Thus far in J.T. Brown's 263 games as a professional player, few games will be remembered more than Saturday’s second game of the season. During the national anthem, Brown was filmed raising his fist, becoming the first NHL player to protest during the anthem in a vein similar to black athletes in other leagues protesting police brutality and racial inequality.
In the six years since he was first called up to the Tampa Bay Lightning, J.T Brown has totaled nearly three times as many penalty minutes as points scored. He has an overwhelming preference for wrist shots, particularly on the left side of the ice, and has done well in his career at preventing shots in front of his net.
Relative to the average RW, Brown creates nearly twice as many rushes per 60 and nearly twice as many hits, according to corisca.hockey. His speed and physicality are perfectly suited for his role as a checking line forward and occasional PK specialist.
But only one fist was needed to start a sea change in the hockey world.
Brown's raised fist acts as a contrast to other players who have knelt and locked arms during the singing of the anthem. Brown himself alluded to the fist as a way to circumvent the criticism of those who felt kneeling during the anthem politicized sports and served to "disrespect" the police or the military.
Brown's point was not to disrespect.
But the history of opposition to those who have used the raised fist in support of black rights suggests that the veneer of a perfect, apolitical sporting world has always been a farce.
In the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze in the men’s 200 meter race, with Smith breaking the world record with a time of 19.83 seconds. As both men were awarded their medals, they bowed their heads and raised their black gloved hands as a symbol of black empowerment.
The backlash was swift and immediate. Peter Norman, the Aussie who finished 2nd in the race, wore a pin in support of Carlos and Smith, in repudiation of the segregationist history of Australia. He was roundly critiqued back home, and was reportedly left off the 1972 Olympic team as a result of his involvement in the protest.
Both Smith and Carlos were booed by the crowd and eventually kicked out of the Olympic Village by US track team, at the behest of International Olympic Committee. Time Magazine malformed the Olympic motto of "Higher, Faster, Stronger" to "Angrier, Nastier, Uglier" in their portrayal of the story and called Smith and Carlos "ungrateful" and "petty" (sound familiar?). Here is Times’ introduction to the story:
"Sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two disaffected black athletes from the U.S. put on a public display of petulance that sparked one of the most unpleasant controversies in Olympic history and turned the high drama of the games into theater of the absurd."
Smith and Carlos stated that the IOC sent Jesse Owens, an IOC representative and African-American hero of the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, to discourage them from the black gloved protest. Owens personally found the protest to be fruitless, saying "The black fist is a meaningless symbol. When you open it, you have nothing but fingers – weak empty fingers".
Owens was carrying out the orders of IOC President, Avery Bundrage, who deemed the incident a "nasty demonstration against the American flag by negroes." Bundrage was adamant that sports and the Olympics in particular, were no place for politics.
This narrative ran counter to the later evidence that Bundrage was an anti-Semite and a racist who reportedly accepted bribes from Germany to convince the U.S. not to boycott the 1936 Olympics, which enabled the Third Reich to espouse its ethos of Aryan superiority on an international stage.
Owens, who infuriated Hitler by winning four gold medals, himself realized the empty ambition of supporting a flag that doesn’t recognize or respect your humanity. Upon returning home from Berlin, White US Olympians were invited to the White House to meet President Roosevelt, but Owens was never extended the same opportunity. As Owens described it, "After I came home with my four medals…everyone was going to want to shake my hand, invite me up to their suite. But no was going to offer me a job."
Owens continued, "…After all these stories about Hitler…I came back to my native country, and I could not ride in the front of the bus…I couldn’t live where I wanted. Now what’s the difference?"
Over the coming days, members of the media and the general public will weigh in on the symbolism of Brown’s protest. Some of the feedback will comment on Brown’s checking-line career undermines the importance of his message, or discounts the sincerity of his stance.
However, let’s not pretend that if Joshua Thomas Brown were an accountant or school teacher, he would be offered the same platform to speak out in regard to issues that matter to him. Brown has worked hard to establish himself in the league and should be afforded the recognition for his talents on the ice as much as he should be recognized for his character off of it.
No one is more aware of J.T. Brown’s tenuous position in the league than J.T. Brown. Despite Gary Bettman's very public stances regarding political protests, Brown decided that not saying anything was not an option, since the pros and cons of being black in the U.S. don’t stop once you step on the ice.
The racial climate in America has improved dramatically in the 80 years since Jesse Owens ran circles around the Nazis in Berlin, at the crossroads of the ultimate intersection between politics and sport. So it would be easy to suggest in today’s day and age of relative racial unity, that protests like Brown’s are unnecessary.
Yet even this past week, prosecutors in Salt Lake City stated they would bring no charges against police who were reportedly caught shooting a fleeing and unarmed black bicyclist on this video, and it becomes clear that some form of protest from those with fame and prestige is warranted.
Following the 1968 Olympics, Smith and Owens never spoke again as a result of the black gloved protest. However, John Carlos and Owens eventually did reconcile their differences, with Owens finally acknowledging, "I feel as though Carlos made more headway ‘going strong’ [with the raised fist] than I ever did with mine."
Today, it looks like J.T. got the message loud and clear.
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