Racism in NHL?: Atlanta Thrashers Accused of Marketing Solely on Basis of Race

marc mctCorrespondent IOctober 28, 2010

Evander Kane
Evander Kane

Earlier today on ESPN's Around the Horn the question was posed whether the Atlanta Thrashers, the only team ever to have five black players on their roster in the history of the NHL, were clever marketers.

By selecting players to cater to a largely African-American demographic in Atlanta this could be viewed as the equivalent of affirmative action or in the eyes of some reverse racism.  

If so, in a league largely populated by players of Caucasian origin, wouldn't this be taking opportunities away from them?

Affirmative action gained a foothold during President Johnson's administration but in actuality was introduced by President Kennedy.  At that time racism and the inequalities that accompanied it were pervasive throughout our society.

In the words of President Johnson, "This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights...we seek...not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result."

So, who would blame a team in the city with the largest concentration of black wealth in the country for instituting a little quota tilting (even if they're not calling it that), to get butts in seats?

Anyone and everyone, except that they can't because the African-American members of the Thrashers roster very much deserve to be there.

Although the Thrashers had five black players on their roster earlier in the year, that number currently stands at four.  

During the episode, Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke repeatedly uttered his frustration over this assemblage based on his belief that the marketing of these players is insulting.

In his mind, these players are not worthy of their positions because they are not good enough irrespective of their color.

He likewise insisted that the beauty of sports is that people watch players not because of the color of their skin, but instead because they are good.

Plaschke is right, to a point. When someone, anyone, is at the top of their game, we all turn toward them hoping (literally or figuratively) that their greatness will touch us. That, indeed transcends the boundaries of space, time and yes...color.

However, what is also true is that based on tribalism—defined as the possession of a strong cultural or ethnic identity that separates oneself as a member of one group from the members of another—it's only natural that many of us based on sex, race or social status would gravitate or take interest in someone who appears to “represent” us.

A short time ago upon mentioning the acquisition of Jeremy Lin by the Golden State Warriors (also courted by the Lakers), to a couple of my Asian friends, they immediately took a celebratory interest. He was an Asian player in the NBA.

Moreover, much like themselves, he was an Asian-American. It didn't matter that he's Chinese and they Korean—they identified and had already been plotting which games they would be attending based on his arrival to the sport.

If the team were deliberately adding “black” players solely to broaden the teams appeal, that would be in the words of Plaschke “insulting.”

In the words of Atlanta Thrashers president Don Waddell, "It all just kind of happened," he said. "It wasn't like we went out and tried to pick up black players."

I have no way of knowing whether or not Waddell is telling the truth, but if the play of 2009 overall No. 4 pick Evander Kane, and former Blackhawk, captain Dustin Byfuglien (both African-Americans), are any indication, he is.

The absence of any overt manipulation based on race leaves us asking one thing are they marketable and are they good?  At the moment, it would seem they are.

It's debatable whether or not the position of these players will become a source of pride for the black community, but if wins accompany this historic occurrence, fans of all creeds and colors will start to take notice.  At that time, the Thrashers and their marketing team will have plenty of cause to celebrate.