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Blue Lines and Black Stereotypes

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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NHL teams were especially busy at Monday's trade deadline, none more so than the New York Rangers. The headlining deal: The Blueshirts sent a package including top prospect Anthony Duclair to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for veteran defenseman Keith Yandle, an indication that the Rangers are going all-in for another Stanley Cup run.

Most hockey analysts touted the move as a significant bet on the Rangers' present squad, given Duclair's immense talent and potential. But one commentator offered another explanation, resurrecting an old trope about black athletes. "I question the work ethic and the attitude of Duclair," Sportsnet broadcaster (and former Rangers goaltender) Glenn Healy said.

Now, granted, we shouldn't make too much of the musings of a man whose boss all but admitted is supposed to say things that will stir trouble on social media.

But as SBNation's Adam Herman noted, these supposed concerns about the "attitude" of black athletes have long permeated the sports media, and they promote damaging stereotypes -- notions that are especially stark in a white-dominated sport with a troubled recent history of racism.

Herman's not wrong: Joshua Ho-Sang's "work ethic has been questioned"; Evander Kane's "attitude problems" have been media fodder for years; P.K. Subban, one of the most offensively-gifted defenseman in hockey, is dismissed by critics as a showboater who's disrespectful to the game.

The stereotype of the "natural" black athlete has its roots in social Darwinism, the idea that a physically gifted black race emerged from generations of the fittest slaves and workers bearing offspring. But as various scholars have noted, that notion is used as a backhanded compliment in order to justify the perception of blacks' intellectual inferiority. A 2007 study by the University of Michigan found that across the board, the more people "believed in a genetic race difference in athleticism, the more they engaged in negative racial stereotyping," namely beliefs about blacks' intelligence and work ethic.

This helps explain how you get hockey writing like, "Subban is talented, but...," and a television pundit questioning the attitude of a young player who's received nothing but praise from others. The perceived inverse relationship between athletic skill and intelligence allows some to acknowledge these players' undeniable talent while reaching for other reasons not to have them on your team. 

These erroneous attitudes are reinforced in the broader public by every loudmouthed commentator or freewheeling writer who implies black players are lazy. Hockey fans and players pride themselves on the blue-collar nature of their sport, the toughness and grind required to make it in the league. Questioning a player's work ethic is one of the worst criticisms you can level .

And while these racially-charged notions are certainly not limited to hockey, the homogeneity of  the sport's rosters and fan base make the NHL a particularly damaging environment for such ideas. As the Michigan study notes, such comments "may operate as a legitimizing myth" to defend the subjugation of blacks in hockey and in society at large. It reinforces the false notion that the dearth of black hockey players is because of some genetic or cultural inferiority, which in turn serves to maintain hockey's demographics. It's thus not a far line between Healy pondering Duclair's work ethic and fans throwing bananas at Wayne Simmonds on the ice.

To make matters worse, the hockey press can have very selective memories when it comes to criticizing players and their attitudes. When Kevin Durant pulled a Marshawn Lynch and made the completely reasonable statement that he only talks to the media because he has to, some writers got on their collective high horse: 

The answer to his question, by the way, is yes -- hockey players complain about the media all the time. You only have to go as far back as yesterday to find an example. But Phil Kessel gets praised for speaking his mind, and James Neal largely evades scrutiny for well-known "character problems," while people are quick to jump on Durant and Duclair.

We're thankfully beginning to see a shift in the landscape, with a new generation of hockey writers supplanting the old guard and its "traditional," racially coded values. Let's just remain mindful that criticism of black hockey players' work ethic and character don't exist in a vacuum, but on rather uneven ice.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net