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“Basketball!” Deconstruction of a Hockey Game Taunt

On February 17, 2018, four fans at a Chicago Blackhawks ice hockey game yelled “Basketball! Basketball! Basketball!” at the Washington Capitals’ Devante Smith-Pelly, who was sitting in the penalty box. Smith-Pelly is black, and security officers removed the taunters from the arena on the grounds that the taunt was racist. Subsequently, the United Center banned them from all events, and the Blackhawks formally apologized to Smith-Pelly and the Capitals. National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman condemned the fans’ behavior, the incident prompted widespread coverage in the media, and the predictable torrent of on-line commentary followed.

But was the taunt racist? Smith-Pelly certainly thought so, citing it as yet another example of the abuse to which he and his 30 fellow black NHL players have been subjected throughout their careers. In his words: “I can’t go to anyone on my team and have them understand really how it is to be in my shoes. Just because I’m a professional hockey player: they just don’t understand. So it’s really lonely in that sense. You don’t really have anyone.”

The incident is a textbook illustration of the complexities of contemporary debates about race, identity, and bigotry. What makes a taunt racist and when is condemnation warranted? Was the Chicago taunt a lame attempt at humor in questionable taste, or a serious violation of norms that deserves censure? Was the damage to the victim intentional or collateral, foreseeable or improbable? For some, the words speak for themselves: the taunt was racist, and by extension so were the perpetrators, who deserve their expulsion and perhaps more. For others, it was pretty tame fare in the world of professional sports, innocent alongside the kind of racism routinely on display in international soccer stadia, and the response was a politically correctness over-reaction. A hockey arena is a cauldron of rabid partisanship, noise, and wild mood swings. Professional sports are war conducted by other means, and the language of combat migrates seamlessly to the playing field. To expect hockey fans to behave like Oxonians at a regatta is like going to a boxing match and taking umbrage at the violence. Fans do not attend hockey games to improve their behavior or to provide a nurturing environment for the enemies of their team.

Without a court case or commission of inquiry, we will never know enough about the incident to come to a definitive judgment about either the deeper meaning of the taunt or the wisdom of the immediate and subsequent responses. As in the game on the ice, the security team had to make an instant decision and call the penalty; deliberation was not an option. But instant justice may be found wanting upon further inquiry. The logic underlying the immediate judgment may modify or break down when additional and relevant information becomes available. This essay is an invitation to seek common deliberative ground among those open to the possibility that the Chicago incident is neither obviously racist nor obviously not. Among other things requiring consideration are which factors ought to be taken into account in reaching a conclusion.

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Let us first deal with the incident as it took place. Once uttered, what would a reasonable person infer the taunt to mean in the here-and-now, given that taunts have to be concise, and the need to make a snap judgment? I would deconstruct the taunt as follows:

  1. There is no doubt that race is inherent in the taunt – it would make no sense otherwise. Its meaning derives from the fact that Smith-Pelley is black, that relatively few blacks are in the NHL, and blacks dominate (North American) basketball.
  2. The taunt is obviously an insult – that’s what taunts are – and moreover an insult based on race. It implies the following syllogism: black people aren’t very good at hockey; Smith-Pelley is black; therefore he isn’t very good at hockey.
  3. The taunt is based on racial stereotypes: it contrasts the sport that black people are allegedly not good at with one they are allegedly very good at. The corollary is that Smith-Pelly chose his sport imprudently, his hockey career is doomed to mediocrity, and he would have been better off sticking to a sport at which his race excels.

These inferences, if accurate, suggest but do not constitute proof of racism. First, we must determine whether there is a valid distinction between racialization and racism. There is; if every invocation of racial characteristics is by definition racist, the only remedy is silence, and silence does not beget truth. Yale law professor Peter H. Schuck has declared, “Racism is irrational, contemptible, and toxic. Racialism is rational, morally neutral, and inevitable in a society with our [American] history of slavery, discrimination, and white-black social differences in so many areas.” In other words, we have an obligation to racialize because of the continuing spectre of racism. We cannot fix what we do not acknowledge. Pretending that society is color-blind is to lock in race-based patterns of advantage and discrimination. Where essential or unmodifiable characteristics result in unwarranted advantage or disadvantage, justice demands that we take note and develop effective responses. If redheads are systematically incarcerated more frequently than blondes, we must be conscious of hair color so that we can overcome our biases. Affirmative action requires racialization to acknowledge systematic inequalities and to justify remedies, which is why opponents argue that racialization has no place in the discourse on opportunity and merit.

