Professional Sports and Activism

With racial and social injustice still playing a huge role in North America and in professional sports, professional athletes and teams such as Kurtis Gabriel, Saroya Tinker, the Hamilton Honey Badgers, and the Chicago Wolves have made it a priority to use their platforms, and their voices to create change in today`s society.

Colin Kaepernick, who is an American civil rights activist and former NFL quarterback, rejuvenated professional sports and activism when he began kneeling on the sideline at games during the national anthem in 2016 to protest social injustice and police brutality in the United States. Shortly after Kaepernick began doing this, his time with the San Francisco 49ners came to end and he was gone from the NFL and has not played since the 2016–17 NFL season.

Despite Kaepernick not playing in the NFL anymore, athletes across North America have continued the fight against racial and social injustice by using their platforms to bring awareness to crucial issues that are occurring today.

Kurtis Gabriel is a professional hockey player currently spending time in both the AHL and NHL with the San Jose Barracuda and San Jose Sharks. Gabriel has been openly supportive of several racial and social injustice movements such as The Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ+, and the Black Girl Hockey Club. The San Jose Sharks centre has shown his support of these causes through customization of his skates, as he included the Black Lives Matter logo, and the words hope, empathy and change written on the back of his skate. To go along with that, Gabriel has included a rainbow flag, included the phrase “love is love” and taped his stick using colours from the LGBTQ+ flag.

Gabriel isn’t the only professional hockey player who is using his platform to fight against racial and social injustice. Saroya Tinker is a Canadian ice hockey player who is currently playing for the Metropolitan Riveters of the National Women`s Hockey League. In her first year playing as a professional hockey player, Tinker has made it a priority to use her platform to fight against racial injustice and to help black girls who want to play hockey but are unable to cover expenses to do so.

Tinker is now a volunteer with the ‘Black Girl Hockey Club’, which is a non-profit organization that focuses on making hockey more inclusive for Black women and to inspire and sustain passion for the game of hockey in the Black community. Tinker is a part of there scholarship committee and their goal is to give Black women access to hockey. The committee has raised just over $28,000.

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@saroyatinker

Despite the four major sports with the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL all using their platforms to raise awareness for racial injustice in North America, Gabriel commends the NBA as being the first major league to set the standard of what needs to be done.

“The NBA is leading the way, the NFL probably next, the MLB after that, and then you’re talking about the four major sports, hockey lags way behind, we all know that. So, I think, you know, what the Milwaukee Bucks did was incredible and I guess it’s kind of, kind of sad that it takes the league that is predominantly African-American, let’s say on Black Lives Matter to make a difference and make a movement,” Gabriel says.

Gabriel says the NHL and the sport of hockey have lagged behind in terms of taking the steps towards becoming a more inclusive playing environment.

“I know a lot of stuff that’s kind of happened that the NHL maybe hasn’t pulled through and they should have, and it seems like they have to be externally pressured into doing things as you saw with the, the boycotting with Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd thing, they had to kind of be forced into it. You didn’t see Black Lives Matter anywhere until the players said we’re not playing. And then the next day at the bubble, they had no choice, but to put Black Lives Matter everywhere,” he says.

In spite of the NHL not having the urgency to create change until pressured to do so, Gabriel says he gives credit to the NHL for allowing its players like Minnesota Wild defensemen Matt Dumba to speak publicly about this issue.

“Awarding Matt Dumba the King Clancy Trophy for his work with Black Lives Matter and doing that speech and allowing that to happen, no players were sad because of kneeling you know, I’m happy at the response. Maybe it was a little late, obviously the last league to do it, but things seem to be changing now and things are a little bit better,” Gabriel says.

Tinker says she believes that professional leagues are taking the right steps when it comes to handling racial and social injustice.

“ I think that most leagues are on board. And if they’re not fully on board, they’re getting there. And they’re having those conversations that those small adjustments that need to be made. So, I think that they’ve done a good job of being willing to have it more accepting, as the years have progressed, and we’re definitely getting to a point where we’re almost there in every league, but yeah, I guess we’ll just continue to see from there,” Tinker says.

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@saroyatinker

Like Gabriel, Tinker says she has also been pleased to see how the NBA has handled its players speaking out against issues that are important to them and affect them on a daily basis.

