I love hockey. I play, coach, watch, and run a fantasy hockey league. While I have many hobbies, getting involved in hockey is among my favorites.
But I also have a weird relationship with its culture. I don’t quite fit in. I’m unapologetically left-wing, I march in Black Lives Matter protests and fight for transgender equality. I donate to Planned Parenthood, and I write about the need for churches to fully embrace and empower queer leaders.
I’m not exactly the stereotypical hockey fan. Granted, I’m a cis-het man, so I’m technically only one identifier away from fitting right in with the hockey world (I’m non-white, so I’m only missing one leg on the stool of patriarchal white supremacy to help me balance fully at the bar of white, cisgender, heterosexual, male fandom).
But my ideological leanings and relationships with people who don’t have any ability to sit at that bar have me seated far from the rest of the hockey fan crowd.
Frankly, hockey culture—fans, players, coaches, and administrators—is rather regressive, often teeming with racism, misogyny, and transphobia. Perhaps this is something predominantly American, since Canadians overall tend to be (and I recognize this is a stereotype and not applicable across the board) ever so slightly less homophobic than Americans overall, but that’s just an anecdotal observation and not based on any data, so I’ll leave it at that.
To illustrate my point, here are a couple personal anecdotes. A few years ago, after a pickup game during an open-ice session at a nearby rink, I was in the dressing room with a goalie who went on a rant about the rink allowing women to join the ice sessions, and only after his rant turned into “we shouldn’t be letting broads play hockey” did I reply with, “Sounds like you’re just angry that she scored six goals on you,” a moment I’m not particularly proud of, and I hope I’ve grown more willing to call that shit out sooner and more forcefully if it ever happens again, but I’m not the most confident person in the world when it comes to these kinds of confrontations.
A little over a year ago, the NHL team I support (the Montreal Canadiens, or “Habs” for short) came into town to play the New Jersey Devils. It was just a couple days after the Chinese New Year, so the Devils organization put on a little Lantern Festival celebration during one of the intermissions. I was standing in line at a concession stand chatting with another fan as the dragon dance was making its way by us on the concourse. Since it was right at the beginning of the global coronavirus pandemic (February 4, to be exact), there was an understandable fear of what was taking place in China at the time. But it wasn’t long before someone near me in the concession line said, “Don’t you think it’s risky to have a Chinese party right now with that new virus? And what do they know about hockey anyway? They should just go home.”
I’m Japanese American, and the guy I was chatting with is Korean Canadian. Neither of us were of Chinese descent, but I felt the sting of that comment, and I’m pretty sure he felt it too.
While the homophobia is slowing down a little bit, racism, transphobia, and misogyny are alive and well in the hockey world.
As I’ve already pointed out, the men’s hockey world is dripping with racism and misogyny. While the two stories I just shared don’t typify hockey culture, they are far from isolated experiences. They unfortunately occur with quite a lot of regularity.
So for me, the women’s hockey world was something of a reprieve. The kinds of attitudes on display in men’s hockey weren’t as easy to spot in women’s hockey. They were certainly there, and I think what’s happening now is the problematic element bubbling to the surface. But overall, there’s a little bit less toxicity than in the men’s game. Still, that’s a pretty low bar. It’s like Canada comparing itself to the US on societal progress. Sure, they’ve made much more progress than we have, but if they really want to improve, they won’t look to us for any kinds of metrics.
Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, I’m talking about how I became a women’s hockey fan. Sorry about the rabbit trail.
While I’ve been aware of women’s hockey and some of the noteworthy points in the history of the sport for pretty much as long as I’ve been a hockey fan, it wasn’t until the 2014 Olympics that I began to pay more attention. The USWNT games in Sochi were the first time I made appointments to watch full women’s hockey games. Then in 2015 a new women’s hockey league called the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) began operating in the US and was the first league to pay its players a salary. (The Canadian Women’s Hockey League, or CWHL, at the time paid bonuses and incentives but not salaries.)
In 2016, the New York Riveters moved from Brooklyn to Newark, NJ, putting them just a few minutes away from me. I attended a few games when they first moved, but didn’t become a fan right away because the player I was most familiar with at the time—Hilary Knight—was at the time playing for the Boston Pride, so I started leaning in that direction.
