Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Atlanta Thrashers and Black Players: A Follow-Up

This photo is here because its colours incidentally match our header--not because Johnny Oduya is in it.

A month ago, I wrote an article discussing the Atlanta Thrashers' acquisition of black players over the past year and a half. I argued that, not only had they built a roster with the largest percentage of black players in the NHL, but they had done so intentionally, with marketing in mind. Needless to say, it was a contentious thesis, and I got some heat.

I expected heat. Race is a topic that makes people oversensitive, accusatory, defensive, unreasonable, and blind, among other adjectives. Many people don't engage it near enough to talk about it reasonably. For example: people don't understand that perfect equality is a little harder to accomplish when one group is trying to claw its way up from years of oppression and the other is reluctantly ceding ground when it wants to. People don't realize that active, blatant racism--segregation, racial epithets, full-on hatred--is still very much alive in some parts of North America, because they don't live there. Some people don't even understand how the racial lines are drawn. Commenters told me the Thrashers' black players aren't even black--they're half-black. "Unfortunately, they have white moms," one said. Please. Good luck telling that to the doorman at a segregated nightclub. I'm only half-black. Why can't I go halfway in?

Furthermore, far too many conversations about race end with one person being labeled a racist. People are so afraid of this dangerous accusation that they avoid the subject altogether. Previous attempts to point out the Thrashers' strategy fizzled in silly accusations of racism simply for noticing, because that's unfortunately how racism works now. Color blindness is the recommended policy, and while it's not a good one (ignorance is never the cure), those who don't adhere to it are often run out of town for seemingly adhering to its presumed opposite: super duper racism to the max. It's a false dichotomy. Is it really so difficult to notice, and then not hate?

Apparently, yes. As such, race is a thorny issue. The Thrashers' story is fascinating and engaging, but it's difficult to discuss without using conversation-ending buzzwords like "exploit," as Thrashers GM Rick Dudley did in denying everything. I felt that mainstream writers and hockey people would have a hard time even broaching the subject unless they were responding to somebody that had already made the necessary explicit claims. Then you're just reacting, not noticing. If it sounds stupid, that's because it is. But consider the title of Jeff Klein's article: Thrashers Don't See Race, Just Opportunity. How did they see opportunity if they didn't see race? The line the race conversation forces people to toe is not only ridiculous, it's outside the realm of common sense.

Sidenote: Klein called us "the blogosphere," but don't feel bad we didn't get named. Feel bad for the other bloggers who thought they were part of the blogosphere. Sorry, guys, it's only us now.

This is the way the Thrashers have to play it. I never claimed that they were getting black players without considering their talent or their fit in the lineup. That would be "ludicrous," another word Dudley used. But, if a player happens to be black, and they just happened to acquire him, and this just happens to happen more frequently than at any other time in the history of the NHL in one of the blackest cities in America and the soulless marketing department just happens to notice, well, that's just happenstance. No racism here. Just a happy coincidence. Right? The nature and prevalence of the colour blindness argument forces the Thrashers to feign ignorance at the same time they're so conveniently savvy to start advertising on urban radio stations and magazines. Are you going to tell me the Thrashers just found out about their Atlantan African-American media? No, they knew about it beforehand, and they also knew they didn't have the personnel to utilize that stream of marketing. Incidentally, they acquired 20% of the black players in the NHL.

I don't mind Dudley's refutation. More than anything, it's unfortunate that what he said was what he had to say. I got heat and I'm nobody. Imagine the heat he'd get. The Thrashers would be finished if somebody inside their camp were to admit that, as seems apparent to me, this plan was hatched shortly after they realized they were going to draft Evander Kane. Their social awareness would be misconstrued as racial "exploitation" at a time when colour blindness is policy, and suddenly, they'd be alienated by the very community they're trying so hard to reach. Rick Dudley did the right thing in denying everything.

But forgive me if I think he just winked.

Other notes: you should really be following us on Twitter; and thanks to Puck Daddy for actually naming us in his piece on the subject.


  1. Quotes from this article from Bloomberg.

    “This is the first time I’ve ever had this many guys who look like me in the locker room,” Kane, a 19-year-old Vancouver native, said in an interview at the team’s practice arena. “It’s definitely a nice feeling.”

    “There are lots of good black players in the NHL, we just happen to have five of them here,” Waddell, 52, said during an interview last week in his Duluth, Georgia, office. “We’re not going to be shy about that and will try to use that to help grow the sport in this marketplace.”

    When the team’s local advertising campaign begins in earnest next month, commercials will air on radio stations that have a hip-hop format. The team’s outdoor billboard campaign, which had primarily been focused in northern suburbs, will have an increased presence in downtown Atlanta this season. The club plans to advertise in more predominantly black publications and cross-promote the team with the National Basketball Association’s Atlanta Hawks, with whom the Thrashers share Philips Arena.

    With four of the five players being biracial, Stewart, 25, likes to correct the official total.

    “Technically, it’s 2 1/2,” he said.

    The joke draws laughter from Kane.

    “He loves that line,” said Kane, who was named after former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield.

  2. It's sort of annoying that people are being so dismissive.

    That said, I think I just saw Pass it to Bulis referenced as a credible source! Early yet, but the scavenger hunt is coming along.

  3. I love that, prior to this shift, their billboard campaign had been primarily focused in northern suburbs. I'm going to let that speak for itself.

    Also: I laugh out loud at Stewart's ethnic math.

  4. Agreed. The downplaying of race is getting to be a bit redundant. There is a ridiculous amount of fear in being labeled "racist."

    Good read.

  5. PitB was not only reference as a credible source, it was referenced as being the entire blogosphere. I think my ego is going to start raging out of control.