“I definitely think that the WNBA as well as the NBA have done an amazing job by letting their player support what they want to support, accepting their players and being willing to use their players voices and opinions and not be ashamed of that. I also think that they’ve done a great job in terms of broadcasting that and letting it be shown and known to the world as what they’re doing,” Tinker says.

Moreover, Tinker says she has seen a change in professional sports with increased awareness generated through the leagues. Tinker, who is a person of colour, says she is happy with the changes she has seen so far in professional leagues in North America and in the NWHL.

“People are hearing us we’re being heard. And we’re being seen as well. So, I definitely see that from the WNBA side as well, in terms of the vote, as well as the NBA, encouraging people to stand up and actually use their voice and use that for good. So, I definitely think that it’s been successful,” she says.

Why Speak Up

Gabriel says he decided to use his voice for the voiceless because that`s how he was raised growing up in Newmarket, Ont.

“I just treated everybody the same, but that doesn’t mean you do need to see colour and know that there are differences and cultural differences and to embrace them and not to think, Oh, they’re different. So, I never thought anything of it, a gay guy, you know, African-American or African Canadian guy, whatever. I didn’t think anything of it. But as I started to get older, I’d see people make comments about racism,” he says.

@kurtisgabriel_

Gabriel says he also understands the level of impact he can make as a white person and he has the ability to make a big change and the importance of educating people about this issue. Gabriel says it took him several years to decide to speak up about this topic as he wanted to be informative and educated about what and how he wanted to advocate.

Kurtis Gabriel, NHL player for the San Jose Sharks

Tinker says she wasn’t always comfortable speaking out about racial and social injustice issues and the more she grew as a person, the more she figured out what she wanted to stand for and how to properly use her voice.

“I think my senior year at Yale, I definitely made a stand in terms of creating a better culture for my team and hoping that they get to do the workshops that I’ve suggested and, are listening to our athletic director and in terms of what they’re doing in terms of diversity and inclusion,” she says.

Tinker says her goal now going forward with her professional hockey career is to help girls like her to feel comfortable in their own skin and in their sport. Tinker hopes to inspire the next generation of women of colour and hope they can see themselves doing what she is doing in the NWHL now.

Saroya Tinker, NWHL player for the Metropolitan Riveters

For Gabriel, his goal with his activism in the NHL is simply moving the needle more towards love and more towards humanizing and educating one another. Gabriel talks about the story of his mentor Brock McGillis who is a former ice hockey goaltender and was one of the first male professional hockey players to came out as gay. Gabriel says McGillis’ story affected his decision to speak out as McGillis went through a great deal of hardship as a closeted gay man in the OHL.

“Brock McGillis, my mentor, who went through the OHL as a closeted man and was drinking himself to death every weekend and drunk driving. And I don’t know, he doesn’t know how he’s still alive. Now, to hear that kind of story, that’s a very short version of it, but how can you not want to support someone like he didn’t wake up and choose to be gay? Nobody does, you know, and that’s still, some people believe that out there. And they think conversion therapy is a thing,” he says.

Gabriel says he wants to simply push towards love and that’s what he broadcasts on his social media accounts. The most gratifying thing to Gabriel is seeing messages from kids on his social media accounts accrediting him for being outspoken and helping them with their problems.

“I use the analogy of cigarettes if you see someone smoking a cigarette in 2021 you’re kind of like, ‘Hmm, like kind of not super nice, right? ‘So that’s where we need to get with racism and LGBT and homophobia. It needs to be just so off-putting like only the very few people that are doing it are very looked down upon.”

Fighting For What Matters to Them

Gabriel is showing his support for the Black Lives Matter movement and the LGBTQ community through the customization of his skates and hockey tape. On his skates he has included the rainbow flag and the phrase “love is love” across the back, the Black Lives Matter logo and the words “hope,” “empathy” and “change” on the back of his skate. To go along with that, he uses a pride-coloured tape on his stick.

Gabriel says he decided to do this just to simply make it more visible for everyone to see and to ignite more conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement and the LGBTQ community.

@kurtisgabriel_
Kurtis Gabriel, NHL player for the San Jose Sharks

The message Gabriel wants to send to his younger audience is to make it ‘cool’ to support anti-racism and the LGTBQ community.

@kurtisgabriel_

“I’m just trying to make it like cool to like support LGBTQ and anti-racism. Make it normal, see it like, wow, there’s a guy who plays pro hockey, and he’s doing that. Like, it’s cool to do that especially for the younger kids that look up to a hockey player, like that’s kinda my idea with it. And just to make people feel included,” he says.

