Violence On And Off The Ice: Twitter Racism And The NHL

By Guest Contributor David J. Leonard


Moments after Joel Ward’s overtime goal secured a playoff victory for the Washington Capitals over Boston last month, the twittersphere exploded with a barrage of racial epithets, threats of violence, and stereotypes.

Editor’s Note: Trigger Warning under the cut–pictures of racist slurs

Here is but a sampling of the vitriol and hostility resulting from his goal (for complete list, go here):

Receiving national attention, such racism was dismissed through narratives of fan ignorance, fan drunkenness, fan anger, and a myriad of other excuses that explain the situation as of little importance to understanding race in contemporary society. For example, at DCist, shawnwhiteboy offered the following response to an article about these tweets:

The obvious problem with twitter is that any drunk asshole with a smart phone can use a hashtag and get ‘hits’. The problem with the media is that you cover these drunk assholes as news. When will this end? Is this comment I am typing news worthy? No! What’s worse, the last sentence of this article lumps all bruin fans together with those drunk assholes. Boston fans are passionate and sometimes obnoxious but not racist. Having lived in boston and dc for 5 years each, people are not more enlightened in one place over the other. Okay, rant over.. . Those racist comments are terrible, how server going to get back at those fuckers listed here?

In an ESPN story covering the backlash against Ward, another commenter offered a similar refrain, identifying the Internet as the reason for such outbursts: “It isn’t at all surprising to see the slew of racist comments after the game,” he wrote. “Social media allows total anonymity if the user desires; these things can be said with no fear of reprisal. Such bravery!” These explanations were commonplace not only in the aftermath of Ward’s game winning goal, but following a game less than two weeks later.

With less than a minute to go in a game versus the New York Rangers, with his team up by a goal, Ward committed a penalty that sent him to the box for four minutes. Before he would be able to step back onto the ice, the Rangers would score two power play goals, sending the Capitals to a crushing defeat. Less than two weeks after facing a barrage of racial taunts and epithets from Bruins fans, Ward now faced similar violence from Capitals fans.

A common response to both of these incidences has been to link them to hockey; that above all else, the hostility embodies racism in hockey culture. Seemingly ignoring and erasing online racism of all kinds and those particular to virtual sports landscapes, hockey fans have become the problem rather than a symptom. Ironically, such a narrative imagines hockey as the “South” of sports culture.

Given its whiteness and even the working-class demographic of its fan base, commentators have sought to identity this as reflective of hockey culture, rather than sports or even society at large. Race and nation have a particular history within hockey. As I wrote a couple months back following an incident where fans threw a banana at Boston’s Wayne Simmonds, whiteness, privilege, and racism are all part of the hockey story:

Others connected to the sport were not so willing (despite their having greater power and privilege) to reflect on the racial realities and hostilities of the NHL in this moment or elsewhere. While describing it as a “stupid and ignorant action,” Commissioner Gary Bettman made clear that incident was “in no way representative of our fans or the people of London, Ontario.” Maxine Talbot, a teammate of Simmonds, summarily dismissed the incident as “isolated” that said little about the state of hockey: “It’s not like there’s a problem with racism in our league. It’s one person!”

Dismissing it as an aberration and the work of some ignorant fans, the response fails to see the broader history of the NHL, not to mention the larger racial issues at work. While Bettman and others sought to isolate the incidence as the work of a single person who isn’t representative of hockey culture or society at large, others pointed to the persistence of racism within the NHL. Kevin Weeks, who had a banana thrown at him during the 2002 Stanley Cup Playoffs, noted his lack of surprise that Simmonds was subjected to such racism: “I’m not surprised. We have some people that still have their heads in the sand and some people that don’t necessarily want to evolve and aren’t necessarily all that comfortable with the fact that the game is evolving.”

Yet, it would be a mistake to link these visible instances of racism to the whiteness of hockey, its racial politics, or resistance to integration given the ubiquity of racism online and offline. While comforting to construct racial hostility through hockey in that it allows to preserve the myths of integration and breaking down social distance as a weapon against racism, similar racial hostility and tweeted racial epithets can be seen with other sports as well. In the last week, these tweets have been sent out:

While the incidents involving Ward have received ample coverage in parts because of the comfort of blaming hockey, online racism directed at black athletes is not particular to one sport. Integration or greater presence has not led to full acceptance.

At the same time, while one can dismiss these comments as outliers, as representative of trolls or extremists, or even link these comments to the whiteness of hockey, it is crucial to reflect on the larger context. These comments reflect broader trends online, within contemporary racial discourse, and within American sports culture.

