Editor’s Note: NHL players have spoken out against racism and social injustice since the death of George Floyd, a black man, in racism in Minneapolis on May 25. Three years ago, JT Brown, then striker at Tampa Bay Lightning, raised his fist during the national anthem to draw attention to the same issues. Calling for social justice and the fight against racism at the heart of the return of the NHL, Brown wrote a special essay for the league about his decision to raise his fist:
On October 7, 2017, I had a choice. I could shut up and play hockey, or I could do something so loud that the entire hockey community would hear me. Nothing will ever be achieved if we all have our heads down and our mouths shut. During the national anthem in Sunrise, Florida, I raised my fist to protest the brutality and racism of the police. The same fist that got arenas going while I exchanged blows with overwhelming opponents. The same fist that broke when a shot was blocked during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The same fist that has given countless daps to black and Hispanic children in the community while teaching them how to play hockey. I always sacrificed for my team, for the fans, for my community. In 201
While everyone was concentrating on getting the team out of the camp or preparing for the start of the season, the media asked me if I would protest during the national anthem. I already had the pressure of a contract year and now I had to decide if I was ready to do something uncomfortable and uncharacteristic for my sport. I’m an in-and-out-of-the-lineup guy who has just enough grit to stay on the fourth line. I knew I was interchangeable. I knew that protests could make it even more difficult to get a new contract next season. My family and I were ready to end my NHL career. I had decided that I felt uncomfortable.
Hockey is predominantly played by wealthy white men and corresponds to a team mentality that is rooted at a young age. Throughout my professional career, I was one of 30 black hockey players in the league. For most of my hockey career, I was the only black or colored person on my team. It’s an experience where you can feel like a black guy. An experience that draws your attention to your blackness and asks you whether you are acting too black or too white. Understanding where and how you fit can be lonely and fundamentally shape you as a person. I’ll be honest, most of the time we’re all just teammates. We joke, we play video games, we play cards and we bet on the soccer game. Then there are times when I’m the only player asked by Arena Security for my credentials if I’m just trying to get into my locker room. Or when I am asked by the hotel security service to leave the hockey players alone and to leave the hotel lobby if I am only waiting for our bus with my teammates. Let’s not forget the classic line that every black hockey player knows too well: “Go play basketball”, which I heard from an opposing player during a hockey game at the highest level. I have worked hard all my life to prove I belong to the NHL and when I did I was still reminded that I was a black man who played a white sport.
Before raising my fist during the national anthem, I spoke to the team’s owner, general manager, trainer, and teammate. I told them that I intend to raise my fist in solidarity during the national anthem to symbolically protest against police brutality and racism. You were invited to speak to me if you wanted to understand my intentions better. When I spoke to my trainer about my protest plans, I told him about the time when I had a shotgun pointed at my head. I usually tell the story when I was called the N word during a youth hockey game, and my coach told the referee that if he didn’t kick the child who said it, our team would all leave the game. The referee wouldn’t kick the child out, so my teammates and coach stood by me when we left the game. These are the stories people love to hear because they offer determination and a sense of community. I don’t usually talk about it when I go to a high school house party, and some kids from school pulled out a shotgun and pointed it at my head when they called me the N-word. People don’t like these stories because they reveal truths that they ignore. These are the things that have shaped me as a man. These are the things that made me put my fist in the air.
Video: Predators and stars stand arm in arm for anthems
My father and I spoke extensively about how this decision could affect my career, family, and livelihood. I relied on him for advice because he was not only a former National Football League, but also after his career as a parole officer in Ramsey County and as a juvenile officer. I always went to my father to get advice on life and career. While he was afraid for me and the impact I was going to have, he knew this was something I had to do and he fully supported me.
I decided to raise my fist after a long heart-to-heart conversation with a friend, a retired U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant (E-7) who served during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. We talked about how to protest, but I also wanted to pay attention to those who serve and have served our country. Given the logistics we’re in during the anthem, I couldn’t have taken a knee. I felt that a raised fist best represented my intentions because it symbolized solidarity, support, strength, and even resistance.
My first protest was during a preseason hockey game and went unnoticed. On October 7, 2017, however, I was back in the lineup for a regular season game. This protest went viral almost immediately. In the weeks after the game, I had a face-to-face meeting with management and then a meeting with the team owner at home. They both wanted to know what I needed and how they could help me achieve what I was trying to do. That was a difficult question because I didn’t know how to solve racism in America, and I still don’t know. Even before I protested, I knew I might not be able to achieve a national impact, but I hoped that it would have a positive impact in Tampa.
My team was able to support my initiatives and with the resources provided, I was able to implement changes that I thought could benefit my community. The action plan contained two things. The first worked with the Tampa Police Department. I built up a relationship with the chief of police, went with me, and some of my team-mates and I even did police training. The second program, which unfortunately never came to fruition because I was playing in Anaheim, was a program that brought the police and community children together to watch Lightning games. I got a lot of flak from the Black Community for these actions. I understood how problematic it was to integrate myself into a situation where the narrative shifted from police brutality to using my actions for what some saw as police rhetoric. As black athletes, we were automatically placed in a unique position this year. We were the only athletes who were constantly asked if we would protest. It has also put us all in a difficult position. We had to choose one side. Am I black or am I a hockey player? We were all pent up when we did and pent up when we didn’t.
Video: penguins, flyers unite for social justice
Before this pre-season game, I asked my wife to stay away from social media. I knew it was going to be ugly. I want to make sure that I also mention the incredible support and love that I received after my protest. Unfortunately, not everyone understood. I received death threats; People told me they hoped I had an injury at the end of my career. People even called my little daughter the N-word. To this day, when I speak out against racism, someone on my Twitter mentions that they want to hang me up or call the N-word. The backlash confirmed my belief that I was doing the right thing. I know the hockey community, and the Black community in particular heard how I recognized their pain and understood that I had sworn this game to always fight for equality.
Before I raised my fist, I never considered myself an activist. I have always focused on being a professional hockey player and figuring out how to stay in the NHL. This changed in June 2017 when the Falcon Heights, Minnesota, police officer who killed Philando Castile in 2016 was acquitted of murder for a murder. Castile was shot while he was sitting in his car in front of his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter. The viral video of this little girl comforting her handcuffed mother when they were both sitting in the back of a patrol car broke me. At that point I had a daughter, Lily, and I realized that it was my responsibility to fight for a better future for her and other black children.
Fast forward to 2020 when the Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd. For the first time, I saw a glimpse of a league made up of mostly wealthy white men who spoke out against topics that were once ignored. It was promising that activism in the NHL is progressing. The urgency of social change does not stop as the roar of protests subsides and disappears from our timeline. Whether you’re holding hands for donations, volunteering, signs while protesting, vocalizing online, or raising a fist in solidarity, we all have a responsibility to fight for equality. The story cannot repeat itself.