@blackgirlhockeyclub

Tinker volunteers with Black Girl Hockey Club, which is a non-profit organization that focuses on making hockey more inclusive for Black women. This non-profit organization also provides girls with seasonal scholarships, which are between $1,000 and $5,000.

“We’re able to provide them scholarship money, whether that be for a year, for academics, or extra costs, in terms of hockey, paying for their season, travel expenses, etc. And that’s why I decided to make my GoFundMe, and we’re close to raising the goal of $30,000. And we’re currently at 28 ,” she says.

Looking Ahead To The Future

Gabriel says he believes athletes will continue to stand up and use their platforms to fight against racial and social injustice in the future, especially when you have talented Black hockey players on the rise such as Quinten Byfield.

“You have Quinten Byfield from Newmarket, my hometown that’s going to be a big star for the LA Kings. He can be a big visible market for kids. I think, you’ll still see kids coming up that are of different ethnicities playing hockey and hopefully feel more comfortable and hopefully more reach the higher levels because it’s more accepted,” he says.

Tinker, who is just starting her professional hockey career with the Metropolitan Riveters of NWHL, says she hopes to make professional leagues become more welcoming than segregating.

“I see it being a larger and more tight knit community rather than segregated and based around these things that we talked about. So, I definitely think that the athletic community can be more inclusive. And I’m so excited to see where that can go,” she says.

Professional Teams Taking A Stand

The Hamilton Honey Badgers of the Canadian Elite Basketball League are supporting their players and Black Lives Matter by creating a BLM campaign to help raise awareness and funds to support the movement.

Honey Badgers players` Duane Notice and MiKyle Mclntosh started this campaign by creating a list of organizations in Hamilton and the GTA, which include FoodShare Emergency Good Food Box, Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion, Black Lives Matter Toronto, BLAC- Black Legal Action Centre, and Empowerment Squared. All of these programs are designed to help people that have been affected by COVID-19 and supporting Black people and other minority groups.

In addition to supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, the Honey Bagders are also supporting organizations that are helping people who are facing food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuring that they are getting access to good food. To go along with that, the Honey Badgers are also helping minority communities and ensuring that marginalized, newcomer, and refugee youth are being given the opportunity to succeed in school regardless of their past experiences.

For example, one of the organizations that the Honey Badgers are helping is the Hamiltion Centre for Civic Inclusion (HCCI), and the purpose of this organization is to address issues of racism, discrimination and prejudice in the city of the Hamilton, Ont. The HCCI conducts workshops on these topics and have also undertaken several other forms of direct community engagements such as info sessions, town halls, training sessions, governance programs, surveys, needs assessments, organizational mentor-ship, diversity audits, and advocacy work.

Maria Suriani, who is the director of operations & community engagement for the Honey Badgers, says they encouraged fans to donate to any of the listed organizations and for every $10 donated, they were given one entry into a draw to win a Notice or McIntosh signed jersey.

“During the month of June, our fans raised over $1,000 and the Honey Badgers donated two jerseys to two lucky fans who made a donation with a handwritten thank you from Duane himself,” Suriani says.

Hamilton Honey Badgers

To go along with that, during the month of February, the Honey Badgers and their players highlighted a Black person of influence for Black History Month. Suriani says they did this every Monday in the month of February.

Chicago Wolves

Courtney Mahoney, the senior vice-president of operations for the AHL`s Chicago Wolves, is using her platform to promote social equality. Mahoney has been working with Wolves` player activists Scooter Vaughan, Brandon Pirri, Keegan Kolesar, Oscar Dansk, Curtis McKenzie, Vince Dunn, Jermaine Loewen, Jordan Schmaltz, Jordan Binnington, Mackenzie MacEachern, Brett Sterling, and Crisoval Nieves to promote social equality in the game of hockey.

For the Chicago Wolves the goal as an organization is to promote compassion and positivity, to acknowledge and honour local heroes, and to raise the level of knowledge regarding the issues of race, diversity and inclusion.

Mahoney says, the reason she got into sports is because of the number of people she can inspire on her platforms, whether that is through social media or television.

Taking a step back and looking at all the professional leagues in North America, Mahoney says she has been impressed with what the WNBA has done in its fight against racial injustice and social injustice.

“I think a league that did get a lot of credit would be the WNBA that I think really was ahead of the game, and really responded really well and how they handled it, I was really impressed with it,” says Mahoney.

