The Milwaukee Bucks rocked the sports world by refusing to play Wednesday night. The Bucks did so to stand in solidarity with the protests in nearby Kenosha after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, and subsequent murder of two protesters by a militiaman. Milwaukee’s decision set off a wave of strikes, as many teams and entire leagues decided not to play on Wednesday.
It was a reminder that sports can not only be affected by politics, but are inherently political. Teams use tax dollars, sweetheart land deals and other revenue streams from cities, counties and states. Wealthy owners donate to campaigns that set policies on a local and national level.
Even the fact that games are being played at all is political. A huge amount of resources, not least of all speedy coronavirus tests, are being diverted to sports bubbles to play games. The return of sports gives a feeling of “normalcy” which has been used as propaganda by politicians eager to put a raging pandemic in the rearview mirror.
Players in the NBA, WNBA, MLS and MLB knew this Wednesday night, and many teams and even entire leagues withdrew their labor from the owners.
Not the NHL. The NHL played games Wednesday night, offering only a “moment of reflection” before their two games. Only one game bothered to hold the moment of reflection.
Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild defenseman and founding member of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, noticed this. He said in an interview with Sportsnet 650 Wednesday Night:
“[The] NHL is always last to the party on these topics. It’s kind of sad and disheartening for me and for members of the [HDA], and I’m sure for other guys across the league…. I hope guys find it in them to stand up. You can’t keep coming to the minority players every time there’s a situation like this. The white players in our league need to have answers for what they’re seeing in society right now, and where they stand.”
Dumba’s words were powerful, cutting and necessary for a hockey world that only started even acknowledging racism in the game and society this summer.
Front and center in this conversation has been Dumba. He, alongside six (now eight) current and former NHL players of color, started the HDA in June in response to the nationwide protests against the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Dumba made a powerful speech before the NHL resumed play on August 1, after which he kneeled during the national anthem. He continued his protest throughout the playoffs, raising a fist during the anthems.
Dumba again took on a leadership role for the NHL. Along with Evander Kane, Dumba spoke to the players in the bubble about the importance of this moment. The players listened, deciding to not play games on Thursday and Friday night. While it again fell to the HDA to coordinate this action, the players did at least listen and halt play.
NHL players were able to (eventually) do the right thing and publicly take a stand against racism. Will the Wild be next?
A notable aspect of Dumba’s anthem protests was that he was often alone in the spotlight. He was the only player to kneel after his speech, though Malcolm Subban and Darnell Nurse each had a hand on Dumba’s shoulders. No one else on the Wild partook in Dumba’s protests before games against Vancouver, though Jonas Brodin had his hand on Dumba’s shoulder before Game 2. He was the only one on the team to take the inevitable abuse from fans on social media that comes anytime a player speaks out against racism.
Coach Dean Evason was asked whether the Wild talked about what they would do to support Dumba. “Nope,” Evason replied. “There’s been no discussions and the only thing that we’ve discussed as a staff, like I’ve said before, is that we want to eliminate racism for good.”
It’s important to not put words into Dumba’s mouth when it comes to his satisfaction with his teammates’ support. Only he can speak to that. By all accounts, Dumba’s teammates supported him privately. Alex Galchenyuk and Brodin were with Dumba before he made his speech. Marcus Foligno wrote about how impressed and proud he was of Dumba’s courage.
Private support is, of course, good and necessary. But we saw on Wednesday the power of a team visibly coming together in solidarity against racism. Without that unity, Dumba’s actions, though powerful, were one lonely voice rather than a team wide stand against racism.
“[Hockey is] relying on the minority guys to step up and say it,” Dumba said Wednesday night. “But what would really make the most impact is to have strong white leaders from teams step up and have their two cents heard.” It’s hard to hear those words, then look at Minnesota’s public inaction and conclude that Dumba’s teammates sufficiently rose to the occasion.
What does that unified public stand against racism look like? That’s up to Dumba’s teammates to decide. But they can not leave it to Dumba, and Dumba alone, to carry the burden of speaking out against racism.
Traditional NHL values put the team above all else. You fight for your teammates, you stand up for your teammates and you have their back. As the poker chips each Wild player received last year said, you’ve got to be “All-In”. If one teammate is being affected by racism, then the fight against racism is the responsibility of the entire team. It’s time for the Wild to listen, learn and publicly stand with their teammate.