In hockey terms, which I suppose is part of the problem of the whole here, Mathew Dumba left it all on the ice Saturday afternoon. Before the Hawks and Oilers faced off, Dumba walked out on national television and delivered an anti-racism/Black Lives Matter speech from the deepest part of his heart. He mentioned Breonna Taylor, called out hockey’s institutionalized racism, and called for changes. His remarks weren’t prepared, which made them all the more poignant because they were as real as could be. This is an athlete, a hockey player, not a professional speaker, and he still went out there and spoke directly out of emotion, hurt, confusion, desperation, and hope that things could change. Because it was not a prepared statement, it had greater impact — it came from a place deep within not just Dumba, but all minorities in hockey. And then he knelt for the American National Anthem.
And that’s where hockey left him.
The sight of the Minnesota defenseman kneeling, with merely Darnell Nurse and Malcolm Subban putting their hands on his shoulder, is a sadly perfect symbol for how hockey has always treated racism (and very well might continue to do) so in a world that is maybe starting to say, “This won’t go on anymore.”
“It’s cool that you spoke,” it’s as if others around the league responded silently. “We understand why you feel that way. You’re unquestionably right, but this is all we can do, because HOCKEY.”
No one else knelt. No one has since. If they set the over/under at one player kneeling other than Dumba for the anthem, over the entirety of the NHL’s run, take the under.
Ryan Reaves, another Black player in the league, said this when asked if he would kneel like Dumba:
“For a lot of guys, kneeling isn’t the way they would want to show support. I know that if I said I wanted everybody to kneel (that) somebody, at least one guy, was going to feel uncomfortable. I didn’t want that. This was the best way to be able to include everybody in it.”
What Reaves misses is that making someone uncomfortable is exactly the point, and that’s if kneeling for the anthem really causes that much discomfort anymore (which doesn’t mean it should stop in the least). If a player is uncomfortable with teammates kneeling, they should be. They should feel called out and exposed. They should feel that kind of reaction will no longer have a place in the game, and in the world at large. But Reaves and the rest of the hockey world have always valued the comfort, happiness, and running of TEAM over the individual, and this is the playoffs after all (or some facsimile). Can’t be a distraction.
The Hawks’ Jonathan Toews — who crafted one of the first and more thoughtful statements when protests and riots broke out after the murder of George Floyd — clammed up when asked about Dumba after his team’s win over the Oilers. It’s one thing to be brave on social media in the midst of the country’s biggest turmoil in decades. It’s another when the actual rubber meets the road.
Again, this comes on the same weekend that Eric Fucking Trump had complimented NHL teams on their “unity” gestures before games, whether it was both teams standing together or locking arms or whatever quarter-measure NHL teams thought would be a useful token. The NHL will hide behind “not getting political” but racism isn’t political. It’s decency. Either you recognize everyone’s rights, needs, and wants, or you’re an asshole. It’s pretty simple. The NHL can’t give a platform to Dumba and promise to follow his lead and take the next steps, and then be silent as well when a Trump is using them as a symbol.
Hockey has its challenges in this arena. It is almost entirely a white sport with almost an entirely white fanbase. It is the one game that most do not grow up playing or even sampling. Most people cannot saunter down to the local pond and play in a pickup game (and thanks to climate change, soon no one will). It is incredibly expensive to play at even the youngest levels, which will lock out a great majority of kids from getting any familiarity with it, and that’s a problem hockey needs to solve immediately if it truly cares about increasing its diversity.
Most would dismiss hockey’s chances of overcoming all that, but the right way to put it is that hockey has the most room to grow. It can make the biggest changes. In the future, it could be perhaps sports’ biggest success story.
Sadly, the powers that be, like in every other sport, can’t see past the next dollar they’ll make instead of the 10 they could make in the future. The NHL will never engage in a full-on protest and call to action like the NBA because it knows some fans will fill their diapers immediately. And they can’t see the legions of fans they could gain in a few years’ time.
There isn’t a winning or losing side on this issue. Society is going to move only one way, no matter how slowly it will be and with its share of bumps. Hockey can continue to be a bastion, perhaps the last, of white supremacy if it wants. But that will mean it only shrinks more and more. It’s not only what is right, what has to be done, it’s also the more profitable as the years go by, which is the only way you can generally speak to these fuckwits in charge.
Matt Dumba showed them yet another door. Even with their production videos and hashtags, hockey yet again failed to follow someone like Dumba through it.