Looking at the NHL, Mahoney thinks that more could be done in terms of social equality and the league needs to start doing more than just putting out a statement about this issue. For Mahoney and her Chicago Wolves, she wanted to meet with her players and discuss what should be done and what more we could do before putting out a statement.

“I mean , hockey is out of all the sports is not a very, you know, it’s a very white sport. And they’re not a lot of my minorities and that’s not anybody’s fault. But I think there’s, you know, there’s a responsibility to be just as outspoken and supportive of what’s going on as any other league,” says Mahoney.

When it came to Mahoney and the Chicago Wolves, as the senior vice-president of operations says she wanted to do more than just put out a statement that they support of Black Lives Matter. Instead, Mahoney took it one step further by reaching out to Wolves Scooter Vaughn to discuss what else they can do for the cause.

“I actually reached out to Scooter Vaughn, who is one of our former players, one of our alumni who I worked with quite a bit. He was the American Hockey League Man of the Year and he’d been outspoken and we started at setting up calls like once a week and talking about what we could do as an organization to make a little bit of a difference, so he really helped me build that platform,” says Mahoney.

Courtney Mahoney, Sr. Vice President of Operations for the Chicago Wolves

Now looking ahead for what`s next for Mahoney and the Wolves, she wants to build a forum for minorities to be able to participate in conversation pieces, especially in youth hockey and says it is important to start at the youth level.

Mahoney says despite this issue not ending anytime soon it`s important for her team and players to continue to fight against racial and social injustice. To go along with that, with the AHL there are constantly new players coming in and out of the organization and Mahoney says it`s important for her to hear about issues that are important to these players.

“With the Wolves you kind of find out who the players are on the team, what are their causes, so I think for us when we have some fresh faces in October, you know what is important to them and just like any other athlete how do we build this and spread the word and kind of go from there,” says Mahoney.

Mahoney says she is pleased with what the sports world has accomplished so far in its fight against racial and social injustice, and believes it is headed in the right direction.

“I think being open to learning about it, and understanding and like, every little bit if we can make a difference for one person or two, you know, it`s kind of like baby steps… I`m proud of the sports world for what they`ve done and hopefully continue to grow and expand it more, so hopefully, its not an issue fingers crossed.”

Members of The Media

As we step away from the ice and into the press box, hockey writers such as Greg Boysen who has been covering the the NHL and AHL for over 10 plus years, covering the 2013 Stanley Cup Final between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins, and currently covering a couple of AHL teams which include the Chicago Wolves and Rockford IceHogs, discusses what he has seen over the years in terms of the fight against racial and social injustice in the NHL and AHL.

Boysen says all of the professional sports leagues in North America have made an effort to address racial and social injustice, and he has noticed that each team professional team is tackling this issue separately as opposed to a league-wide initiative.

“The problem of systematic racism has been acknowledged, which is the logical first step, now we need to start seeing some long-term changes being made otherwise it is nothing except paying lip service. There is still a long way to go and a lot of work ahead to call any of this effective,” says Boysen.

Boysen gives credit to the two major basketball leagues in North America. He says the NBA and WNBA have been the most outspoken about racial and social injustice compared to the other major leagues.

“Obviously, those leagues have a large group of players and fans from the communities affected the most by social and racial injustice, so it makes perfect sense that they are the most outspoken, they have allowed their players to speak freely and express themselves without the fear of punishment, which is so important,” says Boysen.

In addition, Boysen adds that having one of the biggest names in professional sports such as LeBron James speaking out about significant issues like racial injustice is important because it will only get more people to listen and talk about this issue.

@KingJames

“An issue as huge and wide spread as this is will not go away without having some very difficult discussions. Having someone who is a global brand lead those discussions is key,” says Boysen.

When it comes to the AHL and the ECHL, Boysen says he has not heard or seen these leagues make any league-wide initiatives regarding racial and social injustice like the other major leagues have. With that said, Boysen also mentions that its been hard for minor leagues to put something like this into action while trying to figure out whether or not there was going to be a season this year due to COVID-19.

“But to be fair, this isn`t exactly the ideal season to try to do something like this. The AHL didn't even know that there was going to be a season until January. That doesn't mean things are being put in place behind the scenes,” says Boysen.

Now looking ahead to the future of professional sports and athlete activism in North America, Boysen says ending racism is not something that can be solved in one regular season of sports, instead it will take several generations for progress to be made.

