Roundtable: P.K. Subban’s “Third Way”?

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Photo from Vice Sports.

Roundtables are an occasional feature on Hockey in Society. Roundtables present brief commentaries from Hockey in Society contributors on pressing or timely issues within hockey and its culture, with the aim of presenting multiple critical viewpoints on the topic under discussion.

P.K. Subban stated a few weeks ago that he would not be kneeling during the American national anthem in support of Colin Kaepernick’s protest and the Black Lives Matter movement. He explained that his decision was based on his “respect for the American flag,” and many hockey fans were happy to hear his decision.

The Kaepernick led protests have created a strong divide in the sports community: To kneel or not? Subban, however, has seemingly found a third way with this announcement from the Nashville Predators:

During every Nashville Predators home game this season, Subban will host his new P.K.’s Blueline Buddies Program, bringing together a member of the Metro Nashville Police Department and their guest with a mentor or representative from a local organization and an underprivileged youth.

(Conservative) sports outlets were quick to jump on Subban’s new program as the “appropriate” way to deal with police brutality and racial injustice. Hockey Feed wrote:

There have been a bunch of millionaire athletes protesting the national anthem as of late across a number of sports in North America, but one athlete who made it clear he would “never” kneel may have just raised the bar for each and everyone of those athletes.

Regardless of what side of the issue you may fall on, it’s clear that the national anthem protests have achieved nothing but creating more division and now rather than protest the anthem, Nashville Predators superstar P.K. Subban will be working to bridge that divide.

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John Carlos and Tommie Smith. Photo from Wikipedia.

First, this is not an “anthem protest” and if you are an outlet (or individual) referring to them as such you are contributing to this divisiveness. They are protests against police brutality and racial discrimination that utilize the anthem to highlight the fact that not everyone experiences the same America. Second, the fact that many sports outlets have been forced to talk about these protests, whether correctly or incorrectly, has achieved Kaepernick’s goal of having the broader population engage with and attempt to reconcile the racial oppression that we live with and reproduce everyday. So, it’s not “nothing.” Third, it is dangerous (and an act of racism) to put Subban on a pedestal because he has chosen an “alternative” to protesting. Cassius Clay, the boxer, was considered a “good black”. Muhammad Ali, the black nationalist and Vietnam-War dissenter, was a “bad black.” Tommie Smith and John Carlos were “good blacks” while they ran their race during the 1968 Mexico Olympics, and were “bad blacks” the moment they raised their fists on that podium. Martin Luther King Jr. was considered a “bad black” when he was causing civil unrest; today we look fondly back at the memory of a “good black” man. Even Subban hasn’t always been considered a “good black” in the eyes of hockey pundits because his exuberant goal celebrations can rub hockey traditionalists the wrong (read: black) way.

Paul Street writes for The Counterpunch:

The dutiful “good Black” who knows his place and avoids revolutionary politics while helping whites get by and feel better about themselves is a disturbing Hollywood staple…

This country has a fetish with subservient black men that translates into adoration on-screen…This is about liberal white fantasies of saving black people from themselves even as white people are served and saved by those very same black people. It is also in keeping with the constant barrage of imagery that reinforces the power dynamic that black people are a perpetual servant class with conditional access to society. Rule No.1: Appear as nonthreatening as possible.

In my opinion, in valorizing the efforts of Subban, no matter how well-intentioned they may be, he undercut every black athlete who has knelt and continues to kneel because they are being purposefully disruptive, whereas Subban has chosen a method that falls in line with white respectability. If you are comfortable with Subban’s form of “protest” that means it is doing nothing. As WNBA player Kelsey Bone recently stated on the Burn It All Down podcast, we are not supposed to be comfortable talking about racism because it should cause us to re-think everything that we think we know about fairness and meritocracy. Bone proclaimed, “This is not a movement of unity, this a movement of alarm! Hello? Wake up! Do you see us? Do you hear us?” Subban’s “third way” of having officers and underprivileged youth meet in a luxury box during a game does not force us to reckon with the alarm bell, rather it creates a false sense of unity and that whatever discussions take place in that luxury box are “good enough” for us to sleep soundly at night.

I will now turn it over to my table mates but we would be remiss not to acknowledge that there are no black voices in this piece (or on this platform more broadly). This is the sad reality of sports blogging and hockey blogging in particular. This is also why hockey has been able to avoid this discussion for so long because not only are there so few black voices, but rarely does anyone notice that they are missing.

Brett Pardy  – “It suggests that many victims of police brutality…brought violence on themselves”

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Subban with some of the Blueline Buddies participants. Photo from NHL.com

With Blueline Buddies, P.K. falls into a common conservative discourse trap, that the problem of police brutality is equally shared by the police and their victims. It suggests that the many victims of police brutality, in some way, brought violence upon themselves by not co-operating. While it’s the police who need to learn empathy for racialized individuals, this is hardly how P.K. frames the program (the title Blueline Buddies really gives it away). He states that because law enforcement have such a dangerous job (despite data proving that it is the safest time ever to be a cop), it’s important to “make them feel good”.

