P.K. Subban says he’ll 'never' protest during national anthem

NHL

P.K. Subban said on Tuesday that he will “never” kneel during the national anthem to protest something politically.

Subban performed at a fundraiser on Tuesday night at Zanies Comedy Club in Nashville, to benefit Comedy Cares. He told the audience that he would “never” take a knee during the national anthem, because he has too much respect for the American flag. His comments were sent to us by two eyewitnesses, and confirmed by the Predators. Subban, who is Canadian, is considered the most prominent black player in pro hockey.

Earlier in the day, the Nashville Predators announced that, as a team, they would not engage in any protests during the national anthem. This came less than two days after hundreds of NFL players, coaches and executives showed solidarity in rebuking President Donald Trump’s comments that players who protested police brutality against African-Americans during the national anthem were “sons of bitches” who deserved to lose their jobs.

Said CEO Sean Henry, to the Tennessean:

“When this all came about, we wanted to get together with our team because everything we do is collaborative. When we say what we’re going to be doing, it really is a ‘we.’ Everyone had input on it. We are honoring the anthem and the flag and the country by standing during the anthem. We invite our fans to do so with us. “It is also our way of honoring what else it stands for, and it does provide for the freedom for others to express their views and protests in a manner in which they feel comfortable doing. We just think there’s proper forums for all. Our games have become this unifying celebration, so we have decided that we’re all going to stand together to honor the country and all that comes with it.”

According to Seth Dean, a Predators fans who attended the comedy fundraiser event, Subban took the stage and said “he will continue to stand, respect, and sing along with U.S. anthem.” At one point, he pointed out a friend of his in the crowd who was a law enforcement officer from Boston.

From Dean:

“He also addressed why he always shuffles his feet during anthem. He first said it could be ADD but he was never tested. Then he mentioned just being pumped up by crowd and excited to support USA even as a Canadian. He even jokingly suggested we should all stand and sing anthem there at Zanies (which didn’t happen). He obviously wasn’t going to go against Lavy’s proclamation that players were going to stay standing, especially with his coach in the room, but he made his support for anthem as unequivocal as he possibly could.”

In an email to Yahoo Sports, Hailey, another attendee, described the scene in more detail:

Tonight was a comedy fundraiser at Zanies in Nashville, for which Ryan Hamilton was the headliner. As my attendance was spontaneous, I was pretty excited when PK Subban was the first “comedian”. Much to my surprise, his allegedly “impromptu” set ended with a tense promise from PK that despite his previous dancing antics during the national anthem, he would NEVER kneel during the national anthem, followed by a long rant about his “respect” for the American flag.

Obviously, it’s totally PK’s prerogative on how reacts to the national anthem, but I couldn’t help but feel frustrated by the whole incident. I saw that Joel Ward, who had, like PK, been subject to some good old Boston racism during his playoff run against the Bruins, spoke favorably about the NFL protests in the past couple days. As the event was a fundraiser and had a lesser-known comedian, the majority of the audience tended to center around older, white Tennesseans. No cameras or phones are allowed, yet PK’s stance against the NFL protesters certainly was an uncomfortable one for me and my fellow young Predators’ fans. His awkward shout out to Peter Laviolette, who was in attendance, right before proclaiming his “respect” for the American flag certainly did not help matters.

So no, P.K. Subban will not be the guy who takes the knee and makes the stand. P.K. Subban is the guy who decided, with his team, not to do so, and then told a room without cameras rolling that he would never protest during the anthem.

Sorry if this let you down, because you believed an outspoken player like Subban would stand in solidarity with other pro athletes, or would symbolically share your political beliefs through his actions.

Sorry if this let you down because you’ve been tweeting about Sidney Crosby’s meek, corporate response to the Pittsburgh Penguins accepting an invitation to stand with President Donald Trump at the White House, and tweeting about how Subban would be different.

He’s not.

Before we get to what that means, let’s remember how we got here.

***

On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Penguins announced they would keep their invitation with President Donald Trump and visit the White House as Stanley Cup champions to celebrate with him.

It was an announcement made on the same day as the NFL player protests.

It was an announcement made on the same weekend that Trump “disinvited” the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors and star Steph Curry from the White House, after they already said they didn’t intend on going based on their opposition to the president and his policies.

It was an announcement made after the reigning NCAA men’s basketball champion North Carolina Tar Heels indicated they would not attend a White House ceremony either, due to, ahem, “scheduling conflicts” that we’re sure had nothing to do with coach Roy Williams’ scathing comments about Trump in March.

It was an announcement that placed the NHL, with its 93-percent Caucasian makeup and conservative-leaning player pool, in contrast with these athletes and in alignment with a sport like NASCAR, whose powers that be announced they would punish any drivers that protested during the anthem; and in alignment with Trump, who celebrated the Penguins’ decision with a gracious tweet.

More than anything, it was an announcement that began an investigation of where NHL players stood on the issue.

