Time was, Canadians looked upon race-baiting in the U.S. South with a sense of bemused pity, smug in our belief that such attitudes could never take root here. Today, we might consider the following question: where in contemporary America would a fan think it funny to throw a banana at a black athlete?
The hockey world was suitably revolted last week after someone did just that during an NHL exhibition game in London, Ont., in a bid to rattle Philadelphia’s Wayne Simmonds, who was taking his turn in the shootout. “Disappointing,” “despicable” and “disheartening” were the labels chosen by former goaltender Kevin Weekes, who is black. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman insisted that the unidentified culprit “is in no way representative of our fans.”
Well, not all of them. Simmonds, who grew up in Scarborough, Ont., told reporters afterwards that he’d experienced racism in the game before (ironically, he is alleged to have used a homophobic slur in play five days later). Weekes himself was the target of a banana-tossing incident in Montreal in 2002, while junior hockey crowds in Quebec have been known to mock Aboriginal players with war whoops and bow-and-arrow mimes.
Short of stakes and mallets, there are few useful weapons against such stupidity. Even hate crimes involving identifiable perpetrators are notoriously hard to prosecute. The best posture may be that taken by Montreal defenceman P.K. Subban, a favourite among Canadiens’ faithful whose public image owes much to other African-American sports stars. He was flummoxed a year and a half ago when a couple of fans wore blackface in a misguided attempt to pay him homage. Then, as now, he chose to starve the story. “Even talking about it, we’re giving this person what he wants,” Subban said of the Simmonds incident. “The focus should be on hockey.”