“In a perfect world, it`s gone. It`s no longer part of our society. That`s dreaming big. It is going to take time and alot of work over multiple generations for it to disappear,” says Boysen.

In addition to the professional leagues using their platforms to fight against racial and social injustice, Boysen believes that youth sports need to follow what the professional leagues are doing and began educating young athletes on topics such as racism and LGTBQ.

“The professional leagues have to set the example, but the real changes have to start in children`s sports. Nobody is born with hate, it is learnt. The earlier children realize we are all the same deep down inside regardless of race, gender, religion or culture, the better off they will be. Leagues like the NHL can set the example and lead the charge, but the fundamental lessons and attitudes need to be taught from the first day a kid steps on the ice for his or hers first skating lesson,” says Boysen

To conclude, the earlier youth athletes are taught about racism and other social issues such as the LGTBQ movement the better it will be moving forward as it will have lasting effects on the next generation.

Now stepping away from rink and onto the sidelines, basketball analyst Michael Grange, who has covered the Toronto Raptors, and the NBA for the past 10 years, opens up about his experience covering the Raptors in the NBA bubble in Orlando, Fla.

In the NBA bubble, people witnessed something they never seen before as NBA players made it priority to use their platforms to fight racial injustice and boycotted their playoff games in protest of the Jacob Blake shooting. Blake was shot in the back by a police officer 40 miles from where the Milwaukee Bucks play their home games in Wisconsin. The Bucks were the first team to boycott a game. Other NBA teams followed, with the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers, Boston Celtics, and the Toronto Raptors all boycotting their playoff games to focus on the more significant issue at hand.

NBA players were also given the freedom to include social injustice messages on the back of their jerseys, such as ‘Black Lives Matter’, ‘Enough’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Equality’, and ‘How Many More’.

Grange says he is pleased with what the NBA has done to support its players and says he appreciates NBA commissioner Adam Sliver`s proactive actions.

“Its been significant that players like LeBron James, have been so outspoken. And I think that on the team side, or the league side, Adam Silver, and the league in general has been pretty forward thinking and I think they have embraced it,” he says.

Grange also says prominent players like James are creating a safe space where people are free to speak about these issues without the fear of punishment.

When it comes to the effectiveness of the NBA`s actions, Grange says he believes it is simply too early to measure, and it will be a long process that will take more than six months to solve.

“I think on the league front, when the players had their brief walk out there before the second round of playoffs, you know, a lot of work came out of that within awareness by the league to a need to create avenues for hiring of people of colour, and investing in black communities and other communities, marginalized communities, in other words, actually has to follow until I think that’s a big step,” Grange says.

There has also been a number of NBA players who have stepped up to spread awareness such as Oklahoma City Thunder guard George Hill, and Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown who have made great efforts in using their platforms to fight against racial injustice.

When looking at the Raptors roster, Grange says Norman Powell was vocal about the Black Lives Matter movement during his time in the NBA bubble.

@michaelgrange

“Especially when they were in the bubble, you heard some really passionate, thoughtful, well informed views shared by Norman Powell who generally kind of keeps to himself like, he’s pretty low key and really, about his work as a professional. But when that summer was unfolding, he really revealed that side of himself where he was very clear, like, these are issues he thought a lot about, cares about he was educated when he spoke about them,” he says.

Covering The Toronto Raptors in ‘The Bubble’

Over Grange`s 25 year career in sports reporting, covering the NBA and the Toronto Raptors in the bubble in Orlando was something that he had never done before.

“ It was a little bit surreal, because you’ve only had, the window of time on zoom calls and stuff to kind of get a feel for exactly what was going on. And you try and talk to people outside of those windows but it wasn’t always that easy. But it was pretty clear like the players had had enough,” he says.

@michaelgrange

Looking ahead into professional sports and activism, Grange says he believes the NBA going through what it did will empower future generations when it comes to athlete activism, and that this has affected athletes positively.

“I think it empowered people who maybe weren’t confident or didn’t realize how much power they had and I think it educated people, not just players or athletes, I think media people like myself about, you know about issues that maybe weren’t as up to speed on or as knowledgeable about,” he says.

Although it may be tough to abolish racism and social inequality in North America in a few regular seasons or years, these professional teams and athletes will continue their fight against racial and social injustice while empowering their fans and the younger generations to do the same.

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