One thought raced through Bill Riley’s mind when he saw Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Brown raise his fist in the air Saturday and become the first National Hockey League player to engage in a silent protest during the playing of the U.S. national anthem.
“I think it’s good that he took a stand,” Riley, who became the National Hockey League’s third black player when he skated for the Washington Capitals in 1974-75, told me. “Something had to be done.”
Brown conducted his protest in Sunrise, Florida, before the Lightning faced the home team Florida Panthers.
Riley, 67, saw it on TV from his Nova Scotia home. He watches a lot of U.S. news when he’s at home and is unnerved by what he sees: a deadly rally in Charlottesville, Va., organized by neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan supporters; a spate of high-profile killings of African-Americans by law enforcement officers from Ferguson, Missouri, to Staten Island, New York; and a president who seems more concerned by National Football League players taking knees to protest the treatment of African-Americans than the damage Hurricane Maria caused to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
— HockeyNightInCanada (@hockeynight) October 8, 2017
Trump lashed out at athletes who protest during the national anthem, accusing them of displaying a total disrespect for the American flag, a “total disrespect of our heritage, a total disrespect of everything that we stand for.”
Riley respectfully disagrees.
“They’re not trying to cause trouble. They’re doing things in a peaceful way,” he told me. “They’re not disrespecting the flag, like people are saying. They are not doing it to disrespect the flag. They’re just trying to make a point.”
This from a hard-nosed, old-school former player who skated in an era when black players rarely spoke out publicly about the racial abuse they endured from fans, opposing players, and even teammates. Forget about taking a political stand.
“A lot of stuff you had to pretend you didn’t hear,” Riley told me. “Because you didn’t want to become a problem because they’d get rid of you.”
Riley said he hopes that doesn’t happen to Brown. The 27-year-old right wing isn’t a superstar – he tallied only 3 goals and 3 assists in 64 games with the lightning in 2016-17. But he is a popular player and active in the Tampa Bay community, especially when it comes to introducing the area’s kids of color to hockey.
Brown has taken some heat from fans for his protest Saturday. But he’s also received support from Riley and others in the hockey world.
Riley said Brown’s defiant stance Saturday was refreshing and he hopes other NHL players follow his lead.
— 🇺🇸 USA OVER PARTY (@michaelbeatty3) October 8, 2017
Well done J.T. Brown. Tough to do in a league where nobody wants to step out of line, let alone have convictions.
— Damien Cox (@DamoSpin) October 8, 2017
“I’d like to see more of the white players stand with some of these black guys,” he told me.
Brown told The Tampa Bay Times Joe Smith that he raised his fist because “I wanted to do something to show my support.”
— Joe Smith (@TBTimes_JSmith) October 8, 2017
“There are some issues that we have to talk about,” Brown told Smith. “In my mind, I’m just trying to bring awareness and any type of conversation we can get started would be great.”
He elaborated further in a lengthy tweet Sunday, saying “there comes a time when you cannot remain silent, hoping and wishing for change.”
“I also want to reiterate that this is not and never has been about about the military or disrespecting the flag,” he tweeted. “It is about police brutality, racial injustice, and inequality in this country.It is something that I and many others feel needs to be addressed. I love my country, but that doesn’t mean I cannot acknowledge that it is not perfect.”
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
-Martin Luther King Jr. pic.twitter.com/Ql2vEFwl5E
— Jt brownov (@JTBrown23) October 8, 2017
Brown added that “I have been through my fair share of racism both on and off the ice.” He said he’s received death threats and racist comments since his protest.
Brown, the son of former Minnesota Vikings running back Ted Brown, hasn’t been afraid to speak his mind on matters of race and politics. In September, he reached into his pockets and donated $1,500 to help get a Confederate monument removed from Tampa’s downtown courthouse.
He criticized Columbus Blue Jackets Head Coach Mike Tortorella in September 2016 for vowing to bench any player any player on the U.S. World Cup of Hockey team who conducted a protest during the national anthem as former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick did last season.
“Wouldn’t benching a black man for taking a stance only further prove Kap’s point of oppression? But hey,” Brown wrote in a tweet that went viral.
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