Monday, January 20, 2014

Subban: It’s Not About Race

We’ve been hearing it for years now: Pernell Karl Subban is booed by fans and singled out by NHL hockey players because he’s black.

Some people apparently aren't even aware that race is the reason they react to Subban the way they do - they are engaged in an unconscious manifestation of racism. As the argument goes, we are living in a complex time complete with elaborate social economic pressures, inherent biases and uncontrollable prejudices. Subban bears the brunt of some of this.

Not buying it. Not by a long shot.

Subban is not being booed because he’s black. Subban is not being singled out because he’s black. Subban is a target because his personality rubs some people the wrong way. To declare that racism is the cause of this behavior is tedious, trite and convenient. It’s also a scathing indictment of  players and fans who rather innocuously express negative views about Subban uncomplicated by race. Finally, it also diminishes (albeit unintentionally) the substantial harm, anguish and brutality perpetrated on people of color over centuries.

Subban is a spectacular and gifted defenceman for the Montreal Canadiens. He’s a terrific skater, has a great shot, is physical, has great vision and clutch. In short, Subban is pretty special.

Going back to junior, however, Subban has not been warmly received. He’s come off as arrogant and cocky. Indeed, his own teammates, including some with the Habs, have expressed a common sentiment: Subban needs to show a bit more deference and humility.

Arrogance isn't restricted to one particular group. People across all races and ethnicities suffer from this affliction. It’s nothing more than a personality type and to suggest otherwise is very ironically lumping people who share a physical trait into one group.

A casual glance at the North American sports landscape past and present reveals that many African-Americans have been warmly received by fans: Calvin Johnson, Russell Wilson, David Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Kirby Puckett, Tony Gwynn, Julius Erving, Ken Griffey Jr., Reggie White, Barry Sanders, Magic Johnson and Roberto Clemente  Frankly, the list is endless.

Were these NHL players booed because of the color of their skin: Anson Carter, Grant Furhr, Mike Grier, Dustin Byfuglien, Jarome Iginla, Wayne Simmonds, Chris Stewart and George Laraque?

Similarly, there are lots of white players that have been regularly booed in opposing rinks and chirped by opposing players. Dion Phaneuf, Sidney Crosby, Zdeno Chara, Alex Ovechkin, Claude Lemieux, Sean Avery, Matt Cooke and Max Lapierre come to mind.

So whether a player is white, black or orange, what seems to matter is how they carry themselves on and off the ice. And of course, it also matters how much damage they inflict on other teams. Skin color, however, as a key catalyst for hate in this particular circumstance seems awkwardly misplaced.

So why are Subban and race so intertwined? While black players in the NFL and NBA are commonplace, they only make up a very modest segment of the NHL player population. Think about it – how often do we hear the charge that an NFL player is being booed because he’s black?

And yes, Simmonds had a banana thrown at him. A banana being thrown at player, however, is a singular discreet event and to infer that certain fans are racist as a result is highly disputable if not flawed reasoning.

So perhaps, compared to the other 3 sports, hockey is less experienced with players of color. As a result, we end up seeing some things over-analysed.

There are of course going to be people that will not only boo Subban because they don’t care for his personality, but ALSO because he’s black. And some may boo him because he’s black. In those instances, it’s racist. But this isn't one of those instances.

Hockey is a funny sport. It’s a bit like the military. Individualism is not embraced nor encouraged. While the NFL does seek a certain level of uniformity among its players, they can still dance after a TD or celebrate a first down. Imagine if an NHL player danced after scoring a goal or did the moonwalk after icing was waived off?  We would hear stuff like “that is way over the top”, “there isn't a place in the game for that” and “the moonwalk is just inappropriate”.

NHL Players are directed to fall in line; to blend in. Subban doesn't do either. What Subban does do is entertain with a refreshing blend of flair and skill. Sports is theater and athletes are entertainers.

For some (present company included) Subban isn't arrogant; he’s confident. While ego may make some uncomfortable, it’s also an important feature of successful players.

So here’s hoping Subban never changes.


Smash said...

I absolutely agree. I resent being accused of disliking him for Race for reasons even more obvious than my being cloaked in Iginla gear.

You're right to say hockey is different from other sports. A seemingly benign "using a stick as a shotgun" celebration is usually criticised on 500 sports blogs and all over twitter.

People dislike Subban because he is a cocky player who tries to stand out in the wrong ways, and honestly, because he plays for a team like Montreal. Do you really think Alfredson would have gotten the boos he does if he played for a team other than Ottawa? Oh, he does play for another team now? And he doesn't get bood? I'M STUNNED.

Hockey is adversarial, and has villains. We might boo "The Undertaker" in the WWE, but certainly, any fan seeing him in real life would be stunned and snap a pic for instagram.

Subban is just the villain of a team who happens to be rivals of so many serious hockey fan cities like Toronto and Boston. Blaming it on race is offensive to the ones of us who choose to boo ;)


Smash said...

I think you're dead on. Calling it about Race is offensive to me as a fan, for reasons that should be more obvious than the fact that I am often cloaked in Iginla gear.

Hockey is different from other sports. A player can't excitedly use his stick as a shotgun after a goal without being the subject of 500 sports blogs and tweets by morning.

Subban is bood because he is a cocky player who's attitude rubs people the wrong way, and he happens to play for Montreal. Was it a Race thing when Alfredson got bood? Perhaps, had he played for another team, would he be less likely to get bood? Oh, he plays for the Wings now and fans are quiet? SHOCKING!

Hockey is adversarial and Subban is a villain. Just like any WWE fan who would boo The Undertaker would giggle like a kid and ask him for a picture in real life for their instagram, Subban is the villain. A villain who happens to play for a team that is the rival of other prominent franchises like Toronto and Boston.

One would hardly find fans behaving the same with Jarome Iginla, George Laraque, Simmonds, Oduya, Stewart, freakin' Ray Emery...

It's certainly not a race thing, and I resent the implication. If anything, it upsets me, because unless it's at the refs or a dirty hit, there should be no booing in hockey ;)


Donna said...

This is just a long list of excuses. It is the sporting equivalent of "some of my best friends are black."

Peoples' dislike of PK's arrogance is exacerbated because he's black. I know hockey is a different culture from the NBA and the NFL, but....

People like black folk in the spotlight, especially men, to be humble and self-effacing, to know their place.

Just ask Richard Sherman. Or Kanye. Or Barak Obama.