The Pittsburgh Penguins, the NHL and too many other people are missing the point about the national-anthem protests thanks to the white noise created by Donald Trump and his acolytes.
Taking a knee during the national anthem is not showing disrespect to fallen veterans or to your country or making a political statement. This started as one brave man using the forum available to him – being on a major television broadcast – to draw attention to two big problems in the United States: Police brutality toward black people and the systemic racism minorities endure every day.
Colin Kaepernick did not burn the U.S. flag before kickoff on Sunday afternoons. He went down on one knee to get people's attention, to get them to think and speak out themselves about what is happening to black people.
But thanks to Trump diving in, tossing insults at NFL players who kneel in solidarity with Kaepernick, calling for them to be fired, and the ensuing maelstrom on social media, the original purpose was lost. And the military and flag and country have become so entwined with sports in the past 50 years (with the willing compliance of sports) that any mild act of protest is seen as a direct attack on these institutions.
Nonsense. Kaepernick raised an issue of simple human decency. In doing so, he put his career in danger and perhaps his own safety.
But now the Penguins and the NHL can no longer keep their heads in the sand in the face of political and cultural storms. The common denominator between national-anthem protests and visits to the White House is the buffoon in the Oval Office. He has made this all about him. If you pay a visit to the White House, you love him. If you don't, you are one of the "sons of bitches" kneeling through the national anthem.
Yet, in the face of this, the Penguins released a statement saying they still plan to make a White House visit in recognition of their Stanley Cup win. Team captain Sidney Crosby said "I support it. It's a great honour for us to be invited there."
That statement alone shows how much thought the Penguins put into this. Crosby, of course, was continuing the time-honoured approach of all NHL superstars going back to Wayne Gretzky, the first in the league to achieve celebrity status outside his sport. Say nothing controversial in order to keep those endorsements coming. But surely someone with the team could have connected a few dots.
By making that visit, the Penguins will be committing not only a political act, but an egregiously stupid one. They will be willing dupes of Trump and aligning themselves with him. Anyone who has paid the slightest attention to Trump's act on Twitter knows he will be tapping away at his phone, declaring the Penguins' visit the best ever, that they and everyone else in the NHL just love him.
For too long, the NHL has turned away from the major social issues in the guise of not being political. Made up of an almost wholly white and affluent constituency, the NHL cannot, and in most cases will not, identify with systemic racism.
NHL players are the very definition of middle-class white privilege: Well-paid pro athletes who have spent most of their lives isolated in their sport, disconnected from the real world of financial hardship, racial strife and police brutality.
An example? How about that ridiculous spectacle last week of reporters asking 20-year-old Auston Matthews and his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates what they thought about the anthem protests. That's the way media works these days. It's the hot-button issue of the day so let's ask these privileged white guys who are barely out of their teens about it. Yeah, they've got the requisite life experience.
Matthews, who is from Scottsdale, Ariz., tied the protests to disrespect for the military and said he would never do that. He said he was not "a big politics guy." In his 20 years, the most he has had to worry about is staying in shape and getting better at playing hockey.
Compare that with what a group of Toronto Raptors had to say about growing up in America. As young black men they did not get to ignore the discrimination around them and its consequences. They grew up in a different America than Matthews.
"I've had friends killed by police officers, a couple days after being at my house, when I was young and even recently," Raptors star DeMar DeRozan, who grew up in Compton, Calif., told Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur. "And it sucks, because even myself, I drive a nice car and I'm still being questioned: How you get this car? Do you do this, do you do that?"
Several teammates had similar stories, such as Norman Powell: "I can remember nights of walking down the street and getting pulled over, or driving with a group of my friends and being suspected of being gang members. A police car pulls up and tells us to get on the ground. You know? Don't move. We weren't doing anything. Tenth grade. It was Halloween, and we were told to get on the ground. We were judged on our appearance, on our look. It's reality. And you deal with it."
Dealing with it is not something the NHL does. Then again, neither do many of us who were fortunate enough to grow up white and affluent in Canada. That's probably why a conservative sensibility remains in the league's DNA, even if it is largely run by Americans now. But if we ever care to look beyond our complacency, minorities face at the very least some degree of discrimination in our country.
I didn't always think so. The oppression of minorities remained a vague concept even after seeing stark images on television. Then I met and married a black woman. She told me how a middle-aged man spit in her face on the street one day in London when she was 10 years old and told her to go back where she came from, something that still stings decades later.
Well, I smugly told myself, that was infuriating, but it doesn't happen here. Oh, there is lots of subtle racism around you, I was told. I remained skeptical until we started crossing the border together. Whenever I rolled down the car window for a U.S. customs official he would always ask my wife for identification, ask several more questions. I would barely get the "Citizenship?" one. Okay, I thought after several similar encounters, that's how it is in the United States.
Then we were coming back to Canada one afternoon with my wife's sister. Both of them had been Canadian citizens for a good 15 years. We were still in the pre-9/11 years. When we stopped at the Canadian customs check in Fort Erie, the officer looked in the car window. "Do you ladies have identification?" she asked. Then came a series of questions: Do you live in Canada? How long? You aren't visiting?
I was ignored. Not even the citizenship question. The officer barely looked at me until she directed me to the secondary inspection. Out came another officer. "Ladies, let's see your identification," she said. "Are you going to be staying in Canada? How long have you lived here? Are you sure this is all you bought?" Again, not one question was directed at me. After a good look through the car we were, reluctantly it seemed, allowed to leave.
It was the first time I was ever ashamed to be a Canadian. So yes, it does happen here. We should remember that and by extension the Penguins and the NHL should remember it happens everywhere.