Last night there was a preseason NHL Hockey game between the Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings in London, Ontario at the John Labatt Center. The game went to a shootout. One of the shooters was Flyer forward Wayne Simmonds. Now, Simmonds was a big offseason acquisition in a blockbuster trade with the Los Angeles Kings. Simmonds is a great young player with a great future in the league. As he was on his shootout attempt a fan threw a banana on the ice in his path. Simmonds also happens to be one of about thirty players who are of African American or African Canadian descent.
Simmonds is a proud Canadian and played for the Team Canada in the World Juniors a few years ago. Back in Canada for an exhibition game, it had to be disappointing to be subject to such a blatant act of racism. Earlier this week Simmonds told a sports broadcaster in Philly that racial negativity “really doesn’t happen in Canada. That’s pretty much that way it is.” I guess last night was a cruel reminder that racism is far from a non-issue in this country. Someone mused on one website tonight, ‘perhaps the fan was just throwing anything to distract him.’ Sure – Bananas are real popular at the concessions at a hockey game. After the game this young player said, “I’ve never had a banana thrown at me before. That’s a first for me. I guess it’s something I obviously have to deal with — being a black player playing in a predominantly white sport. I’ve grown a lot playing in this league and throughout my whole life. I’m not going to dwell on that. It’s over with now.” It is commendable that this young man is able to handle this foolishness with such grace. But why should this talented young player be subject to such a terrible and insulting act of racism?
I recall being at a game in Detroit a number of years ago when a Red Wing Fan stood and mimicked a monkey to taunt then San Jose Sharks player Mike Grier. The fan was a Canadian. I was gobsmacked then and I am gobsmacked now. Somehow though I try and convince myself that racism is not such a big deal in Canada, just as Simmonds himself did this past week. Carl T Rowan once mused that “It is often easier to become outraged by injustice half a world away than by oppression and discrimination half a block from home.” The truth is that racism in sport is as real as it is in our society in general. It is a real problem here in Canada. Hockey is not a sport that traditionally has had many black players compared to football, baseball and basketball. The fact that a black player is such a minority in hockey makes these players in the NHL an obvious target. I hope the NHL comes out strongly stating their support for Simmonds and their disdain for hate and racism. There have been incidents where slurs have been uttered on the ice in the past few years and the league has sadly tried to portray the complaints as blown out of proportion and have in each case issued statements that asserted that there was no proof that racial slurs were exchanged. It is time for the NHL to speak loud and proud for minorities who play the game.
And to the people of London who attended that game – someone knows who threw that banana. Speak up so that he/she may be held to account. The people who run the JLC, Comcast-Spectator have condemned this act but noted they were unable to identify the culprit. Let’s put some effort into it and make sure the offending party is not welcomed at events at the JLC. Somebody watched the banana being thrown from the upper deck. Over 7000 people were there. Some of them had to be sitting next to this racist disguised as a hockey fan. Let the folks in London know who did this. Remember that “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” Those words of Bishop Desmond Tutu serve to remind us that we have a responsibility. All those years ago in Detroit, I said nothing to the racist fan seated near me. My neutrality was a sin of omission. I have thought of that situation almost every time I read those words of Tutu. I regret my lack of courage then, and hope that someone in London will show more courage than I did that day. I hope that a fellow fan will assist in exposing the Banana Bandit so that he might tell people by the light of day why he does not like African Canadian hockey players.