Devante Smith-Pelly in 2011

In that sense, a race-based taunt is arguably not ipso facto racist, but possibly a crude confirmation of the realities of racial tensions. But let’s provisionally concede that it is racist. The next question is whether all racism is equally virulent. As on-line debaters have pointed out, the fans didn’t use ‘the n-word,’ didn’t throw a banana peel, didn’t yell “Go back to Africa!”, didn’t suggest cotton-picking as the suitable vocation, etc. Within the genus of race-based epithets, “Basketball! Basketball! Basketball!” is on the surface both a relatively measured and comparatively subtle species. The recommended alternate career pathway is not intrinsically derogatory: basketball is a respectable occupation where the salaries are much higher than in hockey. It is analogous to yelling “Medicine! Medicine! Medicine!” at a Jewish cop. There are lots of Jews in medicine and not many Jewish cops. In a thoroughly non-racist society, such a taunt might signify only a benignly intended, empirically valid observation.

But we do not live in a society purged of racism, and context is fundamental to meaning. That the basketball taunt is not self-evidently racist doesn’t prove that it isn’t. If, for example, it is known to be the taunt of choice among white supremacist NHL fans, and there is a shared understanding that it is code for more obviously racist epithets and beliefs, there is a strong(er) case for declaring it, and those who chant it, racist. It is not an ironclad case: it is conceivable that genuinely non-racist people unfamiliar with the history and shared meaning of the taunt would use it in a racialized but not racist sense. Ignorance may be a weak defense, but if we could establish that the taunters were genuinely unaware of all of its connotations, their use of it would be in a philosophical sense more innocent, and perhaps even evidence that racism is foreign to their sensibilities.

But let us continue to assume that racism is in play. If so, are the taunters equally racist? What if one of them was the ringleader, and a thorough probe of his character, beliefs, social media comments, and behaviors revealed that he is indeed a racist. But what if his fellow taunters were found not to be? What if they chimed in unthinkingly, and – unlike their racist ringleader – genuinely did not understand or intend the taunt to be racist, but rather just an insult about the player’s hockey ability? Are they as a result more innocent, or are they guilty by association, and accessories to the crime? And if upon examination all of them were found to be good citizens, working in integrated environments, with no history of racism in word or in deed, should we understand the taunt differently and cut them some slack? What if they have black friends with whom they exchange racial banter – trash talk endemic to a shared sense of humour grounded in common experience and authentic trust? Would Pelly-Smith view the incident differently if he believed these things to be true?

I would be surprised if the banned quartet travel in multicultural circles with sophisticated but edgy speech codes they are entitled to use because they are unassailably non-racist. But if we’re interested in judging them fairly, in both philosophical and judicial reasoning, motive and intent matter. We do not hold people as accountable for outcomes they do not intend as for those they do intend. One can kill a person and be justly found innocent, or guilty of negligent use of a firearm, manslaughter, or murder. In a full appraisal of whether the Chicago taunt and its perpetrators are racist, similar standards and reasoning processes ought to apply.

An additional important question is who gets to decide. A school of thought with growing currency is that the innocence or guilt of an act, and especially a speech act, is defined not by its “objective” features, the intent of the actors, community standards, or reasonably expected impact, but by its effect on the victim according to the victim. An offense is committed if offense is taken; if a grievous offense is declared, a grievous offense has caused it. What may be innocent in one circumstance may be guilty in others. Only the victim can truly know, and therefore the victim’s view trumps all others. This is the basis of Minnie Driver’s slap-down of Matt Damon’s plea for nuance and proportionality in the #MeToo saga.

Such reasoning has significant consequences for justice, and it can both convict and exonerate. On this victim-centered construct, had Pelly-Smith just laughed off the taunt, taken no offense and not believed it to be racist, the Blackhawks and the NHL and everyone else would be obliged to stand down. No harm, no foul. Conversely, had it triggered a deep depression resulting in self-harm or an inability to play hockey, then justice would demand criminal charges and appropriate punishment, including restitution.

