For more than a year now, parents from across the nation have been telling them appalling stories.
Dads from the East said they heard the monkey calls behind the net. Moms from the North said they didn’t realize how many times their brown sons had been called the n-word on the ice.
“They were flabbergasted,” said the black dad who well knew how rough it was out there for his son.
When that son, 14-year-old Divyne Apollon II, told the story of the monkey calls and other racist taunts that led to a brawl at a hockey tournament in Maryland a little more than a year ago, it started cracking an undercurrent of racism in a predominantly white sport across the nation.
“The impact was great,” his dad, Divyne Apollon Sr., told me a year later.
“It exposed how long this has been going on. And by talking about it, maybe we changed some people’s minds about quitting.”
That reckoning went even further recently as the National Hockey League — which has wrangled with racist fans for years — addressed allegations of racist abuse by coaches and announced new standards and training.
“Not everyone will approve of every coach’s methods,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said, after the league’s Board of Governors meeting in December. “However, there are lines that cannot be crossed — clearly physical abuse and racial and homophobic language cross the line.”
So who’s going to fix this?
It is exhausting for people of color to have to keep fighting racism, to have to keep explaining racism, to constantly be on the hook for enduring and deflecting the pervasive, racist perspective that continues to eat away at our nation.
It’s about time for white folks to do their share of the work.
Meet one of them: Tammi Lynch.
When Divyne, one of her son’s best friends, got suspended from that tournament for defending himself against the racism more than a year ago, she didn’t just commiserate with other parents and give the kid a hug, like so many of us would have.
She raced home between tournament games with her art-school brain on fire and threw together a logo. It was the red “anti” symbol — the kind you see on “No Smoking” signs — with a hockey stick used to slash across the word “racism.” She quickly printed it out on a few sticker sheets she had in her home office. The entire team — players and parents — slapped those stickers on their jackets, sticks and helmets for the rest of the tournament.
I wrote about it and it exploded. Famous black hockey players reached out to support Divyne, hundreds of people reached out to Lynch asking to buy the stickers and scores of parents whose kids endured similar, racist climates reached out to Divyne’s dad.
Has anything changed, a year later?
“None of the stories surprise me. Nothing shocks me. There is nothing I haven’t heard myself,” said Apollon. “They inboxed me with stories about how their child wants to quit or they don’t know if they should keep playing because of the hate. I told them, ‘Don’t let them quit. Your child is never going to not be black. They’re never going to not be biracial. People can say what they want, but there is nothing wrong with your child being black or biracial and wanting to play hockey. You can’t fix those people.’ ”
He’s still hearing the stories today, especially now that he and his son have moved to the South, to a hockey academy that blends school and training in Florida.
That’s where Lynch comes in. When she and Apollon saw the huge impact their story had, when they saw people fashioning their own anti-racism logos online, they knew they had struck a nerve.
From Canada to Sweden, orders came in by the thousands. They were finalists for the NHL’s Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award. (They didn’t win, but got a lot of kudos and exposure during a tribute to them in Las Vegas.)
On March 21, they will host a charity hockey game at the St. James ice arena in Northern Virginia, featuring local hockey stars advocating for more diversity in the sport.
There has been change — slow, but incremental — for players of color in a largely white sport this past year.
O’Ree, the National Hockey League’s first black player and a 2018 inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame, saw the premiere of a movie about his life.
He was joined in the honor at the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2019 by Neal Henderson, who has been coaching D.C. hockey kids for 40 years at Fort Dupont.
The NHL is touring a mobile museum about people of color in hockey across America; we got to see it when it stopped at the Canadian Embassy last year. The league also hired William Douglas, a prominent D.C. political journalist and goalie who’s been writing a side project for the past eight years — a blog called “The Color of Hockey” — to keep writing the blog for its website.
Through the Washington Capitals, the NHL released a video tribute to one of my son’s two African American hockey coaches at Gonzaga College High School — Marquise Cotten — who began his career being coached by Henderson at Fort Dupont, the District’s only hockey rink.
Today, in between being the lead for a team of special-education teachers in a Maryland middle school and managing her children’s hockey careers, Lynch is working on a curriculum of inclusion she hopes will be used by hockey clubs across the nation.
It sounds like common sense, but it isn’t easy in a sport that has seen little diversity for generations.
“I have to be careful to make sure I ask lots of different people for perspective,” she said. “I go back and forth between saying: ‘Hey, white people! You don’t realize what your bias is and you don’t realize what your white privilege is!’ to navigating that, what do they call it — white fragility — if I want to change people’s mindsets.”
Yup, it’s on us white people to do the work. We’re the ones who made the mess in the first place.