In 2017 I became friends with one of the Riveters players (we coached in a youth hockey program together), and from then on I was at the rink for practically every home game until the team moved to Monmouth Junction (that’s in South Jersey, right?)
During my time as a Rivs season-ticket holder, I had the privilege of bringing kids that I coached to exciting playoff games and watching them get excited about meeting a pro hockey player, of celebrating a championship-winning season where I got to chat with a few women’s hockey legends and then-current players, of meeting Harrison Browne—the first openly transgender professional athlete, and of suffering through the disastrous season under head coach Randy Velischek.
For almost every home game I stood right behind the goalie (because who watches a game at the rink sitting down?), and at almost every one of those games I struck up a conversation with Kelsey Koelzer’s mom and thought, It’s so cool that a Black woman is playing professional hockey.
But while women’s hockey had some great opportunities to take steps in the right direction, it’s still hockey, and it’s based in a culture that isn’t quite as progressive as so many of us would like it to be. For starters, it’s an incredibly white sport, with very little BIPOC representation, and that lack of representation yields some rather toxic outcomes.
As a nascent league, the NWHL has found itself uncomfortably tied to Barstool Sports, a media brand known for its racism, sexism, homophobia, and cyber-bullying.
Over the past few days, this uneasy and unofficial alliance came to the surface and was in effect “officially” severed following Barstool CEO Erika Nardini posting a video that named some of her “haters,” who had called out her company for its racism and misogyny, effectively unleashing Barstool’s flying monkeys (who call themselves “Stoolies,” which I find quite hilarious).
(Oh, and if you’re wondering how a woman can be misogynistic, I can’t recommend enough that you read this piece from Hockey in Society, a blog that explores the intersection of hockey with relevant social issues. The post helps to shed light on why sexism and misogyny often go unchecked.)
Also, see the below screenshot:
For some context, the text in that screenshot is referencing Barstool’s hiring of Nardini. I haven’t vetted quote, but I don’t have any reason to doubt the source. I’m assuming the “he” being quoted is Barstool founder and president (and clogged toilet with a webcam and microphone) Dave Portnoy.
Riveters rookie (and all-around badass mofo who don’t take no shit from nobody) Saroya Tinker responded to Nardini’s video with an unequivocal “GTFO. We don’t need you.”
And then, in an all-too-predictable move, Portnoy posted a video calling for Tinker to be put in jail.
That’s right. A 40-something-year-old white cishet man just called for the arrest of a young Black woman for pointing out racism.
This is the same 40-something-year-old white cishet man who used the N-word and then refused to apologize. The same 40-something-year-old white cishet man who greenlit a podcast titled with the acronym for “Now It’s Gonna Get Extremely Real,” and then gave the show to two Black men. The same 40-something-year-old white cishet man who said that he thought Colin Kaepernick was “an ISIS guy… Throw a head wrap on this guy, he’s a terrorist.”
In 2018, Portnoy talked about how one of Barstool’s salesmen went to a party in “full blackface.” In response, Kevin Clancy, another Barstool personality, said, “If you do blackface with two Black guys, and they’re okay with it, you get a pass. You’re allowed to,” but “you’ve gotta put them on a leash and have them next to you the whole time.”
But yeah, calling Barstool a racist company is a step too far.
At this point I’m gonna stop recapping everything and direct you to the excellent reporting of Marisa Ingemi, who wrote a piece detailing what has been going down in the NWHL. If you want to look into the details of what took place, that’s an excellent recap.
I’m going to share some of my own observations here. I want to point out that casting organizations in particular roles is messy, but I think it’s helpful to look at it this way.
Barstool, and in particular Nardini and Portnoy, are exhibiting textbook abusive behavior. They make claims that they want to see the NWHL succeed, that they want to promote women’s hockey, that they want to “grow the game.” But as soon as someone in the NWHL calls out their bullshit (by the way, why does the burden of calling out abuse always fall on the shoulders of Black women?), they and their flying monkeys are out in droves. Their modus operandi is cyberbullying and sexual harassment.
