NHL’s statement after Derek Chauvin verdict all about optics and political theatre

Arun Srinivasan
·Writer
·6-min read
In releasing a careless statement about Derek Chauvin being found guilty of murdering George Floyd, the NHL is once again being performative about Black lives. (Elsa/Getty Images)
In releasing a careless statement about Derek Chauvin being found guilty of murdering George Floyd, the NHL is once again being performative about Black lives. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Shortly after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter in connection to the killing of George Floyd, the NHL decided to publicly opine on the verdict. In one terse statement, the NHL revealed that it learned nothing at all from one of the most politically charged years in recent history, showing once again it is more concerned with political theatre rather than pragmatic solutions when it comes to state violence. 

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"While we hope the end of the trial offers a chance for healing, we remain committed to actively engaging in the movement for equality and we invite our fans to join us in supporting systemic change," the statement read. The league thought its work here was done, or more alarming, that it was showing leadership with its 36-word press release. Even worse is the insinuation that through its actions it was making the sport a safer space for its Black and Indigenous fans. 

All the league really had to do to escape criticism Tuesday was to mention George Floyd by name, condemn Derek Chauvin for his murderous actions, and maybe, just maybe, offer a reflection on how policing itself disproportionately targets Black people. This isn't a uniquely American issue. Asking teams and organizations to recognize by Floyd by name is the bare minimum. Asking for the condemnation of a police officer, who can now be officially listed as a murderer without worrying about libel or slander, is the bare minimum. 

Asking for the league to engage critically and submit a tangible action plan – or even enforce existing, related initiatives – about how it will combat systemic change, I suppose, is slightly more than the bare minimum, but making a commitment to anti-racism isn't a 2020 fad, a pandemic hobby. The only thing this statement revealed is the NHL baring its conscience to a public audience, concerned much more about the optics of how it responds than the issues its responding to.

It's not as if the NHL has nowhere to look, either. The league is an insular bubble, often shielded from anything from the outside world, but it does have a formal Declaration of Principles which includes a duty to "provide a safe, positive and inclusive environment for players and families regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status." How does a one-line, glib statement on a monumental case involving a police killing of a Black man, adhere to its own principles? This case after all triggered protests and anthem kneeling across the sports world, including the NHL.

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The NHL could've learned something from the Professional Women's Hockey Player's Association, who rightfully focused their efforts on standing with George Floyd's family and made the clear delineation that the verdict wasn't justice, but rather a measure of accountability. There are perhaps criticisms to be levied about the PWPHA's efforts and challenges with intersectionality, although frankly, as someone who doesn't cover women's hockey regularly, it isn't my place to raise them. Maybe it's naive to believe in statements meant for mass consumption as a form of advocacy toward Black lives. But it shows a conscientiousness the NHL doesn't have, as well as a bare minimum acknowledgement of all the parties that were profoundly affected by Chauvin's murder of Floyd.

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Last July, I wrote about how the NHL and its teams were performative in their measures toward Black lives, arguing that a #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, or committing to symbolic gestures over tangible efforts to curtail racism and police brutality was just performance. After some reflection, it was argued that you have to give room for people and institutions to grow. Fair enough. It's been almost a year. Once again, the NHL is treating one of the most important trials in recent American history as a night at the opera.

And you wonder why the Hockey Diversity Alliance, founded in June 2020, severed ties with the NHL with October 2020.

"The support we hoped to receive from the NHL was not delivered, and instead the NHL focused on performative public relations efforts that seemed aimed at quickly moving past important conversations about race needed in the game," the HDA wrote in October. That statement certainly rings true again today. It's political theatre without action, a show of flaccid support by co-opting terminology. You can say all the right things, but taking tangible action is much better.

Does it feel unfair to single out the NHL? Well, that's frankly of no concern, although it may be worth mentioning the Las Vegas Raiders, and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi's statements were more offensive. But to cast further light on the Raiders and Pelosi here, would be once again letting the NHL off the hook.

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The league's homework was clearly spelled out last summer, and after giving the NHL time to genuinely learn from its inaction, or performative gestures in the past, the report card is in, and, man, did the league fail miserably. If the league had truly amplified Black voices, it probably would've learned that police involvement in any shape or form is incongruous to caring about Black lives. And yet teams across the board still hold police and military appreciation nights, then expect to be lauded for caring about Black people. 

The NHL, like many other sports leagues, said it was committed to improving the quality of life for Black people throughout the summer of 2020. The NHL likely bet that a summer of protest against police violence was a fad, or that it was "1968" all over again, or that its commitment to political theatre would fool us all. The guilty verdict for Chauvin raised a point of accountability, not justice. Curtain's up for the NHL – either submit real policies to materially improve the consumption of your sport and sporting culture for Black people, and get rid of the league's involvement with policing altogether. You can't fool anyone anymore, we're all watching in real-time.

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