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On Boycotts, Moments of Reflection, and What the NHL Can Learn From the Past 24 Hours

Yesterday felt like a watershed moment — not just for sports, but for society as a whole.

I watched as the Milwaukee Bucks, one of the favorites to win the NBA Title, refused to take the court for Game 5 of their playoff series against the Orlando Magic.  The Bucks were one win away from moving on to the next round.  For the players, a win meant moving one step closer to making their childhood dreams of becoming an NBA champions a reality.

But that reality pales in comparison to the one currently playing out in the Bucks’ backyard.  And that was the statement made when Milwaukee refused to play a basketball game.

After that, more teams followed suit.  The Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets boycotted their game, as did the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers.  Baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers — who also play just a stone’s throw from where Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by a Kenosha, WI police officer — decided not to take the field.  Two other MLB games were postponed, along with five MLS games, and the entire slate of WNBA games.  Naomi Osaka, one of the world’s premiere tennis players, withdrew from her tournament in protest.

The intent was clear.  Athletes, especially athletes of color, no longer have the desire to perform for a society largely dragging its feet on long-overdue social justice reform.

Around that same time, I watched the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning skate onto the ice in Toronto.  The starters stood on the ice as the public address announcer read a scripted statement.  And then, the game began.

And with that, the NHL became the only major pro sports league in North America to not have any sort of boycott or postponement in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

And it felt wrong.

Last night felt like it could have been a defining moment for the NHL.  This is a league already perceived by many as behind-the-curve when it comes to handling social issues. They have made statements and displayed signs, but they have yet to take action to show they’re serious about diversifying the game, eradicating racism, and elevating Black and other minority voices around the league.

Instead, the games pushed forward.  The only indication of anything amiss was a 40-second “moment of reflection” before the Bruins-Lightning game; a written statement read over the public address system, while a giant “End Racism” graphic displayed prominently on the jumbotron.  After those 40 seconds, it was business as usual.  There was not even a “moment of reflection” during the Stars-Avalanche game later in the night.

Whatever the league’s intent, it felt contrived.  The gesture felt more like a P.R. move than an actual stance against racism and police brutality — which at this point is simply not good enough.

Tonight, the NHL will join those other leagues in putting off their games.

And while I applaud the action, one can’t help but to wonder if it would have carried more weight had it happened a day earlier.

As easy as it is to place blame on the league, you have to look at the players themselves.  Let’s not forget, in every other league, it was the players who decided not to play… not the league.  The NHL pushed forward because the players wanted to push forward.

And I get it.  By no means am I saying this is an easy decision to make, or one to make lightly.  These players are in a bubble away from their families.  They’re in the middle of a Cup run.  And, as many players pointed out, there are other ways to push the conversation on race forward without boycotting the games.

At the end of the day, however, it was the wrong decision.  I don’t believe it was a decision born from ill-will or indifference.  But it does showcase a lack of understanding, or at the very least, the inability to read the room when it comes to climate in sports.  Players across other leagues made it clear last night that games are secondary to the real-life injustice some are facing in our country.  The NHL, through what is at best its naivete, did not send that same message.

Whether tonight’s stance is “too little, too late” or whether it can still be meaningful is a question worth asking. It’s hard to imagine the NHL of three years ago doing something like this even one day later than other leagues — but at the same time, they were the only major league playing without disruption last night, and national coverage on their official partner NBCSN was business as usual as well, even though many local reporters and even news affiliates spoke out.

The question now becomes how to fix this moving forward.

For starters, hockey is in desperate need of more diverse voices, both inside and outside its organizations.  This doesn’t just include people of color, but women, LGBTQ individuals, etc.    And again, “voices” is the key word here… not just “faces.”  These hires need to be put in positions of influence, where they’ll have their organization’s ear.

Second, when these voices do speak, it’s not enough just to listen.  We have to understand, learn, and grow.  Evander Kane, Matt Dumba, and Akim Aliu have all shared their thoughts on the NHL’s past 24 hours.  They’re all players who have lived through the racial issues facing our country right now, and their experiences should carry weight.

But most importantly, we can’t let these be the ONLY voices carrying this conversation.  The burden of the racial injustice discussion shouldn’t be carried only by the league’s Black players, just like the conversation of misogyny in the league cannot be carried solely by women in the sport.  The white players, coaches, staff, fans, and journalists are equally responsible for making sure the conversation moves forward, calling out problems as they happen, and offering solutions to change the league for the better.

What happens next in the world of sports remains to be seen.  But for the NHL and its players, it’s imperative they use these past 24 hours as a learning experience, and more importantly, an opportunity to grow.