Barstool claims that no one has platformed the NWHL like they have (a false claim as it’s SB Nation’s The Ice Garden and Erica Ayala’s Sports Talk ELA are two of the most consistent platforms for the league). They claim that the NWHL needs their support (another false claim as the league has done just fine without them). They claim to want to fully support the league (while publicly advertising a desire to start their own women’s hockey league). But when Ty Tumminia, the NWHL’s acting commissioner, released an (albeit lacking) statement reiterating the league’s support of their players (presumably Saroya Tinker, who has borne the brunt of the harassment), Portnoy went on his rant.
For her part, Tumminia doubled down on her statement during a press conference following the release of Nardini’s video (but before Portnoy’s, if I have my timeline correct) saying, “I don’t find an association [with Barstool] being healthy.”
The NWHL, its supporters, and the journalists who cover them have found themselves in an abusive relationship with Barstool Sports and the “Stoolies.”
I’ve seen this before. If you know me, you’re aware that I was for several years a full-time vocational minister in the Evangelical megachurch industry. What I’ve witnessed in those kinds of religious environments are the most blatant and unchecked forms of abuse.
It was painful to see it then, and it’s just as painful to see it now.
(Also, because it’s 2021, the Riveters had to leave the NWHL bubble, or “N-Dubble” as Erica Ayala likes to call it, due to the league’s COVID-19 protocol.)
I’ve been processing this from multiple angles: what this means for women’s hockey (yes, the events I wrote about in my last women’s-hockey-related post are still very much at play here, so the women’s hockey world is pretty scattered at the moment), how this affects the sustainability of the NWHL (I’m not as worried about this as the sponsors continue to roll in; the Isobel Cup Semifinals and Final will be broadcast on national television through NBCSN, Dunkin continues to remain a partner with the league for the sixth year in a row, and Discover has announced that they will be the official credit card of the NWHL), and how this affects the safety and mental health of players like Tinker, who have consistently endured so much racism, misogyny, and other forms of bigotry throughout the years.
But I think ultimately what I want to do here is add my own voice to the many who are calling for something better. While I don’t want to diminish the difficult position the NWHL finds itself in right now, I also recognize that some of it was brought upon themselves. Zoë Hayden wrote in the Victory Press: “Former commissioner Dani Rylan and some current players had playfully endorsed Nardini’s interest in buying an NWHL team. The league didn’t immediately see, or want to see, how that type of behavior could potentially be harmful to someone like Saroya Tinker and to many of their fans, because it came from a real potential buyer in Erika Nardini.”
While I think the ship has sailed on any potential for the league to operate in a manner more suitable to the positive growth and development of its players and its relationship with the fans, there’s still a small window for them to make it right.
As Hayden points out, “When you depend on outside investors and broken revenue models, as the current economy of pro sports does, it can be hard to create a sustainable business that exists to create something good rather than to create something profitable for shareholders or owners.”
I hope that Ty Tumminia, her staff, and the rest of the league take these things into consideration. As long as they are beholden to this kind of revenue model, they must remain extremely aware of the dangers of being asked to compromise their morals in order to remain sustainable or even become profitable.
So, like so many others have already said, I would like to call on the NWHL and the NWHLPA to step beyond mere “conversation” and “listening and learning.” It’s time to take action, to work towards change, and to hold yourselves and your players to a higher sense of accountability.
As the NWHLPA posted on social media, “This is bigger than hockey.” Yes, it is. But it’s also bigger than any amount of focusing “internally on supporting its athletes.” It’s time for public, outspoken denunciation of the kind of culture that Barstool Sports encourages and promotes. It’s time to educate any players who are encouraging that culture to spill out and target your players like Saroya Tinker and to hold them accountable for the dangerous work environment they’ve propagated for their BIPOC teammates.
I love women’s hockey. I will continue to support women’s hockey as best as I can (though I suppose that’s not as meaningful coming from me as it would be coming from a media brand valued at $450 million).
But it really sucks to see the sport I love so much go through such rocky and tumultuous times.
Having said all that, I truly hope that everyone who is invested in seeing hockey grow (both the men’s game and the women’s game) will step up, speak out, and quit staying silent when cultures like that of Barstool Sports start to creep into the game. I would love to see a hockey culture that creates a safe environment for BIWOC and the LGBTQIA community to thoroughly enjoy the game, as players, fans, journalists, and other participants.
I hope you’ll join me in donating to the Black Girl Hockey Club Scholarship Fund to help make the sport more inclusive for BIPOC—specifically girls, women, and non-binary folks.