What happens when a black hockey player boycotts the White House?

Washington Capitals right wing Devante Smith-Pelly, left, celebrates his goal during Game 5 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals against the Vegas Golden Knights, June 7. (AP Photo/John Locher)Washington Capitals right wing Devante Smith-Pelly, left, celebrates his goal during Game 5 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals against the Vegas Golden Knights, June 7. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Fresh from the latest flare-up, the last-minute cancellation of the Philadelphia Eagles’ White House visit, American sports and politics are already lurching toward their next racially charged collision. This time, however, the black athlete boycotting the White House is in for a lonely stand. Devante Smith-Pelly, a star hockey player for the Washington Capitals who proved himself indispensable throughout this season, is one of only two black players on his team. Before what would become the last game in the series in June, Mr. Smith-Pelly told a Canadian newspaper that in the event the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup, he would not visit the White House. “The things that [President Trump] spews are straight-up racist and sexist,” Mr. Smith-Pelly said. A Canadian citizen, Mr. Smith-Pelly is unlikely to become the target of the president’s tweets to the same extent as athletes in other, more popular sports like football and basketball. Yet the sheer lack of diversity in hockey will now be highlighted. Mr. Smith-Pelly could raise ongoing questions about diversity in hockey like never before.

Sports have emerged as a battleground over race since football player Colin Kaepernick first refused to stand for the U.S. national anthem in 2016 in protest of continued racial injustice. (The protest later turned into kneeling during the anthem, as a sign of respect for the military). As the president’s racially charged critiques of the protests and players who participated in them continued, many athletes, especially black athletes, began boycotting traditional White House visits for champion teams. In turn, President Trump began preemptively canceling such visits. This is what happened to Golden State Warriors, who won the N.B.A. championship in June.

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American sports and politics are already lurching toward their next racially charged collision.

So basketball is out at the White House. And despite some Trump-friendly faces like the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady, it appears football will be out next. But there is one major team sport left in which President Trump has reliably found friends: hockey. Last year, when the White House was already feuding with the Warriors, the Pittsburgh Penguins paid the traditional champions’ visit to the White House. The Penguins star Sidney Crosby stressed that the visit wasn’t “political,” but it was hard not to notice that a league whose players are mostly white was being heaped with praise from a president who condemns leagues whose players are mostly black for insufficient patriotism.

President Trump’s subtle love affair with hockey makes sense. Protests in other sports are led primarily by black athletes, and in hockey there simply aren’t many non-white players. Racist incidents and slurs against the few players of color remain a problem, including at the highest levels of American hockey. (TheColorOfHockey blog does an excellent job keeping track of such incidents). Like the G.O.P. political base, hockey’s fans lean white and male. It’s no wonder that in the midst of the race and sports culture war, Trump has found a friendly territory in hockey.

In the midst of the race and sports culture war, Trump has found a friendly territory in hockey.

Sports are always about the stories they tell. For example, the Capitals’ win came over the Las Vegas Knights, an expansion team in their first season whose own improbable journey united a city still wounded by the 2017 Las Vegas massacre. For the Washington Capitals, the story was one of finally overcoming decades of failure to win the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup. The Capitals are known as the team of the Beltway; members of Congress themselves celebrated the win, including on the House floor. Yet, unlike the halls of government, Washington, D.C., itself is a “majority-minority” city. In this sense, Mr. Smith-Pelly’s boycott of the White House might represent a step toward the Capitals representing Washington’s entire population better than ever before.

But unlike with the Warriors, teamwide solidarity is unlikely. The Capitals are explicitly invited to the White House, and I expect most of the players will go. The team’s star and captain, Alexander Ovechkin, will almost certainly attend. Mr. Ovechkin’s own politics are worth mentioning: the Russian athlete is a prominent supporter of Vladimir Putin. In fact, Russians outnumber people of color on the Capitals’ roster. It will be interesting to see if commentators compare the white Russian Ovechkin with the black Canadian Smith-Pelly in terms of American patriotism and views on race and the Trump presidency.

The instinct to privilege racial identity over any other social tie is white supremacy’s most damning legacy. Color lines tear apart those who should otherwise be united. We see it in nations, on college campuses, even among friends and families. We certainly see it in the Catholic faith, with sharp political divisions between white Catholics and Latino Catholics. And we see it in sports teams. I predict Mr. Smith-Pelly will be lonely in his boycott of the White House. And yet it would be a beautiful statement of cross-racial solidarity if I were proven wrong. Imagine if a protest for racial justice were carried out by an overwhelmingly white team?

I can imagine nothing more painful than taking a stand without the support of my teammates, my family. The stumbling block of many an interracial friendship or relationship has been this inability of many white people to see race as anything but “politics.” But race is not simply another issue on which to debate respectfully and disagree; it is a visceral, painful, and personal experience. Racism defines who gets to be seen as a person and who doesn’t.

I love the motto “Hockey is family.” I love it because if hockey is family, then it is an interracial family. The question is, will the white hockey family listen to their black relatives? Can we be one hockey family? We may soon find out. Mr. Smith-Pelly’s stand is a challenge to the soul of hockey: What will be put first, the racial divide or the team? The answer to that question may well determine the identity of hockey for years to come.

J Cosgrove
5 days 1 hour ago

There is no discrimination in hockey. The best players are chosen. The issue is few blacks play hockey. Where are the Chinese, Philippine and Indian hockey players?

Also the protests by blacks are bogus. They are not protesting something real. Their protests are based on false perceptions. There is no such thing as white supremacy it is a made up concept for political reasons.

Robin Smith
4 days 23 hours ago

Ah, ever the racism denier. I knew you'd be making the same trite bigoted assertion that you know nothing about & could care less.
But, hey, thanks for letting everyone know just what kind of person you are. You do sound like the kind of christian others hold in contempt.

J Cosgrove
4 days 9 hours ago

Two things. First, thanks for the kind words. Second I have been around the hockey world for over 30 years. A couple of my son's teammates/schoolmates played in the NHL. He played in three national championships as a teen. Every team would have welcomed good players no matter their origen. To suggest otherwise is the real misrepresentation going on. The reason more blacks don't play hockey is due to money and culture. It's an expensive sport in the US and there are no black role models for young kids.

J Cosgrove
4 days 9 hours ago

Ah, ever the racism denier...same trite bigoted assertion

I have asked for an open and honest discussion of racism here at America, the magazine, several times. Maybe you would want to start one. As a start you might want to answer why black women do better than white women economically? The difference is small but statistically significant.

John Hess
4 days 6 hours ago

They are protesting how the police are disproportionately trigger-happy towards black folks. This is indeed "real".

J Cosgrove
4 days 6 hours ago

police are disproportionately trigger-happy towards black folks. This is indeed "real"

It is just the opposite so it is "not real." Whites are more likely to be shot by policemen in response to a crime. I suggest everyone who thinks otherwise read Heather MacDonald.

Dave Wendt
4 days 17 hours ago

He's from Canada anyway. Who cares if he boycotts the White house.

Lisa Weber
3 days 1 hour ago

I am glad Mr. Smith-Pelly is speaking up about the racism and evil talk so evident in this administration. When you speak the truth, you may stand alone, but the truth is not dependent on a majority.

James MacGregor
3 days ago

"What happens when a black hockey player boycotts the White House?"

Does anybody care?

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