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NHL unveils vague “Declaration of Principles,” NBA encourages social consciousness in letter to players

The “stick to sports” mythos is getting a much-needed call out, but not all leagues are created equal.

2017 NHL Humanitarian Awards Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

On Wednesday, September 6th, the NHL, in association with the NHL Players Association and 15 other hockey organizations, released a “Declaration of Principles,” meant to serve as a guide to fostering an environment of inclusivity among the players and the fans. It’s about creating cultural and structural changes to a sport that has its fair share of cultural issues.

The kicker, though? None of those issues are actually addressed.

Here’s the Declaration in its entirety:

Declaration of Principles

We believe every leader of the sport has the responsibility to inspire stakeholders in an effort to deliver a positive family hockey experience. Hockey participation offers families value beyond making an individual a better player or even a better athlete. The game of hockey is a powerful platform for participants to build character, foster positive values and develop important life skills. These benefits are available to all players, desirable to every family and transcend the game.

Today, guided by our common values, we jointly pledge to the following Principles.

We Believe:

1. Hockey should be an enjoyable family experience; all stakeholders – organizations, players, parents, siblings, coaches, referees, volunteers and rink operators – play a role in this effort.

2. Hockey’s greatest value is the role it plays in the development of character and life skills.

3. All hockey organizations – regardless of size or level of competition – bring value to players and families in their ability to deliver a positive family experience.

4. Physical activity is important for a healthy body, mind and spirit.

5. There are significant benefits of youth participation in multiple sports.

6. Hockey programs should be age-appropriate for all players, accounting for each individual’s physical, emotional and cognitive development.

7. There is great value in all forms of hockey, both on and off the ice.

8. All hockey programs should provide a safe, positive and inclusive environment for players and families regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation and socio-economic status. Simply put, hockey is for everyone.

We believe in our ability to improve lives and strengthen communities globally through hockey. We believe that living by these Principles will provide a healthy, balanced and enjoyable experience for all and inspire impactful service beyond the rink.

The only part of it that really means anything is the final bullet point - the one that essentially restates the mission statement of Hockey Is For Everyone.

There’s no actual plan for change. There’s no system of education in place, no plan for consequences of failing to live up to these principles. They walked away from this announcement and five minutes later, Patrick Kane was getting ready for NHL Media Day. Because punching a cab driver, wearing blackface, and a rape investigation are just part of the character people build through hockey! There’s certainly no reason Kane shouldn’t be the face of the league.

As countless examples in the NHL will prove: your character doesn’t matter, if you’re good at the sport.

Time and again, NHL executives fail to provide meaningful action when it comes to making hockey an inclusive and supportive environment. Instead, we get told that “Hockey Is For Everyone!” on a loop, while minority players are shut down to maintain the “Team-First” mentality that comes with hockey.

That’s a real culture issue and it’s one that the NHL has no interest in actually fixing.

Read over the Declaration again. Look at the emphasis on “family.” How often have minorities heard “family” used as an excuse to shut them down for being “too political” or “too controversial?” Instead of addressing the cause of these issues and taking on the idea that the team comes before everything else, the NHL has put up a giant sign that says “Polite conversation only! Leave your politics at home!”

The release from the NHL becomes even more laughable in light of the NBA and the NBA Players Association issuing a letter that directly encourages players to take political stances.

ESPN released an excerpt of the letter, which reads:

"None of us operates in a vacuum. Critical issues that affect our society also impact you directly. Fortunately, you are not only the world's greatest basketball players -- you have real power to make a difference in the world, and we want you know that the Players Association and the League are always available to help you figure out the most meaningful way to make that difference."

In 66 words, the NBA has established a clearer path for a cultural shift than the NHL did in nearly 300.

According the the NBA, issues that affect players’ lives matter. They have a responsibility as public figures to speak on injustice. The NBAPA will help them find ways to create change.

That’s something real and tangible and a far more impactful statement of their values than whatever the NHL was trying to accomplish. Add in the fact that this was an internal NBA memo, whilst the NHL paraded Connor McDavid, Marc-Andre Fleury, Seth Jones, and Ryan McDonagh around the TODAY Show to sing the league’s praises and the whole thing feels disingenuous.

That’s not to say that the NHL isn’t trying. We live in a world where Colin Kaepernick is still unemployed for being “too political” and “too distracting” for his silent protest of police brutality. The “Team-First” mentality plagues the NFL in similar ways to the NHL, with the caveat that it likely impacts nonwhite players more. Players like JJ Watt have received mountains of praise for their efforts to aid Hurricane Harvey victims and think-pieces are written on Why We’re Glad JJ Watt Didn’t Stick to Sports. But these exceptions are made for white players and white players only.

So, sure. The NHL is trying and they aren’t currently blacklisting anyone for a nonviolent, silent political protest.

Can’t we still want more, though?

This isn’t the first time someone has told Gary Bettman that the league isn’t doing enough for its social minority fanbase. The fact that this Declaration of Principles exists is enough to prove that they are well aware that there’s a problem. They just don’t want to do the hard work it would take to fix it.

It’s exhausting. As fans, we deserve better. We deserve athletes that are allowed to be open about social issues and create real change in our communities. We deserve a league that stands behind those athletes and those issues. A league where nonwhite players are allowed to know that they’re good without being branded as a problem. A league where players who use gay slurs aren’t named LGBT initiative ambassadors. A league where women don’t have to compromise between loving a sport and supporting countless men who have assaulted women and still receive praise.

Where do we start?

The difference between the NBA and the NHL on many of these issues comes from a pretty simple place: the NHL is a very white sport. The high cost of hockey makes it inaccessible, especially long-term, which means the majority of those who make it to the NHL are well-off white men. Rags-to-riches stories hardly exist in the NHL’s narrative and that means there’s a large majority of players who are unaffected by social issues, and thus think that they don’t matter.

To that, I say: I don’t know how to convince you that you should care about other people.

Hockey being overwhelmingly white is a culture issue, but it’s one that can be fixed. Increase accessibility to poor and nonwhite communities. Create a generation of players that look more like other professional sports leagues and more like our country and communities.

This isn’t just a problem for future NHL players, though. Commit to a culture where players who are “too loud” or “too self-centered” are allowed to be just that. Let players breathe, and learn to market their personalities, not just their team. Make it so that a coach saying he’d bench a black athlete for not standing during the anthem of a country where he could be killed just for existing is not only not okay, but a punishable offense. Create a league where minorities can see themselves and feel supported and included and you’ll have a self-perpetuating cycle of inclusivity.

And for God’s sake, how many times do we have to ask you to stop promoting Patrick Kane as a face of the league? Stop excusing what players do off the ice because of what they do on it.

The solutions are there and they’re doable, and yet all we get is a list of principles. We’re a far way from an inclusive “family hockey experience,” and until the league actually commits to a plan of action, not to principles, it’s all just lip service.