Racial homogeneity in the NHL
Last week I was criticized for my statement that the Caps’ traditions lacked the time-honored quality that makes many team traditions so special. It bears mentioning that I am, in fact, a native Washingtonian, and it bears reminding that I am, in fact, a Caps fan, and that my posts have been overwhelmingly positive. I’m not here to sabotage anyone.
All that being said, there’s an issue I want to bring up that’s unlikely to portray our team, or hockey in general, in a very positive light. Read to the end, or don’t comment, because my message ultimately is in support of strong community relations, and that’s something I’m hoping any Washingtonian can agree with.
You may have heard hockey referred to as a “white man’s sport.” You may also have been to a Caps game, or any other NHL team’s game, and failed to see more than a handful of African American or Hispanic attendees. You may also have realized that at one point, by having Jason Doig, Anson Carter, and Mike Grier, the Caps roster encompassed a large percentage of all African American players in the league.
Today, the NHL includes more like two dozen players of African descent, almost a dozen players of East Asian descent, and a handful of Latin American and Middle Eastern players, in a league of well over 600 players. To be clear, I’m not laying blame on anyone for the racial and ethnic homogeneity of the NHL’s player and fan base. I am simply offering the issue up for discussion, and I’m also offering up a solution that’s by no means novel, but in my opinion underutilized.
Hockey originated and continues to be played predominantly in the colder climates of Northern Europe and Canada – not a background that situates a sport well for diversity and broad access. But the issue of access is not just geographic, it’s financial. Today, lots of sports are prohibitively expensive, but hockey may well top them all. Between pucks, sticks, padding, skates, and access to an ice rink, hockey has become a luxury largely reserved for the upper middle class. While this is not inherently a race issue (though socioeconomic homogeneity is an issue of its own, perhaps equally present among hockey fans and players), the census tells us that white families have a substantially higher median income than African American and Hispanic families.
So the issue is two-fold, first that we watch the sports our parents watched -- so if hockey is historically followed by white people, it will take a shift to bring minority populations into the fan base. Second, that we watch the sports we play -- so if hockey is prohibitively expensive for some members of our community, it will take a shift to increase access to the sport.
In my opinion, strong community relations provide a solution to both of these issues. A robust community relations program increases access both to games and to the sport in general. The Caps have great programs along these lines, but the one that most comes to mind for me is Capitals Hockey School, a program I’ve discussed before that involves players visiting elementary and middle schools to do a presentation on hockey skills and donate equipment. A program like that one can create fans, and even players, where there might not traditionally be any, and so the cycle begins to break.
It’s not instantaneous, and as we’ve seen over the decades with the Washington Redskins, a sports team’s relationship with racial issues can be complicated. But it’s important to me to distinguish between a complicated relationship and a non-existent one. People who call hockey a “white man’s sport” are hopefully referring to its history, not its future. Building a tradition of supporting this team among D.C.’s minority populations will take time, because like I said last week, a tradition by definition needs to be passed down from generation to generation, building in its depth and breadth.
I encourage Caps fans, and all hockey fans, to support their teams’ community relations programs, to the extent that these are among the largest efforts I have seen to increase diversity in the hockey fan and player bases. Likewise, I encourage the Caps, and all hockey franchises, to pour more funds into community relations programs, because I hope it goes without saying that improved diversity will enrich this sport tremendously.
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