Editor’s Note: NHL players have spoken out against racism and social injustice since the death of George Floyd, a black man, while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. Three years ago, J. T. Brown, then forward to the Tampon Bay Lightning, raised his fist during the national anthem to draw attention to similar issues. With a call for social justice and a center stage fight against racism during the NHL’s Return to Play, Brown wrote a special essay about the league’s decision to raise its fists:
On October 7, 2017, I had a choice. I could shut down hockey, or I could do something so loud that the entire hockey community would listen to me. If we all keep our head down and our mouth closed then nothing will be complete. So, during the national anthem at Sunrise, Florida, I raised my fist to oppose police vandalism and racism. The same fist that their feet got arenas while I beat up with outweig opponents. The same fist shattered by blocking a shot during the Stanley Cup playoffs. The same fist that has given countless gaps to Black and Hispanic children in the community while they are taught to play hockey. I have always made sacrifices for my team, for the fans, for my community. In 2017 I had the opportunity to sacrifice for something bigger than hockey, and I knew I needed to do it.
When everyone was focused on getting the team out of camp or getting ready for the start of the season, I was being asked by the media if I was going to protest during the national anthem. I was already feeling the pressure that comes with a contract year, and now I need to decide if I am ready to do something uncomfortable and cluttered for my game. I’m an in-the-out-of-the-lineup guy who has just enough patience to be around the fourth line. I knew that I had changed. I knew that the protests could make it harder to get another contract next season. Me and my family were ready for this to end my NHL career. I had decided that I was comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Hockey is played mainly by white men and is in line with the team’s mentality, from a young age. My entire professional career, I have been one of the 30 few black hockey players in the league. For my entire hockey career, I have been the only black person or person of color in my team. This is an experience that can make you feel like a token black boy. An experience that makes you ignorant of your blackness questions whether you are acting too black or too white. Understanding where and how you fit can be lonely and it fundamentally shapes you as a person. I’ll be honest, most of the time, we’ve all been teammates. We joke, we play videogames, we play cards, and we bet on football games. Then there are times when I am the only player when I am asked for my credit by the arena security when I am trying to go to my locker room. Or when I am asked by hotel security to leave the hockey players alone and leave the hotel lobby, while I am waiting with my teammates for the bus. Let’s not forget the classic line that every black hockey player is well aware of, “Go play basketball,” which I heard at the highest level from an opposing player during a hockey game. I worked hard all my life to prove that I was in the NHL, and even when I made it, I was reminded that I was a black man playing a white game.
Before I raised my fist during the national anthem, I spoke to the team owner, general manager, coach and teammates. I told him that my intention was to raise my fist in solidarity as a symbolic protest against police vandalism and racism during the national anthem. If they want a better understanding of my intentions, they welcome me to come and talk with me. When I spoke with my coach about my plan to protest, I told him about the time when I had a gun in my head. I usually tell a story about being called the N-word during a youth hockey game, and my coach told the referee that our team would skip all the games if he didn’t pull out the child who said that. The referee would not kick the child, and so my teammates and coaches made me stand up as soon as I left the game. They are stories that people like to hear because they offer a sense of resolve and community. I don’t usually talk about a time when I was at a house party in high school, and some school kids took out a gun and aimed at my head because they were calling me the N-word. People do not like those stories because they reveal the truths they want to ignore. These are the things that shaped me as a man. These are the things that caused my fist to fly in the air.
Video: Predators and stars stand with mehndi in hand
My father and I talked about how this decision could affect my career, my family and my livelihood. I leaned on him for advice because of his unique experience, not only as a former National Football League, but his post-football career as a Ramsey County Probation Officer and a Juvenile Correctional Officer. I have always gone to my father for life and career advice. While he was scared for me and the consequences I faced, he knew that this was something I needed to do, and he supported me.
I decided to go into a fistfight after a long heart with a friend, who is a retired US Air Force Master Sergeant (E-7), who served during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. We talked about what I needed to protest, but I also wanted to beware of those who are serving and serving our country. Given the logistics of where we stand during the anthem, I would be unable to kneel. I felt that a fist best represented my intentions as it symbolized solidarity, support, power and even resistance.
My first protest occurred during a preschool hockey game and went unnoticed. However, on October 7, 2017, I was back in the lineup for regular season games. That protest went viral almost immediately. In the weeks following the game, I had a one-man meeting with management and then a meeting at the team owner’s house. Both wanted to know what I needed and how they could help me achieve what I was trying to achieve. This was a difficult question because I did not know how to solve racism in America, and I still do not. Before I protested, I knew I would not be able to make a national impact, but I hoped that it would have a positive impact in Tampa.
My team was able to support my initiative and with the resources I was able to implement the changes provided, I felt my community could benefit. The work plan consisted of two things. Previously working with the Tamta Police Department. I developed a relationship with the Chief of Police, I went along for the ride, and some of my colleagues and myself also went through police training. The second, which unfortunately never came as I found myself playing in Anaheim, was an event that would bring police and children from the community together to watch a lighting game. I received a lot of anger from the black community for these actions. I understood how problematic it was to surround myself in a situation where the narrative used to take away from the brutality of the police to use my actions, which some police supporters saw as rhetoric. As black athletes, we were automatically in a unique position that year. We were the only athletes who constantly asked if we would protest. This made it difficult for all of us. We were forced to choose a side. Am i black, or am i a hockey player? If we did not do this, we would all be doomed.
Video: Penguin, flyer united for social justice
I asked my wife before that prescan game to stay away from social media. I knew it was going to be ugly. I want to make sure that I also mention all the incredible support and love I received after my protest. Unfortunately, not everyone understood. I received death threats; People were telling me that they hoped that I would end my career; People started saying n-word to my girl child. To this day, when I speak out against racism, there is someone on my Twitter telling me they want to hang me or calling me the N-word. The backlash reinforced my belief that I did the right thing. I know the hockey community, and in particular, the black community, listening to me accept their pain and understand that I have sworn that the game should always fight for equality.
I never considered myself an activist before I extended my fist. I always focused on being a professional hockey player and figuring out how I could stay in the NHL. This changed in June 2017, when police officers from Falcon Heights, Minnesota who murdered Philando Castile in 2016 were acquitted of murder in the trial. Castile was shot and killed while sitting in his car in front of his girlfriend and his 4-year-old daughter. In the viral video of the little girl, her handcuffed mother was comforted as they both sat in the back of a policeman’s car. By this time, I had a daughter, Lily, and I realized that I had the responsibility to fight for a better future for her and other black children.
Fast forward to 2020, when Minneapolis police assassinate George Floyd. For the first time, I caught a glimpse of a union consisting mainly of affluent white males speaking out against issues that were once ignored. It has been promised to see activity in the progress of the NHL. The urgency of social change does not dissipate as the protest roars and vanishes from our deadline. So whether you use your hands to signal to donate, volunteer, march in a protest, be vocal online, or raise a fist in solidarity, we all have a responsibility to fight for equality. History cannot continue to repeat itself.