  6. Should I go back to the scavenger hunt and add "Jeff Klein, so impressed with the quality of Pass it to Bulis, insists it's the only blog on the internet?"

  7. Even when I'm visiting other blogs, I think to myself, "This is not my blog, and therefore, not a blog."

  8. I'm a Canucks fan. If the Thrashers want to sign players based on their physical appearance for the purpose of marketing rather than based on their talent for the purpose of winning games, I'm fine with that. This is Gary Bettman's NHL, and I wish them good luck.

  9. Anonymous, this is another false dichotomy. It's not either/or. It's both. The Thrashers are not sacrificing skill to acquire black players. They're considering blackness when they acquire skill.

  10. Is that so wrong? Do they have any less integrity for it? The strategy makes sense to me. I don't think they could have brought any more talented white players into Atlanta in this past off season. It's far from an ideal destination. So if you can bring in the same level of black talent, why the heck not? I think in the big picture it'll be good for growing the sport among kids in the area. Grooming a fan base rather than pretending you have one *COUGH PHOENIX COUGH*.

  11. @Anonymous

    Come on! Just look at who the players are! Regardless of race, Kane, Oduya, and Byfuglien in particular are quality NHL players who could easily make any team (with cap space) and are not being overpaid. Stewart, meanwhile, is on a two-way contract and is impressively having the best start to a season in an otherwise fringe NHL career, and Nigel Dawes is a perfectly legitimate option for an NHL/AHL shuffle player on a two-way contract.

    You racist! *wink

  12. So your reasoning is "I'm right, and the Thrashers know they do it, but when you ask them they're going to deny it because they can't admit to it, so just take me word for it guys LOL"

  13. Just with fancier words and better reasoning.

  14. Wow, sensitive.
    I didn't say these Thrashers lack talent - I'm just saying that if the organization's priorities put the skin colour of a player high up on their list of priorities for signing - like Harrison suggests - then they deserve the result they get.
    I remember when the Flames were based in Atlanta. Bettman sees this failed market as now having potential. He may have a point, but if the team has to resort to this to put bums in seats, something's very wrong.
    What's really racist is ignoring a local team because the athletes have a skin colour you don't identify with.

  15. This is where I think the communication breakdown is coming from. Atlanta's black community isn't ignoring the Thrashers because they're not black. They simply don't care about the Thrashers, period. Apathy is not racism.

    But, it's natural to support things you identify with. Everybody does it. The Thrashers marketing team sees blackness as a jumping off point to make a connection with an apathetic market.

    Did you listen to CBC broadcasts in Punjabi? No, and that doesn't make you a racist. But don't you think that venture connected with even a few Indo-Canadians who didn't care about hockey before? (Obviously not enough, as they discontinued the service, but I digress.)

    That's all this is. If you have a large ethnic market, you have to figure out how to connect with it.

    You're right, though, that if the Atlanta fanbase was turning AWAY from the team because the team wasn't black enough, that would be kinda racist, no? And, effectively, that's about what happened in Indiana. But nobody agrees with me on that, so whatever.

  16. So maybe I'm missing something here, but I'm not sure why anybody would get upset if the Thrashers did say that talent being equal, of course they would acquire players that a large segment of their potential fans can physically relate to (notice the careful dancing there). I could see why a team wouldn't want to say (and truly shouldn't be doing) that they DON'T acquire players of a particular racial/ethnic makeup, but as a for instance, no-one blinks when the NY Rangers pick up as many American players as they can, or when the Canadiens actively hunt francophone players. All other things being equal, why wouldn't you?

  17. Because people are oversensitive of decisions influenced by race, regardless of what those decisions are. And yes, it's not that different from what others teams, such as the Canadiens, do.

  18. Interesting article, and I think you're spot on in your accesment too. You had mentioned that the'nucks have the only two players of south asian decent on their roster and there could be something along the same line to that as well.

    I don't think it's so horrible really. I'm quite proud of my Swedish heritage and I've always taken a shine to Swedish players and if you think back I remember it coming up quite often that picking up Paul Kariya would be a good move not just because he's a great player, not just because he's a local boy but because of his Japanese heritage.

    Something about conecting with the large asian community in Vancouver. Funny how the worlds changed so much that not so long ago such a "horrible" (yet perfectly logical from a marketing persepctive thing could be discussed freely and openly.

  19. You know what, I say good for the Thrashers! Good for them to try and maximize their revenue stream! As a sports team you must use what ever marketing opportunities you have. Ex. The Panthers and their "Seats for a King" promotion after LeBron James became a Heat.

    It's all about recognizing and maximizing your marketing opportunities.

  20. Same reason why the Grizzlies should have drafted Nash, and the Habs should always load up on Francophones - I like what the Thrashers are doing regardless of the risk.

  21. After reading these two articles I respect Atlanta a little more for its actions. Originally I thought the idea of "stocking up" on black players to draw in the black community was a little absurd. These two blog posts have brought up what ESPN and the NHL ignore. At least the Thrashers are attempting to find a new market to appeal to and grow a fanbase, because I feel like several of the Sun Belt teams do a laughable job. If this works, good for Atlanta, but if it doesn't see much results I don't think Atlanta should have a franchise much longer with its draw and perhaps another city should have a second chance like Atlanta was given.

  22. Harrison, the more I read through the archives (I only started reading PITB after I first heard about the scrabble challenge back in December and I am duly ashamed for this) the more I fall deeply, madly and passionately in love with you and Skeeter too. To be able to read someone who writes about the sport I love not only with passion and deep intelligence but also a wicked sense of humour has increased my enjoyment of Hockey tenfold.
    I salute you, sirs, for doing what I thought impossible: flat out making Hockey better.

  23. John, this is the compliment of a lifetime. Skeeter and I can only thank you.

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