This is a column about how social change sneaks up on you. As Hemingway’s character said of how you go bankrupt: Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly. Hockey has been the most glacial sport in this respect.
Jackie Robinson integrated baseball 80 years ago. Colin Kaepernick injected justice issues into football and still fights on. Basketball players and coaches, like LeBron and Gregg Popovich, sometimes seem like citizens first and sports figures afterwards. Hockey was different. It was slower.
Don Cherry was there forever, embarrassing the game. Then suddenly — gone. Shortly after, the Leafs dropped coach Mike Babcock: no social context, the team just wasn’t winning. Then a revelation about Babcock manipulating young players. Then — marginal player Akim Aliu connects that tenuously to past racism by Bill Peters, Calgary’s coach who once assisted Babcock, and the duffers on TSN’s Overdrive assume Peters is done, he can’t survive. Huh?
Let me dwell lovingly on the Overdrive panel. It involves three ex-players, with no journalist hovering to keep them on track. Bryan Hayes, default host type, was a player who never made it to the NHL. Jamie McLennan (Noodles) was a backup NHL goalie but never more. Jeff O’Neill (O-Dog) was a star though not Hall of Fame calibre. They’re a passable (male) hockey proletariat.
Tuesday they try engaging the Peters/race thing without much sucess. They prefer tittering about the “Fecal Flinger,” a bizarre Toronto case involving feces. O-Dog is miffed yet tickled: You’re walking along and “some guy throws a deuce right in your yip.” He’d like to be a superhero (Captain Underpants, says Noodles) with a toilet seat around his neck, and take the FF down. Go to break.
Later, the race/Peters case winds insistently back. They don’t really get it, puzzle over it, relate it to their hockey lives. Hayes says, nailing the weight of the status quo, “A lot of stuff just was, things just were, it’s not that way any more.” O-Dog says he didn’t let coaches push him around, “But there was never — I guess because we’re white — we never dealt with racism, it’s a totally different animal” — as if grasping something he’s heard about and mulled over.
Hayes says he’s glad O-Dog stood up for himself but he was a star while Hayes was “in the room, hanging on for dear life and there’s one guy who can give you a chance to play tomorrow night.” Noodles: “Right. That’s the abuse of power. But racism is different.” And Hayes says, “But they do intersect on the grassroots level.” This is Overdrive: on race, class and power!
By now I’m waiting for them to connect the spontaneous uprisings against state power in Chile, Bolivia, Hong Kong, Iraq, and Iran to Bill Peters and the Rockford Ice Hogs dressing room 10 years ago. This is my proof that there’s such a thing as the zeitgeist. When the Sheldon Kennedy sex abuse scandal in hockey erupted in 1996, it never metastasized this way.
It’s also my proof that, as Martin Luther King said and Barack Obama loves quoting, “The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.” You can see it bending in that conversation, slowly but steadily. It makes you confident it’ll eventually get there. The real question is, Will that happen before our species, led by the rich and mighty, wipes itself out via climate change and possibly nuclear negligence, before the slow bendy advance to justice culminates.
It’s heartening that the insight here came from the grunts on Overdrive, not the journalists on its rush-hour rival, Tim and Sid. Ex-athletes have their flaws, but they’re rarely as sententious as sports journos.
The first time I saw the late flamboyant sportscaster, Howard Cosell, was ages ago at a Manhattan press conference on apartheid South Africa participating in the Olympics. Cosell stood in the middle of the room as it broke up, bellowing how “complex” this was. No one listened.
Anyway it wasn’t complex, if you paid attention to it, which few did. But Cosell was basically right about how this was coming; it just wouldn’t arrive for decades. The damn thing about the zeitgeist is the waiting.
Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.