Sports appeal to me because they are a way to cast aside who you are and where you came from, and to be a part of something larger than yourself: a collective that is based on passion, mutual interest, and good-spirited competition. Sports are not political.
However, the ability to separate your identity as an athlete from your politics is a privilege.
Last month, the Pittsburgh Penguins publicly announced that they will be attending the White House, just a day after the president denounced and insulted black athletes protesting peacefully. This is a tone-deaf exercise of white privilege.
With approximately only 30 black players in the entire National Hockey League, why is it that we expect only the black athletes to engage with the difficult conversations of racism and oppression? Why is the Pittsburgh Penguins given agency to continue ‘business as usual,’ and not have to reflect on the privilege of being exempt from such discrimination both on and off the ice?
Racism and oppression are embedded within our socio-political structures in ways that almost become commonplace. Stephen Curry said it best when he discussed the position that black professional athletes find themselves in: “When we’re not in between these lines and with a jersey on, in [our casual dress], we could be targets.”
When white supremacists march on Charlottesville, it’s free speech; peaceful protests against police brutality by black athletes deems them “sons of bitches.” We relieve non-black individuals of the responsibility to speak up and advocate on behalf of their teammates or other athletes enduring racial abuse and oppression.
Sports are not political. But the ability for white athletes to remain oblivious to the American president’s contention with black athletes is a marker of their ignorance. They are not personally impacted by the problem, which means they can ignore it more easily, but that doesn’t mean ignoring it is right. Maybe being athletes doesn’t obligate them to be part of the conversation, but being people does.
Sidney Crosby is not evil, but we cannot claim that he is just “a hockey player going to the White House.” Not in this political climate, and not ever. Colin Kaepernick is still without a job as a result of his protest, and has been called a “son of a bitch” by the leader of the free world for exercising his First Amendment rights.
We must look at such actions, or inactions as what they are: a fear of disrupting the racist status quo. But if those with certain levels of privilege evade these conversations, the status quo persists. By remaining detached from such issues and continuing “business as usual,” the Pittsburgh Penguins are contributing to the problem rather than the solution.
If we continue brushing off the actions of non-black individuals as unimportant to the conversation, we are enabling their complicity with the larger system at hand. Their identities are apolitical and therefore we see their stance as such; but that attempted detachment is, in and of itself, privilege.
So no, Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins are not just hockey players attending the White House; they are part of a greater system in which those with privilege stay silent, while the oppressed have their voices dismissed.