs to openly promote diversity in his game, and tell his fans that they need to offer their support. He needs to have a press conference addressing the racist issues the league has faced this season, and scold fans responsible for such heinous behavior.
If not from a racial harmony standpoint, then at least from a business standpoint. The NHL lags behind the NFL, NBA and MLB, but has gained traction in the last few years thanks to stellar play. The increase in exposure can lead to more fans, and younger, more diverse, athletes becoming interested in the sport.
African-Americans and other minorities still make up a major demographic of potential viewers and fans. Do you think these types of incidents make any black person want to watch a potentially racist sport?
The NHL has forever been a sport primarily dominated by white players and it won’t change anytime soon. Fans aren’t accustom to seeing black players on the ice, and the ignorant ones that are willing to tweet racial epithets after a black player scores are probably a little threatened by the fact that their sport may start to be infused with more black talent.
The NHL needs to address the issue head on. Get vocal about the problems the league has faced this year and defend your black players. Talk to fans directly, rather than reading statements.
The NHL might enjoy all of the positive publicity its been getting these playoffs. But a couple more racist incidents, and that narrative might turn ugly for good.