Black NHL players have been talking about racism for decades. Why did it take so long to listen?

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Black NHL players have been talking about racism for decades. Why did it take so long to listen?


Since we’re all sharing stories about racism, hockey, and the stifling whiteness of Canadian institutions, here’s mine.

In November of 2000, I was six weeks into a yearlong internship at the Star, pinch-hitting for a sick colleague on the hockey beat. So I showed up at Lakeshore Arena to report a story about the Edmonton Oilers, who were playing the Leafs the next night, and whose roster included five Black players.

Late in the media session, a scrum formed around Scarborough’s Anson Carter. I asked him about the role race played in his professional life, and he gave calm, thoughtful answers. When I asked whether people tried to portray him as something he isn’t because he was a Black athlete in a largely white sport, he responded that people tried but said, “I’m not a politician. I’m hockey player.”

The following morning, that same exchange appeared in a competing publication under the byline and logo of a white columnist also present at the Carter scrum.

He wrote:

“Pressed by a minority reporter to comment on racism in the NHL, Carter said simply, ‘I’m not a politician. I’m a hockey player.”

One sentence, loaded with easy-to-decipher code, broadcast to a national audience, about who the columnist thought belonged in that sport and this industry. As one of a growing number of Black NHLers, Carter was a curiosity, but acceptable because, in the columnist’s portrayal, he didn’t acknowledge race.

And me? I was just a “minority reporter.” An interloper. An unwelcome guest in a section of the journalism industry reserved for experienced white men.

Last week, former NHL player Akim Aliu posted a series of tweets detailing racist treatment he endured a decade ago from former Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters, when Peters coached Aliu on a Chicago Blackhawks farm team. Earlier this week my colleague Bruce Arthur penned a sharp and smartly-argued column about progress possible in the fight against racism if the hockey establishment would listen in good faith to Aliu.

But I can’t help wondering what would have happened if our industry had listened sooner and more consistently.

Sports pages are thick with stories this week about black NHLers past and present, all with stories about facing racism on the job. Nova Scotian NHL retiree Bill Riley gave an in-depth interview to the Star Halifax. Carter was quoted in Arthur’s column. A series of hockey players of colour shared their experiences with the Star Calgary. None of this is new, or surprising to people watching intersection of sports and race.

Timing helps, clearly. Aliu’s revelation came after Don Cherry’s xenophobic rant got him canned from Coach’s Corner on “Hockey Night in Canada,” and after Mike Babcock’s firing prompted public discussion among players about the former Leafs coach’s abusive behaviour.

But Carter laid it out to me nearly 20 years ago. That same afternoon his teammate Georges Laraque made it even plainer, recounting the regularity with which opponents lobbed N-bombs at him in the hockey arenas of his youth.

I don’t know if our columnist friend bothered talking to Laraque that day, but I know that with Carter he engaged in word-twisting that verged on journalistic malpractice. Carter spoke openly about race playing a role both in society at large and in the NHL. Whether the columnist wilfully ignored the context of Carter’s quote, didn’t listen to his full comment or simply didn’t understand, it didn’t matter. As a 23-year-old intern, I knew I didn’t have the privilege to make errors of omission or commission like those. But he was a columnist with a national platform and the freedom to fudge Carter’s meaning and smear me in the same sentence.

For me, the scene prompted questions about the sport and our industry.

Who gets to enter locker rooms and decide whose stories are worth telling?

Who is both willing and equipped to report and write honestly about race and racism in hockey?

Are those folks represented in the mainstream media outlets with the most resources and biggest platforms?

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Still not in big enough numbers, according to available stats.

In 2018, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida published its annual Associated Press Sports Editors race and gender report card — and gave the APSE a D+. According to TIDES research, 85 per cent of U.S. sports editors were white, as were 80.3 per cent of columnists. Factor out ESPN and diversity numbers dropped steeply. TIDES reported that of 41 non-white men working as columnists at major papers and websites that year, 32 worked at ESPN.

The numbers are desultory, but at least they exist.

In 2016, Canadaland sent a survey to 18 Canadian newspapers with questions about diversity on staff. Only three publications responded.

Absent statistics, we only have anecdotes about race and sports reporting in Canada, like my run-in with that veteran columnist at the start of my career.

Or my experience in press boxes, where, unless I’m covering the Raptors, I’m usually one of a very few non-white journalists from a mainstream outlet.

Or in my own newsroom, where in 2006, when I returned to the Star’s sports department, I was one of four journalists of colour on staff.

Now?

It’s just me.

I trust my colleagues at the Star to write about race with smarts and sensitivity, and maybe the NHL’s current reckoning will force sports departments across the country to learn new skills, or make space for journalists who already have them.

But the conversation Aliu jump-started is decades overdue, partly because our industry wasn’t equipped to foster and sustain it.

Morgan Campbell





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