Editor’s Note: NHL players have spoken out against racism and social injustice since the death of a black man, George Floyd, while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25, three years ago. JT Brown, then a Tampa Bay Lightning forward, raised his fist during the national anthem to draw attention to the same issues. With calls for social justice and the fight against racism taking center stage during his return to the NHL game, Brown wrote a special essay for the League on his decision to raise his fist:
On October 7, 2017, I had a choice. I could shut up and play hockey, or I could do something so loud that the whole hockey community listened to me. Nothing will ever be done if we all keep our heads down and our mouths shut. So during the national anthem in Sunrise, Florida, I raised my fist to protest police brutality and racism. The same fist that put sand on his feet while exchanging blows with outdated opponents. The same fist that broke the blockade of a shot during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The same fist that has dealt countless blows to black and Hispanic children in the community while teaching them to play hockey. I have always sacrificed for my team, for the fans, for my community. In 2017 I had the opportunity to sacrifice myself for something bigger than hockey and I knew I needed to do it.
While everyone concentrated on making the team out of camp or preparing to start the season, the media asked me if I would go to protest during the national anthem. I already felt the pressure of a contract year, and now I needed to decide if I was willing to do something uncomfortable and uncharacteristic of my sport. I’m a guy who’s on and off the line who just has to stick to the fourth line. I knew it was replaceable. I knew protesting could make it even harder to get another contract next season. My family and I were ready to end my NHL career. I had decided that I felt comfortable being uncomfortable.
Hockey is played predominantly by affluent white men and forming a team mentality that is ingrained from a very young age. All my professional career, I have been one of the 30 black hockey players in the League. Throughout my professional hockey career, I have been the only black person on my team. It’s an experience that can be felt like the black guy. An experience that makes you a hyperware of your Blackness and wonders if you are acting or not too white or not. Understanding where and how you fit in can be lonely and fundamentally shapes you as a person. I’ll be honest, most of the time, we’re just teammates. We joke, we play video games, we play cards and we bet on the game of football. Then there are times when I’m the only player asking for area security for my credentials when I’m just trying to get to my locker room. Or when hotel security asks me to leave the hockey players alone and leave the hotel lobby when I’m just waiting with my teammates for our bus. Let’s not forget the classic line that all black hockey players know all too well, “go play basketball,” which I heard during a hockey game at the highest level of an opposing player. I worked all my life to prove I belonged to the NHL, and when I did, it reminded me that I was a black man doing a white sport.
Before I raised my fist during the national anthem, I spoke with the owner, general manager, coach, and teammates. I told them I intended to raise my fist in solidarity during the national anthem as a symbolic protest against police brutality and racism. They were welcome to come and talk to me if they wanted to better understand my intentions. When I talked to my coach about my protest plans, I told him about the time I had a shotgun pointed at my head. I usually tell the story of when I was called the word n during a youth hockey game, and my coach told the ref that our team would leave the game if he didn’t kick the kid who said it. The referee would not kick the boy out and so my teammates and coaches stayed with me when we left the game. They are the stories they like to hear because they offer resolution and sense of community. I don’t usually talk about when I was at a house party in high school and some school kids pulled out a shotgun and aimed it at my head, while saying the word n to me. People don’t like these stories because they reveal truths they decide to ignore. These are the things that shaped me as a man. These are the things that led to putting your fist in the air.
Video: Predators and stars are arm in arm for the anthems
My father and I talked for a long time about how this decision can affect my career, my family, and my livelihood. I relied on him for advice for his unique experience as a former National Football League running back, but also his post-football career as a Ramsey County Test Officer and a Correction Officer. minors. I’ve always gone to my dad for life and career advice. While he was afraid for me and the repercussions it would have, I knew this was something I needed, and he fully supported me.
I decided to go fist up with a friend who was a retired U.S. Air Force (E-7) master sergeant who served during Operation Freedom Enduring and Operation Iraqi Freedom. We talked about how I needed to protest, but I also wanted to be mindful of those who are serving and have served in our country. Given the logistics of where we are during the anthem, I would have been unable to get a knee out. I felt that a raised fist better represented my intentions as it symbolized solidarity, support, strength and even resistance.
My first protest was during a preseason hockey game and it went unnoticed. However, on October 7, 2017, he was again part of a regular season game. That protest went viral almost immediately. In the weeks following the match I had a face-to-face meeting with management and then a meeting at the team owner’s home. They both wanted to know what I needed and how they could help me achieve what I was trying to do. It was a difficult question because I didn’t know how to solve racism in America, and I still don’t know. Even before he protested, he knew he might not have any national impact, but he hoped it would facilitate a positive impact in Tampa.
My team was able to support my initiatives and with the resources provided I was able to implement changes that I thought could benefit my community. The action plan included two things. The former worked with the Tampa Police Department. I developed a relationship with the police chief, I stayed together and some of my teammates and I was even training. The second, which unfortunately never came to fruition because I found myself playing in Anaheim, was a program that brought together police and children from the community to watch lightning games. I received a lot of flakes from the black community for these actions. I understood how problematic it was to integrate into a situation where the narrative went from police brutality to using my actions for something that some saw as pro-police rhetoric. As black athletes, this year we were automatically put in a unique position. We were the only athletes who kept asking us if we would protest. It also put us all in a difficult place. We were forced to choose a side. Am I Black or Am I a Hockey Player? We were all affected if we did and we felt it, if we didn’t.
Video: Penguins, flyers come together for social justice
I asked my wife before this preseason game to stay out of social media. I knew I would go ugly. I want to make sure you also mention all the amazing support and love I received after my protest. Unfortunately, not everyone understood. I received death threats; people told me they expected to have an injury in their professional career; people even called my word daughter. To this day, when I speak out against racism, there is someone in my lies on Twitter who tells me they want to hang me or call me word n. The opposite reinforced my belief that I was doing things right. I know the hockey community and specifically the black community heard me acknowledge their pain and I understood that I took an oath that game to always fight for equality.
Before I raised my fist, I never considered myself an activist. I’ve always focused on being a professional hockey player and figuring out how I could stay in the NHL. That changed in June 2017, when Falcon Heights police officer, who killed Philando Castella in 2016, was acquitted of murder on trial. Castile was shot and killed in his car in front of his girlfriend and 4-year-old daughter. The viral video of that girl consoling her handcuffed mother while they were placed in the back of a police car broke me. At this time, I had a daughter, Lily, and I realized that I have a responsibility to fight for a better future for her and other black children.
Advance to 2020, when Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd. For the first time, I saw a league made up of predominantly affluent white men who talked about topics that were previously ignored. There has been promise to see activism progress in the NHL. The urgency for social change does not cease as the roars of protests fade and disappear from our timelines. So whether you use your hands to make donations, volunteer, sign while marching in a protest, be an online vocalist, or raise your fist in solidarity, we all have a responsibility to fight for equality. History cannot keep repeating itself.