By Steve Silverman
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The racists have tried to invade the NHL once again.
The latest attack came Saturday night in Chicago at the United Center, and the target was Washington Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly.
Smith-Pelly found himself in the penalty box, and some seemingly wealthy – they were sitting in the front row — but classless and ignorant fans invaded his space and his psyche.
These four fans did not believe that an African-Canadian player should be playing hockey. They conveyed this message by shouting “basketball, basketball, basketball” at him through the glass next to the penalty box.
Was this as abhorrent as the reaction that fans have had in the past in Boston or Buffalo, when derogatory racial terms were used to describe black players? No, it is not as blatant.
But the spirit is the exact same. Fans, who thought they were anonymous because of the pane of plastic that separated them from the player, were taking a gutless and ugly perspective and putting it out for the whole world to see.
The Blackhawks have taken the proper steps in banning the four people – three men and one woman – from the United Center. The term “ban” has been used, but it is not clear whether the privilege of going to the Blackhawks’ home has been taken away for a week, a month, a season or for life.
These people are racists who have no place in decent society. The sport of hockey is in many ways the most progressive of the four major sports, even if there are very few black players on NHL rosters.
The NHL came up with the Everyone Can Play program several years ago, saying its sport was one of inclusion. This was largely meant to welcome the LGBTQ population, but everyone means everyone, and incidents like this and ones that have happened to Joel Ward, Evander Kane and several other black players in the past have to come to a halt immediately.
Ward was the subject of a torrent of N-word attacks when he had the temerity to score a series-winning goal in overtime against the Boston Bruins while playing for the Washington Capitals in 2012. Ward did nothing but follow up a play, gather a rebound and shovel it into the net past Boston netminder Tim Thomas to knock the then-defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins out of the playoffs.
While we like to think that these racist attacks come from just an infinitesimal minority, hundreds of texts and emails went up on websites condemning a black man for scoring the series-winning goal.
Racial wounds are fresh all over this country. There are incidents involving African-Americans and some kind of racist undertone every day. These should not be glossed over or underestimated.
The hatred shown in past generations resulted in dogs and water cannons being used on African-Americans who were asking for their basic liberties. An incident like the one Saturday night in Chicago is not as physically damaging, but it is psychologically destructive and painful.
It sheds light on our society that many things have not changed as much as we would like to think they have.
Sports, including ice hockey, are supposed to be about merit and ability. It’s not how much money one has or social standing. It’s about the way you perform on the field, court or ice. A black man can play ice hockey in the NHL if he is good enough and a white man can play in the NBA if he has the talent.
The time for assigning racial stereotypes in sports – and in all of society – is long past. It makes some weak and pitiful people feel better about themselves by putting others down because of their perceived differences.
This is where sports can lead the way. The Blackhawks have reacted by banning these individuals, and the NHL has reiterated that there is no place for racism in their sport.
Yet, it exists. It is on display in both harsh and subtle ways, and we are all the poorer for it. Sports has the opportunity to lead the way in this area, and while teams and leagues have taken steps, much more has to be done.
Racist attitudes in all of society are intolerable, and leagues such as the NHL, NBA, MLB and NFL have a chance to set the standard for all of us.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @Profootballboy