Violence On And Off The Ice:
Twitter Racism And The NHL
By Guest Contributor David J. Leonard
Moments after Joel Ward’s overtime goal secured a playoff victory for the Washington Capitals over Boston last month, the twittersphere exploded with a barrage of racial epithets, threats of violence, and stereotypes.
Editor’s Note: Trigger Warning under the cut–pictures of racist slurs
Receiving national attention, such racism was dismissed through narratives of fan ignorance, fan drunkenness, fan anger, and a myriad of other excuses that explain the situation as of little importance to understanding race in contemporary society. For example, at DCist, shawnwhiteboy offered the following response to an article about these tweets:
The obvious problem with twitter is that any drunk asshole with a smart phone can use a hashtag and get ‘hits’. The problem with the media is that you cover these drunk assholes as news. When will this end? Is this comment I am typing news worthy? No! What’s worse, the last sentence of this article lumps all bruin fans together with those drunk assholes. Boston fans are passionate and sometimes obnoxious but not racist. Having lived in boston and dc for 5 years each, people are not more enlightened in one place over the other. Okay, rant over.. . Those racist comments are terrible, how server going to get back at those fuckers listed here?
In an ESPN story covering the backlash against Ward, another commenter offered a similar refrain, identifying the Internet as the reason for such outbursts: “It isn’t at all surprising to see the slew of racist comments after the game,” he wrote. “Social media allows total anonymity if the user desires; these things can be said with no fear of reprisal. Such bravery!” These explanations were commonplace not only in the aftermath of Ward’s game winning goal, but following a game less than two weeks later.
With less than a minute to go in a game versus the New York Rangers, with his team up by a goal, Ward committed a penalty that sent him to the box for four minutes. Before he would be able to step back onto the ice, the Rangers would score two power play goals, sending the Capitals to a crushing defeat. Less than two weeks after facing a barrage of racial taunts and epithets from Bruins fans, Ward now faced similar violence from Capitals fans.
A common response to both of these incidences has been to link them to hockey; that above all else, the hostility embodies racism in hockey culture. Seemingly ignoring and erasing online racism of all kinds and those particular to virtual sports landscapes, hockey fans have become the problem rather than a symptom. Ironically, such a narrative imagines hockey as the “South” of sports culture.
Given its whiteness and even the working-class demographic of its fan base, commentators have sought to identity this as reflective of hockey culture, rather than sports or even society at large. Race and nation have a particular history within hockey. As I wrote a couple months back following an incident where fans threw a banana at Boston’s Wayne Simmonds, whiteness, privilege, and racism are all part of the hockey story:
Others connected to the sport were not so willing (despite their having greater power and privilege) to reflect on the racial realities and hostilities of the NHL in this moment or elsewhere. While describing it as a “stupid and ignorant action,” Commissioner Gary Bettman made clear that incident was “in no way representative of our fans or the people of London, Ontario.” Maxine Talbot, a teammate of Simmonds, summarily dismissed the incident as “isolated” that said little about the state of hockey: “It’s not like there’s a problem with racism in our league. It’s one person!”
Dismissing it as an aberration and the work of some ignorant fans, the response fails to see the broader history of the NHL, not to mention the larger racial issues at work. While Bettman and others sought to isolate the incidence as the work of a single person who isn’t representative of hockey culture or society at large, others pointed to the persistence of racism within the NHL. Kevin Weeks, who had a banana thrown at him during the 2002 Stanley Cup Playoffs, noted his lack of surprise that Simmonds was subjected to such racism: “I’m not surprised. We have some people that still have their heads in the sand and some people that don’t necessarily want to evolve and aren’t necessarily all that comfortable with the fact that the game is evolving.”
Yet, it would be a mistake to link these visible instances of racism to the whiteness of hockey, its racial politics, or resistance to integration given the ubiquity of racism online and offline. While comforting to construct racial hostility through hockey in that it allows to preserve the myths of integration and breaking down social distance as a weapon against racism, similar racial hostility and tweeted racial epithets can be seen with other sports as well. In the last week, these tweets have been sent out:
While the incidents involving Ward have received ample coverage in parts because of the comfort of blaming hockey, online racism directed at black athletes is not particular to one sport. Integration or greater presence has not led to full acceptance.