One blogger’s personal bridge to nowhere

Hockey players are likeable because they are white?

Don’t get me wrong — it’s great to see a WaPo op-ed extolling NHL hockey, which indeed seems to have vaulted into the second position in Washingtonians’ sports hierarchy, above the mediocre Wizards and the hapless Nationals, but inevitably trailing the beloved RedPeopleskins. But I have to wonder about the assumption that the author, Post contributing writer John Feinstein, is making in this assertion:

ovechkin fansHockey players are the most likable professional athletes on the planet. Maybe it’s because so many are small-town kids, or because so few become marketing superstars, or maybe it’s just the nature of the sport — selflessness is an absolute for any team to succeed.

Surely it could not be because hockey players also happen to be the whitest professional athletes on the planet. I’m not going to impute any subconscious racial animus on Feinstein (just, um, imply it portentously), but this would be consistent with the all-too-ready tendency to label certain professional football and basketball players (who happen to play in majority African-American sports) as troublemakers, delinquents, and other unsavory types.

That Feinstein cites the “small-town kids” rationale is not helping his cause. By buying into the myth of virtuous “small-town” America (where, it’s worth mentioning, most hockey players don’t even come from), Feinstein’s argument rests on deeply problematic assumptions of race, demographics, and morality. If small-town white kids (who happen to be able to afford expensive hockey equipment) are more likeable than inner-city, basketball-playing black kids, then what are we supposed to assume?

As much as I enjoy watching them play, hockey players, as a monolithic group, are not any more or less “likeable” than other sports’ professional athletes. To date, for example, I don’t recall a professional of any other sport using their equipment as a weapon with which to attack another player’s head.

(image from flickr user clydeorama under a Creative Commons license)

May 18, 2009 - Posted by | Sports | , , ,


  1. Yeah, hockey players are thugs. I do like hockey players, tho, because many of them are Canadian. And the line rotation system makes it possible for them to play at maximum energy all the time (although attributing this to better “work ethic” is foolish and dangerous). I wonder if Feinstein’s love for hockey players is a bit of anti-intellectual romanticism; basketball and football are both sports dominated by the college-educated, and the battle for baseball’s soul has shifted markedly in favor of the analysts.

    All of this is to explain why I cast my lot with Darts: a game played and enjoyed by drunks.

    Comment by Caleb | May 18, 2009 | Reply

  2. NHL Hockey, while not featuring many “colors” of people, is indeed a sport of diverse nationalities–probably more so than baseball, and definitely more so than football or basketball. I think to assume that diversity can only be color-based is a mistake. Let’s face it, the countries where hockey enjoys the greatest popularity do not have overwhelming geographic distributions of people with darker skin.

    For the best mix of nationalities and skin hues, I’d say soccer is your best bet.

    Comment by Kenny B. | May 18, 2009 | Reply

  3. Follow on…

    It’s worth noting that I actually do agree with your overall point, just not with the characterization of hockey as somehow less diverse than other sports.

    I find the various demographic distributions among different sports endlessly fascinating, right down to the demographic representation in specific positions within those sports. It’s interesting because one assumes that those decisions are most often made based on skill level, and not skin color, yet there still seem to be definable trends.

    Comment by Kenny B. | May 18, 2009 | Reply

  4. I join Kenny B. in enjoying a fascination with sports demographics. I also acknowledge that the NHL is a particularly diverse pool of talent, especially if these trends have continued over the last 5 years.

    That said, I think Mr. Boonstra’s point can’t be categorized as a miscasting of diversity in terms of color. North American social institutions in general, and sports leagues in particular, must be analyzed in terms of their positions in a centuries-old narrative of race relations in the region. It is not reductive in that context to look at the “diversity” of an institution in those terms, especially since white/European privilege has been the dominant force in that narrative.

    To be sure, I find the increasing international diversity of hockey (and baseball for that matter) to be a fascinating and extremely positive influence on the game. This trend is very much worth acknowledging and examining, even if it does not eradicate the problematic currents of racism that may also be at play.

    Comment by Caleb | May 18, 2009 | Reply

  5. “To date, for example, I don’t recall a professional of any other sport using their equipment as a weapon with which to attack another player’s head.”

    You must have forgotten then about the professional football player who stomped on another players head with his spikes on. Also in Baseball, every time a pitcher throws a bean ball at the batters head, and when basketball players throw fists and elbows at one another.

    You can’t judge a whole sport by the actions of one player.

    Comment by Jeff Kalp | July 29, 2009 | Reply

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