Some, like David Backes of the Boston Bruins, treated the protests during the anthem as an affront to the military. “If I’ve got beef with a social justice issue or something else-wise, I’m going to find different avenues that are not disrespectful, especially to those that are military men and women that give me the freedom to do what I do,” he said.

Joel Ward of the San Jose Sharks, meanwhile, announced on Tuesday night that he would consider taking a knee during the anthem. Like Subban, Ward is one of the NHL’s most prominent black athletes, and said his dealings with racism throughout his career influenced his stance.

“It’s just been part of life that you always have to deal with, so when people get into [Colin] Kaepernick and some of these other guys, saying that they’re disrespecting the flag, it’s not about just that. It’s about creating awareness about what people, like myself, go through on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s going to the mall or whatever,” he told the Mercury News.

But most players simply sold the company line, whether that company was the NHL – who has told players to be “apolitical” at the rink – or their teams, like the Penguins. Witness Sidney Crosby’s comments after Pittsburgh reaffirmed their attendance at the White House:

“I still feel like we look at it as an opportunity,” Crosby told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Sunday. “We respect the office of the White House. I’m pretty aware of what’s going on. People have that right to not go, too. Nobody’s saying they have to go. As a group, we decided to go. There hasn’t really been a whole lot of discussion about it.”

This put Crosby in the crosshairs. Fans wrote impassioned letters urging him to take a stand against the invitation. Activist El Jones of Halifax blasted Crosby in a column to Vice Canada, “Crosby’s choice to prioritize a photo opportunity with Trump doesn’t only harm those protesting in the United States. For black Canadians it is yet another reminder that we are not included in Canada, that white Canadians can safely ignore us and be excused for doing so.”

Personally, I thought this targeting of Crosby was misguided. Sure, he’s the captain. And yes, it’s difficult to see the biggest stars in the NBA speaking from the heart about the U.S. President while having the biggest star in the NHL leading his team to the White House with nary a critical word.

But what did you expect, exactly? Crosby is a milquetoast hockey automaton who treats controversy like it’s radioactive. He’s a company man, a team guy; even if he stands in opposition to Trump’s policies or the man himself, he’s not going to be the one to engage in it now. A third straight Stanley Cup means more to Crosby than commenting on another sport’s political unrest. An avoidance of distraction means more to Crosby than being a leading voice on social issues – which is, of course, his privilege.

But more than that: These players that are selling the company line are doing so because they’ve been given that line to sell.

Some find comfort in that – ‘hey it’s above my pay grade’ – while others are clearly getting the message that the NHL and their teams don’t want divisive protests and social politics inside their arenas.

(Unless of course it’s an ongoing campaign for gay rights or using the military as a way to rally fans in the third period or having Sarah Palin drop the puck at Flyers and Blues games …)

Which brings us back to Subban.

***

Look, P.K. Subban is a blessing. His ability, his joy for hockey, his love of the game, his personality, his philanthropy, his way with the media, the way he sold that “bad breath” joke in the Stanley Cup Final … all of it. His existence is, without question, one of the things we like best about the current NHL.

But for years, we’ve assigned him extra import as the league’s most prominent black player, and P.K. isn’t looking to be that standard-bearer. “I never look at myself as a black player. I think of myself as a hockey player who wants to be the best hockey player in the league. I know I’m black. Everyone knows I’m black. But I don’t want to be defined as a black hockey player,” he told ESPN earlier this year. And it’s not the first time he’s downplayed his race with regard to his career.

There’s a lot to unpack in that stance, and as a white American hockey writer I’m probably not the one to open the trunk. But I will say that part of that decision on Subban’s part, and any decision by players to downplay their racial or sexual identity as professional hockey players, is to avoid being ostracized. Avoid being “the other.” Conforming to the dogma of the dressing room, the organization and ultimately the NHL. Fitting into “the hockey culture.”

This aspect is, in my travels, quite unique to hockey. Other sports preach it, but the NHL players are the only ones that consistently seem to embody this “not the name on the back!” aesthetic.

Subban, to his credit, has bucked that notion throughout his career through his personality and actions, but even he has his limits.

Perhaps he truly believes in the sanctity of the anthem and the flag with regarding to staging protests during it.

Or perhaps he wants to stand arm-in-arm with black athletes from other sports, but other factors make that untenable: Hockey culture or turning off fans in a red state (even if the city is much more moderate) or even his more selfish aims – a guy who has a high-powered Hollywood marketing firm getting him on the Nickelodeon Kids Sports Awards probably knows it’s better for business not to be the black militant in a lily-white sport.

Whatever the motivation, know this: P.K. Subban says he’ll never kneel during the anthem.

He said this at a comedy club on Tuesday night. But the joke’s on everyone who assumed Subban would be the antithesis of Sidney Crosby on this issue, because in the end they both play in the NHL, and for teams that have been emphatic in not joining the fight the NFL and NBA have.

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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