Racist fans could be a growing problem for the NHL

By Pamela Yap

From the time the NHL’s regular season starts, fans wait approximately 7 months for the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. It’s an exciting time for the league and its players. Tensions are mounting and rivalries are born. But with the heightened excitement, the NHL is also having to deal with what seems like a growing issue: racism. On Thursday evening after Montreal secured a Game 1 victory against the Boston Bruins with an overtime goal by PK Subban, Twitter was inundated with a variety of tweets filled with racial slurs aimed at Subban.

Although there are many who argue that the NHL doesn’t have a problem with racism, this isn’t the first time Subban has been targeted by racist fans. A recent episode of 24CH, the Canadiens reality TV series, showed a clip of Bruins fans taunting Subban with racial slurs as he skated off the ice during a regular season game. During the 2011-2012 season, Florida Panthers Krys Barch was suspended for one game after allegedly making a racist remark towards Subban. Wayne Simmonds and Evander Kane have also experienced racism in recent seasons.

It’s been a hostile week for major sports as racism has also reared its ugly head in other professional leagues. Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, was fined $2.5 million and received a lifetime ban on April 29th after a recording emerged of him making racist remarks. Just a few days earlier, FC Barcelona defender Dani Alves, who is a black player of Brazilian origin, had a banana thrown at him before he took a corner kick during a game against Villareal. Villareal issued a lifetime ban to the season-ticket holder who threw the banana.

FIFA has dealt with racism on its fields for years, and when the 2012 European Championships were held in Poland and the Ukraine, they were dubbed the most controversial Euros for not only political reasons, but also because both countries have had a lengthy history of fans hurling racial epithets at black players on opposing teams. Spain has also had long-standing issues with racist spectators taunting players and throwing objects at them. Racial behavior was once so prevalent that FIFA warned Spain that their World Cup berth could be revoked or that spectators would not be allowed to attend their games if the racism continued.

Its evident that racism isn’t limited to just the NHL and has been an issue for professional sports long before recent incidents, but does this mean that professional leagues, including the NHL, aren’t doing enough to eliminate racism in its stadiums and arenas? One can argue that part of the answer to this question is rooted in denial. No commissioner or president of any professional sporting association would want to openly admit that their league has a problem with racism and racist fans. After just finishing a full regular season for the first time since April 2012 due to the NHL lockout that began the following September, NHL ticket sales have struggled across North America, specifically in southern markets. This could be reason enough to assume that the NHL would be reluctant to ever issue lifetime bans to racist fans.

Although many would argue that racial remarks towards NHL players are rare, it was widely reported that the number of discriminatory tweets towards Subban after Game 1 were so large in number that a racial slur began to trend on Twitter in Boston. Perhaps this is a sign that the league needs to take measures in an effort to ensure that this issue doesn’t continue to grow or get out of hand.

So how can the NHL work to eliminate racism? They can start by promoting and supporting players of colour in commercials and ad campaigns or even issue videos via social media to make it clear that hockey is a sport for all players, regardless of skin colour. It’s more important now than ever to prove that the NHL stands behind its players and won’t tolerate any form of racism. The NHL playoffs are a highly anticipated event for fans world wide, and it should never be marked or overshadowed by something that has no place in its game.

Guest writer Pamela Yap is a Sheridan College post-grad in Journalism New Media and wrote for CBC during the 2012 London Olympics.

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