In the formal justice system, these are weighty matters that warrant careful consideration. In extra-legal circumstances, we must rely on common sense and the “reasonable person” test. All I would offer here is that no sound theory of justice can be based exclusively on the victim’s account of the consequences. Of course the impact on the victim matters. Victim impact statements are heard prior to sentencing in many jurisdictions. But it would be just as unfair to let the taunters off the hook because Smith-Pelly by chance didn’t hear them or didn’t care as it would be to give them life sentences because he suffered major consequences which they did not intend, and could not reasonably foresee.

A further question is whether professional sports venues should be wholly or partially exempt from the behavioral norms that govern other public spaces. Professional athletes lead lives of exceptional privilege, owing to their innate and acquired talents, commitment, performance, widespread public admiration, and wealth. Professional sports teams and their players owe their prosperity to fiercely loyal and passionate fans. It is not uncommon for otherwise civil people to talk candidly about their hatred of rival teams. Ticket prices are high, which to some buys a license to heap abuse on the enemy or the under-performing. Players sometimes share this conviction: “They’re paying big money to watch us. They can say whatever they want.” Smith-Pelly is 25 and earns $1.35 million a year. That’s a good bargain, young man, and the taunts are a small price to pay for the life you lead.

But these arguments collapse upon inspection. A fundamental principle of justice is that it is blind to status. One is equally guilty of the theft of a ring whether it is a poor woman’s last possession or a bauble in an NBA superstar’s bling collection. Wealth, status, and public adulation do not immunize against the effects of abuse and can co-exist with anxiety and depression. Many professional athletes – and especially black North American athletes – come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Professional sports venues are typically raucous, and implied codes of conduct vary. You can yell “You suck Crosby!” at a hockey game and few will give it a second thought. But it would be considered out of bounds to yell “You suck Nadal!” at a tennis match, or at an Olympic swimmer, because the cultures are different. But context matters here too: fans at Davis Cup tennis matches are far less genteel than they are at other tournaments because, as contests between countries, they appeal to nationalism, and nationalism rarely has a calming effect.

And so, the line is variable. But it is surely crossed when there is an attack on a player’s racial or ethnic or sexual identity. That line demarcates the legitimate realm of criticism – the player’s ability or performance – from the person’s unrelated and unalterable characteristics, notwithstanding the attempt to link them. Taunts have to be succinct; you yell, “You suck Crosby!” because there is no time to elaborate on his deficiencies as a player. (Is it his effort? His execution? His passing? His shooting? His skating? His checking?) Or more probably, you taunt him precisely because he does not suck at hockey and torments your team. The general inference will be that you are venting about how Crosby plays hockey, not about the innate defects of Caucasians or Canadians. You get the benefit of the doubt on motive and meaning, even if you genuinely believe all Canadians to be inbred half-wits. No one will kick you out of a hockey arena for yelling it.

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If you buy these arguments, it is clear that not all taunts are created equal, and not all racism is equally menacing. Some taunts signify (grudging) respect because some stereotypes are positively skewed. To say that Jews are untermenchen who deserve extermination is quite different from saying that you should hire a Jewish lawyer if you’re in big trouble. The first is obviously racist and ominous; the second is a compliment, however backhanded. The compliment could indeed be racist: I don’t like Jews, I resent their success, I don’t want them in my country club, but I’ll hold my nose and hire one to litigate my tax fraud case because they’re cunning and ruthless. Or it could be a mainly harmless generalization; I may want my daughter to marry one of those disproportionately successful Jews. Racism or racialization that attributes superiority is qualitatively different from racism based on assumptions of inferiority.

Of course even positive stereotypes are stereotypes, and stereotypes are inherently unjust – or are they? Stereotypes are always inaccurate in a strict sense because they assume homogeneity in a heterogeneous population. But as heuristics, they are often a reasonable approximation of empirical reality. To have meaning and impact, stereotypes must have some surface plausibility. You can’t randomly pair ethnic or racial groups with proposed occupations. Yelling “Knitting! Knitting! Knitting!” at Smith-Pelly would have been nonsensical. The actual taunt is meaningful and potentially menacing precisely because it is inherently plausible to its audience on racial grounds. Blacks do indeed dominate NBA rosters. There are a lot of prominent Jewish lawyers. As a group, Asian Americans are better at math (and science) than other Americans, and East Asian countries rank at the top of the international mathematics league table. A Caucasian finalist in a major international sprint competition is an oddity, and a winner virtually unheard of in the past 35 years. Obviously, some races are good at some things and not so good at others. To say so isn’t racist, it just reflects the available data.

