Time for our sports heroes to speak out about racism

Blake Wheeler admittedly struggled to find the words, but at least he used his voice to say something. For that, the Winnipeg Jets captain should be applauded. 

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the majority of Caucasian athletes who are typically nowhere to be found on issues such as racism, inequality and police brutality, which have all been laid bare once again following last week’s horrific videotaped killing of a black man, George Floyd, at the hands a white Minneapolis cop and the subsequent protests that have flared up and occasionally turned violent. 

Their silence, while not surprising, speaks volumes. They have the platforms. They have the power. They have fans who look up to them, who buy their jerseys and merchandise and hang on their every word. And yet, they dare not veer from their carefully curated “brands” and all the clout and comforts, the privilege and the profits, they’ve reaped as a result.

“We need so many more athletes that don’t look like me speaking out about this. It’s time for guys like Tom Brady and Sidney Crosby and those type of figures to speak up about what is right,” former Jets forward Evander Kane told ESPN the other day. 

Wheeler, who hails from Plymouth, Minn., is one of the few notable exceptions who strayed from the usual “stick to sports” script that seems engrained in so many hockey players. The 33-year-old once again showed true leadership qualities with his Twitter post on Saturday night. Since then, a handful of fellow NHLers and a host of teams have issued their own statements.

“My hometown is burning. Businesses where I grew up are being boarded up. America is not OK,” Wheeler began. “Growing up outside Minneapolis, I always felt sheltered from racism. That’s because I was. Most people I grew up with looked like me. I never had to be scared when I stopped at a traffic light or saw the police in public. My kids will never know that fear either.

“I’m heartbroken that we still treat people this way. We need to stand with the black community and fundamentally change how the leadership in this country has dealt with racism. I’m sorry it has taken this long, but I’m hopeful that we can change this NOW. George Floyd’s life mattered. Ahmaud Arbery’s life mattered. So did every other life that has been lost by this senseless violence and racism.”

Winnipegger Jonathan Toews, the captain of the Chicago Blackhawks, was another. His Instagram post Monday included a widely-shared video of two black men having a powerful, emotional debate about protesting. Toews admitted that, as a white male, his initial reaction was that these “riots and acts of destruction are a terrible response.”

“But who am I to tell someone that their pain is not real? Especially when it is at a boiling point and impossible to hold in anymore,” wrote Toews. “I’m not condoning or approving the looting, but are we really going to sit here and say that peaceful protesting is the only answer? There has been plenty of time for that, and if it was the answer we would’ve given it our full attention a long time ago.”

Toews included the #blacklivesmatter hashtag and this all-important caveat: “My message isn’t for black people and what they should do going forward. My message is to white people to open our eyes and our hearts.”

Logan Couture, a teammate of Kane with the San Jose Sharks, also weighed in by writing, in part: “I think most of us have been at fault for turning a blind eye when it comes to racism. It cannot continue.” Oddly, the Ontario-born Couture felt the need to begin his tweet with a “Sorry if this offends anyone” intro.

I’d suggest anyone who gets their back up over what Couture has to say can go pound sand. But the fact Couture began his poignant words with a pseudo-apology shows just how risky many view it to stick their neck out on just about anything.

A quick disclaimer of my own: I’m not suggesting we need to hear from an endless parade of white athletes wanting to score cheap PR points by attaching themselves to the popular cause of the day. Just look at the tone-deaf message the NFL released this past weekend, which is being rightfully shredded in many quarters. It’s pretty rich that the league that balked at Colin Kaepernick peacefully protesting the very same issues by taking a knee during the anthem is now claiming to be “woke.”

I also understand there are those who would prefer these guys just shut up and play, believing they have little of substance to offer on social justice issues.

However, when the sentiments are seemingly genuine and well-intentioned, admit a position of privilege and offer support, advocacy and a listening ear to those most impacted, then some real good can come from it. For example, I suspect there are many fans who read what Wheeler, Toews and Couture had to say who are now examining their own lot in life and what they can do to make the world a slightly better place. 

Bottom line: I would much prefer athletes use their platforms for good rather than promoting their latest clothing line or sports drink endorsement. It’s just too bad more don’t feel that way.

In Wheeler’s case, I have no doubt he means what he says. Fearless on the ice, he’s proven to be much the same off of it as well. He’s previously called for stricter gun control in the U.S., and criticized President Donald Trump’s suggestion that any football player who follows in Kaepernick’s shoes should be fired. 

Wheeler is set to speak on Tuesday morning with media via Zoom. What once would have been a conference call strictly about the NHL’s return-to-play proposal for later this summer will now be dominated by something much more important.  

In that sense, perhaps it’s not the worst thing that sports remain at a virtual standstill. As we’ve seen recently, there are far bigger things going on which require our undivided attention. That goes for the athletes themselves, who would be wise to take a long, hard look at what’s going on around them, at how broken and divided our world really is, and consider how they can make a truly meaningful contribution.

As hard as it may be for some to find the words, their voices can help make a difference. 

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg 

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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