The intent to “build rapport” seems a secondary consideration for the officer, but a primary one for the “underprivileged youth”. This is a big ask from the kid in question since there’s a significant age and power differential (however, the youth also brings a “mentor or representative from a local organization” to this meeting). Considering there is a distinct possibly that the youth has had (or knows of) negative experiences with the police, to be the face of “please don’t shoot me in the future” is not exactly a comforting way to watch a game. Moreover, facilitating one-on-one interactions make the problem seem like there are “bad apples” amongst the police, rather than an entire justice system stacked against racialized communities. Ultimately, this is the hockey equivalent of Virginia police officers pulling over black drivers to hand out ice cream: the police can feel good about themselves, white people can feel good about “unity”, and nothing changes for black people.

Aaron Lakoff – “Throwing other black athletes under the bus”

Aaron Lakoff (@aaronlakoff) is an award-winning independent journalist, media-maker, and community organizer based in Montreal. He is currently completing a Masters in Media Studies at Concordia University, focusing on radical sports journalism and hockey.

I’ll say first and foremost, as a Habs fan, that I am also a HUGE P.K. Subban fan. I love how exciting he is to watch, his speed is amazing, his slap shot that can make goalies wince, and his big heart. The day he was traded to Nashville was indeed a sad one for me.

That being said, I was also saddened, dismayed, but unfortunately not surprised to learn about P.K.’s Blueline Buddies program this week. The Blueline Buddies program is abhorrent on many levels.

First, it waters down the original message of Kaepernick’s protests, which were not about rapprochement between police and communities of colour, but about racial justice. In Kaepernick’s own words, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” Damn, that’s powerful. But all P.K. is doing by inviting police into his pre-game rituals is throwing other black athletes under the bus and obscuring what they stood (or rather, knelt) for.

Secondly, we must never forget that these protests started as a response in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Kaepernick began his silent protest just weeks after Philando Castile, a black man, was gunned down in his car in front of his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter. The Movement for Black Lives has published a strong and eloquent platform where they lay out their vision of racial justice in America. They are not calling for “dialogue” or “better understanding between police and communities of colour,” as Subban’s program would suggest. Rather, they are demanding more community control of police forces, more civilian oversight, and money to be taken out of policing and imprisonment, and put back into education and community programs.

As many activists have articulated over the years, “You can’t dialogue with your oppressor while his boot is on your neck.” Dialogue through the Blueline Buddies program only serves as public relations for the police – they get to look good shaking hands with youth of colour, yet how much will it actually challenge systemic racism in policing?

I don’t necessarily expect anything better from P.K. than this, but rather, I find it shameful that so few white players in the NHL (and other leagues for that matter) have shouldered the burden to fight racism by taking a knee. I also kind of wish that P.K. had done nothing at all rather than create Blueline Buddies. He should really take a page from the playbook of J.T. Brown of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who courageously raised his fist during the US national anthem on October 7th. Subban is a great athlete and a great philanthropist, but in this world of mass incarceration and rampant racism, we need more than philanthropy. We need great hearts and great minds who aren’t afraid to take a knee in order to fight the powers that be.

Cheryl MacDonald – Some Questions For Us to Consider

Check out Trevor Noah’s (satirical) explanation about why athletes are protesting and how it has been received by various people.

Subban elected to be proactive and take on the responsibility of creating change on the ground, specifically regarding the unrest between police and black civilians that Trevor Noah discusses in the video above. The NHL article acknowledges that although this initiative is well-intended, “P.K. Subban knows one night at the rink isn’t going to change the feelings throughout an entire country. One gesture of kindness won’t end the division, one handshake won’t slice through the tension”.

I am taking this initiative at face value—as an in between. I think that kneeling during the national anthem was important to get a conversation started and that Subban’s program is important for actively addressing the issue in a tangible and meaningful way. I have concerns about the program, but I do feel the need to commend him for putting his money where his mouth is and trying to find a solution. Still, here are some questions that we all should consider:

  • How do we account for the ways in which this experience affects youth after the outing is complete? Does the program pluck youth out of their environment, arguably to be put on show, and then send them back to that environment, never to be heard from again? Right now it feels like a contest to be won or a ‘last wish’ kind of initiative that is unsuitable for creating long-term change.
  • Should we consider that these youth may be afraid of police and are now being placed in an environment with the very people they have learned to fear? A black youth coming of age in a time when relations between police and the black community are in crisis may be apprehensive of participating in this program.
  • What can be done to rectify the fact that the officers and youth are coming together in an uncommon situation? Put differently, the same warm and welcoming officer at the hockey game could viably become the same one who uses unnecessary violence in the field. How might one make sense of the differing contexts in which law enforcement and youth could interact given that the hockey game is a very structured and presumably safe one?
  • Is there room in this conversation to contemplate the intersections of P.K. Subban’s identity? As a black man, he faces and has faced oppression. As a man he is privileged. As a straight man he is privileged. As an individual from a family that supported him and could afford to put him in hockey—through which he became very affluent himself—he is privileged. How does his own identity play into this?

In sum, I think that Subban’s head and heart are in the right place and I commend him for taking action. The next step is to figure out how to make those actions more sustainable and meaningful than they currently are. A good start would be working through some of the questions I posed above and then looking to other athletes to engage with their communities as well. Kneeling started things off, but now it’s time to get to work.

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One thought on “Roundtable: P.K. Subban’s “Third Way”?

  1. I fear Mr. Subban has used this protest as a branding opportunity to polish his star. I like him as a hockey player, respect what he did for charity in Montreal and like the event he has created for groups of four Nashvillians for each home game; but his timing is off, and he has helped to undermine the protest. Better for now if he had just stayed quiet.

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