From recent tweets from model/actress Jessica Leandra Dos Santos to those directed at webseries showrunner Issa Rae and those following the release of The Hunger Games, Twitter has become rife with racial epithets, sexism, and other forms of hate speech. The level of vitriol and the ubiquity of epithets and violence language have been well-documented: therefore, the tweets directed at Ward reflect a larger pattern of racism online, as opposed to a hockey-specific manifestation. At one level, racism online reflects the technology and aesthetics that define an online environment.

Whether emboldened by anonymity, or the fact that millions of people now have a platform to disseminate their views, ideologies, and world view, the nature of online racism merely reflects the available technology. A 1993 cartoon in The New Yorker captured the appeal of virtual reality for people to voice and show the worst in themselves and society at large.

As Northwestern University professor Pablo Boczkowski told NewsOne, “We always had people shouting on the street. It was a handful of people, and the sender of the message could be clearly identified. Now the audience is much bigger, it’s more unknown, it’s more diverse potentially, and this has changed the dynamics of the game.”

The existence of avatars, online handles, and twitter accounts that can be deleted in a moment notice fosters a culture where epithets and racist pronouncements are seemingly detached from the real-body giving voice to them. The author is unclear, yet the consequences are daily evident. Brendesha Tines, professor African-American studies and psychology at the University of Illinois, describes an online world rampant with racism. In her study of high school youth, she found that 29 percent of African Americans and 42 percent of those identifying as “other” or mixed race experienced racial epithets or other forms of racism online; some 71% of African Americans and 67% of whites and mixed-race youth “witnessed discrimination experienced by same-race and cross-race peers.” It would be a mistake to look at the tweets directed at Joel Ward as an aberration but rather a visible manifestation of the daily realities of online racism.

It would also be a mistake to particularize these tweets as evidence of the sordid debauchery of online spaces. While reflecting online culture, and the presence of “trolls,” the racism directed at Joel Ward, as with other examples, reveals the nature of racism within contemporary society.

“Like the loudest ambulance siren you’ve ever heard,” sociologist Joe Feagin has said. “All this stuff was already there. It’s just the Internet has opened a window into it that we normally would not have had.” Feagin, who along with Leslie Picca, wrote a book exploring the ways white youth talked about race, concluding that two distinct conversations, ways of talking, and linguistic choices, exist: one on the frontstage (those integrated, often public spaces) and the backstage (those private exclusively white spaces).

As one imagine, the backstage has been place rife with racial epithets, jokes, stereotypes, and other white racial frames that don’t mesh with the post-racial narrative. The advent of the Internet, the hegemony of Facebook, and the power of Twitter have merely provided glimpses into those backstage conversations. The online world merely recapitulates the racism, sexism, homophobia, and violence of the “real world.”

The racism directed at Ward from opposing-team fans and his hometown fans is indicative of the position of black athletes. While celebrated, lionized, and position as economic and ideological commodities, these same black bodies are subjected to the realities of American racism.

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  • Keith

    and n***r is? Diya actually made a good point, although Diya might have mistaken the nationality of Joel Ward, there is no need to make another generalized comment out of spite. It’s not like they are distinguishing between Canadian n***rs and American n****rs anyway. I am just as offended by the comment as any other black person would be. Please stay on topic.

  • anon emus

    Just because one is on the internet doesn’t make them any less real, and if anything it makes what you say more real because the level of exposure is significantly greater. Whether they’re blathering their obscenities and slurs directly to someones face or not the impact is the same and either is equally reprehensible.

  • Clevkenneth5

    This article is so true.What good does the denial do?

  • Jose B Padillla

    was wondering why this article was written at first, it was all over the sports blogs when it happened a while ago, but seeing the perspective of this as a problem in all of sports is a great take on the issue, and an important discussion to continue. racism in sports is not exclusive to hockey.

  • ShelleyB

    This, like the NHL, is also a cross-border problem. Canada is also a very racist place, and I have seen several stories on the Canadian news about problems in both youth and professional hockey. It would be interesting to see a more extensive study on sports racisim in Canada as well as the U.S.

  • Anneymarie

    I’m sick of people saying to ignore it and claiming it’s just crazy outliers. Name and shame the racists who think this is acceptable behavior.


       I’m sick of it too since it also implies that racism is not really that rampant online; whoever believes that should read this great article about the various instances of racism pinpointed here outside of the NHL. And also for other instances of racism, just visit the comments sections of local/regional/national articles/blogs online; I guarantee 99% of the time some idiot will spew something racist, even in articles that have nothing to do with racism/social injustice, etc. Internet anonymity has made it easy for people to let loose their inner racism.

    • Keith

       It’s no different than bullying, actually that’s exactly what it is. And the thing about bullies is that ignoring them will only lead to the bully becoming more bold in their tactics.

  • Peter Hassett

    Thanks for the article, David. I write a blog about the Capitals (and I’ve been a reader/commentator here for a while), and I’ll be spreading the word about this piece.