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.
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.