The NHL Is Gutless

The National Hockey League showed recently that there’s a big difference between wanting inclusiveness and being willing to fight for it.

Earlier this month, the NHL began promoting its Pathway to Hockey Summit, a job fair in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on February 2 in advance of the NHL All-Star weekend. The point of the career fair was to broaden the hiring pool for staff positions in professional hockey. On LinkedIn, the NHL posted, “Participants must be 18 years of age or older, based in the U.S., and identify as female, Black, Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic/Latino, Indigenous, LGBTQIA+, and/or a person with a disability. Veterans are also welcome and encouraged to attend.”

Directly targeting diverse job candidates was a sound strategy. The NHL’s own demographic study last year revealed that 83.6 percent of its workforce is white. Men hold nearly 62 percent of the league’s jobs.

But Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor, saw an opportunity to create another senseless battle in the culture war. After finding out about the NHL’s nefarious plan to attract historically marginalized groups, DeSantis’s press secretary, Bryan Griffin, released this statement:

Discrimination of any sort is not welcome in the state of Florida, and we do not abide by the woke notion that discrimination should be overlooked if applied in a politically popular manner or against a politically unpopular demographic. We are fighting all discrimination in our schools and our workplaces, and we will fight it in publicly accessible places of meeting or activity. We call upon the National Hockey League to immediately remove and denounce the discriminatory prohibitions it has imposed on attendance to the 2023 “Pathway to Hockey” summit.

Rather than take a bold stand against DeSantis—who’s vying to be the GOP’s most prominent anti-“woke” warrior—the NHL buckled. The post was removed from LinkedIn, and an NHL spokesperson claimed in a statement to Fox News that the original wording “was not accurate.” The league’s intent was to “encourage all individuals to consider a career in our game.”

[Read: Want to understand the red-state onslaught? Look at Florida.]

The embarrassing incident wasn’t the only time this month that the NHL retreated from its efforts to make hockey more inclusive.

Last week, the Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov didn’t participate in his team’s pregame skate, because he refused to wear an LGBTQ Pride Night warm-up jersey or use a rainbow-taped hockey stick. The event was part of the league’s Hockey Is for Everyone campaign, whose mission statement reads: “We believe all hockey programs—from professionals to youth organizations—should provide a safe, positive and inclusive environment for players and families regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender identity or expression, disability, sexual orientation and socio-economic status.” Explaining his decision to not take part, Provorov said he wanted to be “true to myself” and to his Russian Orthodox faith.

NHL teams have hosted Pride nights for years, and nothing should be controversial about a team wanting all of its fans to feel welcome, or wanting to acknowledge its LGBTQ fan base.

Provorov is entitled to his beliefs, and I’m not going to pretend that his absence from a warm-up skate is an unforgivable offense. But the indulgent reaction to his decision is noteworthy. The NHL released a toothless statement declaring that players can decide for themselves which league diversity initiatives to support. Provorov’s coach defended him even more emphatically. “Provy did nothing wrong,” the Flyers coach John Tortorella said last week. “Just because you don’t agree with his decision doesn’t mean he did anything wrong.”

Tortorella’s response sounds extremely hypocritical in light of what he said when, in 2016, the NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence against Black people. Tortorella, one of the NHL’s most outspoken personalities, said then that he’d bench any player who decided to sit for the national anthem. In his mind, standing up against oppression and injustice is not worthwhile, but spurning an anti-bigotry event is entirely legitimate. (Full disclosure: I am a producer of the ESPN documentary series that Kaepernick and the director Spike Lee are making about the former quarterback’s banishment from pro football.)

The dustups over the job fair and Provorov were crucial tests for the NHL, and the league failed in both cases. It’s simply not ready to deal with the discomfort that unfortunately comes with welcoming underrepresented groups.

Inclusiveness has never been an easy fight. Three years have not yet passed since the murder of George Floyd, which prompted a number of companies to publicly pledge to be better allies to marginalized people. Where has that 2020 energy gone?

[Jemele Hill: Athletes will never be quiet again]

The NHL and every other high-profile organization that vows to promote more inclusion should be prepared to withstand a backlash led by political opportunists. DeSantis, in particular, has used his political position to bully corporations and amplify white conservatives’ grievances. Last year, DeSantis signed the “Stop WOKE Act,” which, in addition to restricting how race and gender issues are taught in Florida schools, bars state businesses from using any diversity and equity training that could make their employees feel uncomfortable.

DeSantis has also picked a major fight with Disney, one of Florida’s largest employers. He has been beefing with the company over the state’s Parental Rights and Education legislation, which opponents have called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Under this law, “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through third grade or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” Disney paused its political donations in Florida over the bill, and then-CEO Bob Chapek apologized to his employees for initially staying silent. “You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down,” Chapek wrote in a statement to colleagues. “I am sorry.”

To retaliate against what DeSantis called “woke Disney,” the governor is seeking to terminate the company’s 50-year control over the 40 square miles that holds its theme parks and attractions. DeSantis seems to think that these cultural fights will propel him all the way to the White House, but they only make him look small.

Unfortunately, this approach is not completely misguided. The NHL has certainly given DeSantis reason to believe that his kind of browbeating can succeed. However, what professional-hockey officials should be concerned about is how their actions (or inaction) will be absorbed by the women, people of color, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ people whom the league is supposedly trying to reach. Tortorella not only defended Provorov but said he never considered benching him for skipping the warm-ups. (Kaepernick’s protest, meanwhile, didn’t keep him from attending practices or other team activities.)

Ultimately, in the past week or so, the NHL has proved it isn’t a true ally of communities that deserve protection. If you can so easily abandon your good intentions, others can fairly question how committed you were to them in the first place.

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