I had a very brief back-and-forth tonight with Greg Wyshynski from Puck Daddy, but as sometimes happens I had to come here to explain myself in a bit more detail. To clarify, my complaint is not with Greg himself or with Puck Daddy specifically. It’s with the hockey media in general, but since I know Greg is accessible on Twitter, I went to him to voice my concern.
As you may already have heard, Joel Ward’s game-winning goal for the Washington Capitals, eliminating the Boston Bruins in a dramatic seventh-game overtime, resulted in a slew of hideous racist reactions on Twitter. This might have made national news on its own, but particularly coming on the heels of the horrible racist reactions to The Hunger Games film and the heavily social-media-driven controversy surrounding the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, it was justifiable to afford it coverage. The rapid-response condemnations from both the Bruins and the Capitals were excellent, if a bit of a no-brainer. Ward himself had a very level-headed reaction to questions I’m sure he never wanted to have to answer. At Puck Daddy, Harrison Mooney, himself a person of color, penned an excellent response that went beyond the dismissive and oversimplified idea that “race shouldn’t matter,” and called out those who were ready to blame the whole thing on the Bruins fans, as if racism in hockey were endemic to a particular city or fan base.
None of this raised my hackles. Racism in hockey is an issue barely beneath the surface. The NHL has advanced a bit, I guess – there are now almost enough active NHL players of black or African descent as there are teams – but the issue is still present, and worth discussing. When the hero of a game seven overtime is assailed with racial epithets on a major social network, that’s noteworthy.
What concerns me is that those racist tweets now come up every time Joel Ward is mentioned. Tonight, it was Harrison Mooney who felt hate-tweets merited mention in his write-up of the Rangers’ overtime win, in which Ward took the four-minute double minor on which the Rangers scored their game-tying and game-winning goals. I’m not accusing Mooney, or any of the other reporters who made the same decision, of having an agenda — far from it — but I’m concerned about the unintended consequences when idiots on Twitter keep working their way into the story.Athletes, hockey players perhaps more than others, often become defined by a simple narrative — one or two facts that the general public knows about them, that come up again and again during game action or in news reports. Sidney Crosby has his parents’ clothes dryer, Henrik Lundqvist has his rock band (and his beautiful, beautiful face) and Patrick Kane has his limousine and his preference for exact change. It would be totally unfair to Joel Ward for his narrative to be defined by his race, or worse yet by the people who hate him for his race.
[On a related note: As a bisexual hockey player, I know if I were in the NHL I’d be a lot slower to come out if I thought every time I did something notable, the article would mention all the people calling me faggot on Twitter. ]
That leaves aside, of course, that every media shout-out rewards the Twitter trolls for their bad behavior. Twitter is the Internet’s current top destination for attention whores, users constantly chasing “trending topics” and tallying up their retweets. The more attention is paid to anything on Twitter, the more people are going to climb aboard the bandwagon. Just after the game tonight, “Joel Ward” was the third-ranked trending topic. In my very brief, informal survey, very few of those tweets even mentioned anything relating to the sport of hockey.
As to whether the subject merits mention, I’d say that the subject of race in hockey always merits discussion, and reactions on Twitter fit into that discussion. What I’d question is whether it should be brought up in relation to an individual player. Search for any NHL player of any prominence, and I’d wager you’ll find a sizable contingent of Tweeps saying hateful, horrible things about him – but I never see those tweets mentioned, even following a game in which a player scores a big goal or takes a killer penalty. After his late-game goal tonight, for instance, Brad Richards received some pretty choice words from more than one Twitter user (No links here – it’s not hard to search Twitter if you’re curious). I didn’t see that mentioned in any write-up of the game.
Furthermore, one rarely sees a story about President Obama’s latest statement accompanied by links to racist tweets about him. Sure, there are plenty of articles about the way the President’s race is attacked, but it’s not as if every time his name comes up, the author reminds us that there are bigots on Twitter saying horrible things. The same is true of Oprah, of Kanye West, and virtually every other prominent person of color who might be the subject of electronic hate speech. Articles about Alex Ovechkin don’t reference Twitter users who say nasty things about Russians. Hell, they rarely mention the many prominent hockey commentators who regularly and unrepentantly slander an entire hemisphere and their “style of play.”
Yes, I realize I’m playing into the trend by even writing this. I do so only in the slim hope the sports media will begin to consider the unintended consequences of their coverage. I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to call attention to racism, whether or not its in the context of hockey. I just don’t think it’s fair to an athlete that his identity should be defined by a bunch of attention-seeking bigots on Twitter. Let’s let Joel Ward determine what Joel Ward’s narrative should be.
It’s not news when trolls say racist stuff on the Internet. Let’s stop treating it like news, and give them exactly the attention they deserve: none.