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Weekly Question: Should we be supporting the NHL?

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The return of playoff hockey presents a moral dilemma for a lot of fans

Carolina Hurricanes v Washington Capitals Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

The NHL has acquired a lot of new fans over the last few days, and they aren’t necessarily the people the league has been trying to reach.

At a time when sports leagues across North America are taking a stand against systemic anti-Black racism through gestures such as kneeling for the anthem, calling for the arrest of Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove (the cops who murdered Breonna Taylor in her sleep) and having players display messages of social justice on the backs of their uniforms, the NHL’s reluctance to do or say much of anything speaks volumes.

When exhibition games started up this week, several teams decided to use the playing of the national anthems as an opportunity to demonstrate their support for Black Lives Matter. Did they do this by using the form of protest that Black athletes have been using for years? The one that Black Lives Matter activists explicitly support, and that athletes have been using a lot since sports started back up? No. Instead of allowing players to kneel, the NHL asked their players to do pretty much the opposite: link arms and stand together “against racism” or “for equality” depending on who you ask.

Let’s go through this one item at a time:

  • Did the NHL express support for players who may decide to kneel for the anthem? No.
  • Did the NHL explicitly mention Black Lives Matter or systemic racism in any of their demonstrations, or their social media posts about those demonstrations? No.
  • Did the NHL use this as an opportunity to signal boost educational material or actions people can take to support Black Lives Matter? No.
  • Was this demonstration approved by or done in collaboration with the Hockey Diversity Alliance, an organization made up of players from this very league and whose mandate is to eliminate racism in hockey? No.

The messaging was vague enough that Eric Trump himself interpreted it as a stand against… kneeling for the anthem.

He wasn’t the only one to interpret it that way, either. The comments on official NHL posts about the topic say much of the same thing.

This is very much a sparknotes version of what’s been happening and I’m not going to hash out all the bad things the NHL has done, because people much more qualified than myself have already done it. I’m also not here to tell you how you’re supposed to feel about these statements. But the question I’ve been asking myself a lot recently - and want to ask readers in this weeks’ column - is how we can all continue to enjoy NHL hockey ethically, at a time when the NHL is not making particularly ethical decisions?

It’s tempting to claim that the NHL has no control over who supports them, or that it doesn’t matter if racists support the NHL as long as the league doesn’t explicitly support their views, but the truth is that you can’t create a space that is welcoming both to white supremacists and to Black people, just as you can’t create a space that is welcoming to gay people and to homophobes, or to trans people and transphobes, or to women and misogynists. When the presence of one group makes another one unsafe, you have to choose between them. The fact that racists feel comfortable openly supporting the NHL - feel welcomed by the league, even - says that the league is not doing enough to support Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC).

I know many people feel weird about continuing to support the NHL when it seems so far behind even other sports leagues; I personally know a lot of people who have jumped ship to leagues that are more welcoming to them. With the qualifying rounds starting today, I think a lot of people are going to have to ask themselves some very difficult questions —especially when the fact that these playoffs are happening at all should perhaps be cause for concern all on its own.

Not only has the NHL failed to support its Black players and fans during a particularly difficult time, it has also made the reckless and irresponsible decision to resume play during a global pandemic. Even if the NHL bubble is a success and no players or league employees fall ill, which is starting to look like a real possibility, the fact remains that the league’s Return To Play plan involves a massive waste of COVID-19 tests, huge sacrifices on the part of players and staff who will be forced to leave their families for months at a time, and players and staff alike putting themselves at risk of serious injury or death for the sake of a hockey game.

I have a lot of moral qualms about the NHL and still feel weird supporting them, but at the same time… I’m going to be watching these games, because it’s been way too long since I last watched hockey, and because a part of me kind of loves the high stakes that come with this plan.

The NHL has always been a difficult league to support, and as fans, we have to put up with a lot from the league - perhaps even more so now. So my question this week is: how do we continue to enjoy the product despite our moral qualms with the parent organization?

For me, enjoying NHL hockey ethically has always meant pushing for change from within hockey culture. I love hockey, and because I love hockey I want it to be better. I’m probably always going to feel weird about giving this league money and attention, but if my presence in hockey fandom can make it a more welcoming space for other people, then maybe that can help balance things out.