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, Roberto Clemente and Jarome Iginla. Frankly, the list is endless.
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?
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.