But the relevant fact is not about race; declaring it so is just a lazy and ignorant fallacy. Genetics certainly predict individual performance, but geography, culture, and circumstance predict group performance. Intra-racial genetic variation is much greater than inter-racial genetic variation. Yes, blacks clean up the sprint medals, but only Jamaican and African-American blacks, who share the genetics of their winless West African counterparts. Race may be associated with various occupational patterns, behaviors, and outcomes, but it does not cause them. Blacks comprised 0 percent of major league baseball players in 1946, peaked at 18.7 percent in 1981, and fell to under 7 percent by 2016. The Latino proportion was under 1 percent in 1946, rose steadily until the year 2000, and has plateaued at between 26 percent and 28 percent ever since. If that’s genetics at work, evolution has clearly run amok.

So, back to Chicago. Was the taunt’s meaning clear? Absolutely – it was a racialized remark that was non-absurd precisely because of its resonance with racial stereotypes. Was it inherently racist? It’s a tougher call, but I would say that no analytic or ethical benefit derives from making that category too inclusive. If yelling “Basketball!” is as inherently racist as yelling “Go back to the plantation!” the conceptual tent becomes worrisomely large, important distinctions blur, and there is a risk of being numb to important gradients. Was it possibly racist? Yes on the surface, and verifiably so by a full understanding of the cultural and linguistic context, and the motive, intent, and character of the taunters. If racist, was it virulent? No – there was no power relationship, far worse is the norm in many sports arenas and elsewhere, and partisanship may account for more of the meaning and intent than any other factor. (The ejected fans may well have celebrated Smith-Pelly had he been a Blackhawk instead of a Capital. Virulent racism is rarely so fungible.) Did it wound Smith-Pelly? We have to take him at his word – no external view on what he “should have” felt can be remotely as credible as his own. So indeed it did. There was harm.

We should celebrate sports organizations that engage in dialogues about race, and strive to create and enforce codes of conduct in their arenas. Here, as elsewhere, justice demands clarity (an understanding of the rules) and proportionality (a punishment that fits the crime). Kicking the Chicago foursome out of the game was a reasonable in-the-moment decision. All things considered, banning them from future United Center games may be defensible, not only in itself, but as a signal that the code of conduct is now stronger and enforced.

But all things considered, one could defend a lesser sentence, primarily on fairness grounds. It is certain that far worse has gone, and will continue to go, unpunished in Chicago and elsewhere. It is easy for virulent hate speech to hide in the din of 20,000 screaming partisans, and abuse from the cheap seats will rarely be audible to its target. There are worse injustices than forbidding four idiots from attending hockey games, and with perfect knowledge we might conclude that there was no injustice at all. But it is also possible that some justice has been sacrificed in service of a purportedly greater good – a bold declaration that the game has changed.

Perhaps there is a better remedy: alternate dispute resolution. Have the foursome meet face-to-face with Smith-Pelly (with his consent) in the presence of others. Let the taunters explain what they meant. Let them hear how he felt and – to the extent that he is willing to do so – encourage him to explain the arc of his life. Let them answer pointed questions about race, their own experiences, their intent, their capacity for empathy. In other words, call them to account for their actions in the presence of the player and his organization. Cross-examine the taunters to assess whether they are thoughtless but essentially innocent bozos or intentional race-baiters. It is not a perfect or risk-free solution, but it does hold the possibility of illumination and even redemption. If the four are indeed hardened racists, the ban will hardly advance their rehabilitation. And if they are not, they may learn, apologize, amend their ways, and teach others. Smith-Pelly may have both closure and renewed hope that some day, things will get easier.


Steven Lewis is a health policy and research consultant based in Saskatoon, and
Adjunct Professor of Health Policy at Simon Fraser University.