Editor’s note: NHL players have spoken out against racism and social injustice after the death of black George Floyd while he was in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. Three years ago, UN Brown, then a Tampa Bay Lightning striker, raised his fist over the anthem to draw attention to the same issues. Addressing social justice and the fight against racism, going beyond the NHL’s Back to the Game game, Brown wrote a special essay for the Sick about his decision to raise his fist:
2017 October 7 I had a choice. I could shut up and play hockey or I could do something so loud that the whole hockey community could hear me. We will never do that if we all lower our heads and close our mouths. So, during the state anthem in Sunrise, Florida, I raised my fist to protest against police brutality and racism. The same fist that caused the legs in the arenas before I exchanged blows with weighed opponents. The same fist that hit the block during the Stanley Cup playoffs. The same fist that gave countless leaps in the community of black and Hispanic children teaching them to play hockey. I have always sacrificed for my team, for the fans, for my community. 2017 I had the opportunity to donate for something bigger than hockey and knew I had to do it.
While everyone was focused on the team leaving the camp or preparing for the start of the season, the media asked me if I was going to protest over the national anthem. I felt the pressure of years of contract and now I had to decide if I wanted to do something awkward and unusual for my sport. I’m an “in-and-out-of-the-line-up” guy who has enough grit to stick to the fourth line. I knew I could be replaced. I knew it might be even harder to get another contract next season in protest. My family and I were ready to end my NHL career. I had decided I was uncomfortable.
Hockey is mostly played by wealthy white men and they match the team mentality acquired from a young age. Throughout my professional career, I have been 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 that makes you feel like a famous black guy. An experience that makes you realize your blackness, doubting whether you are behaving too black or too white. Understanding where and how you settle down can be lonely and it basically shapes you as a personality. I’ll be honest, most of the time we’re all just teammates. We joke, play video games, play cards and bet on a game of football. Then there are times when I’m the only player whose arena security asks for my credentials as soon as I try to get into my locker. Or when the hotel security asks me to leave the hockey players alone and leave the hotel lobby when I’m just waiting for our bus with teammates. Let’s not forget the classic line that all black hockey players know too well, the “go play basketball” that I heard during the top-level hockey match from the opposing player. I worked hard all my life to prove I belonged to the NHL, and when I created it, I was still reminded that I was black, playing a white sport.
Before raising my fist over the anthem, I spoke to the team owner, general manager, coach and teammates. I told them I was going to raise my fist in solidarity through the anthem as a symbolic protest against police brutality and racism. They were welcome to come and talk to me if they wanted to better understand my intentions. When I talked to my coach about my intentions to protest, I told him about the time when I was shot in the head. I usually tell the story of when I was called “n-word” during a youth hockey game, and my coach said our team would all get out of the game if he didn’t push the child saying that. The result didn’t rule out the child, so all the teammates and the coach stood with me when we left the game. These are stories that people love to hear because they offer determination and a sense of community. I don’t usually talk about parties in high school, and some kids pulled a gun out of school and headed for it because they called me by word of mouth. People don’t like that story because they reveal truths they choose to ignore. These are the things that shaped me as a man. That was all that made my fist rise into the air.
Video: Predators and stars stand hand in hand in anthems
My dad and I talked at length about how this decision could affect my career, family, and livelihood. I turned to him for advice on a unique experience as he not only returned to the former National Football League, but also on his football career as a Ramsey County Probation Officer and Juvenile Correctional Officer. I always went to my dad to advise on life and career. Although he feared for me and the echoes I would face, he knew it needed to be done and fully supported me.
After a long, sincere face, I decided to take the lead with a friend who is a retired U.S. Air Force sergeant (E-7) who served during Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraq Freedom. We talked about how I needed to protest, but I also wanted to keep in mind those who serve and have served our country. Given the logistics of where he stands at the time of the anthem, I would not have been able to kneel. I felt that a raised fist best reflected my intentions as it symbolized solidarity, support, strength and even resistance.
My first protest took place during a pre-season hockey game and went unnoticed. However, in 2017 October 7 I’m back in the regular season game lineup. This protest became viral almost immediately. Within weeks of the game, I had a personal meeting with management and then a meeting at the team owner’s house. Both wanted to know what I needed and how they could help me achieve what I was trying to do. It was a difficult question because I didn’t know how to tackle racism in America, and I still don’t. Even before I protested, I knew I might not be able to make a national impact, but I hoped it would alleviate the positive impact in Tampa.
My team was able to support my initiatives and with the resources I was able to implement changes that I felt could benefit my community. The action plan consisted of two things. The first worked with the Tampa Police Department. I made contact with the police chief, went on rides, and some of my teammates and I even attended police training. The second, which unfortunately never came true since I found myself playing in Anaheim, was a program that would bring together police and children from the community to watch lightning games. For these actions, I received many bottles from the black community. I realized how difficult it is to integrate into a situation where the narrative has shifted from police brutality, that my actions have been used for what some have seen as prophetic rhetoric. We, as black athletes, were automatically in a unique position that year. We were the only athletes we kept asking if we wouldn’t agree. It also put us all in a difficult position. We were forced to choose a side. Am I black or am I a hockey player? We were all spoiled if we did, and spoiled if not.
Video: Penguins, Flyers unite for social justice
I asked my wife to play non-social media before that pre-season. I knew it was going to get ugly. I want to make sure I also mentioned all the incredible support and love I received after my protest. Unfortunately, not everyone was understanding. I received death threats; people said they expected me to have a career; people even called my little daughter n-word. To this day, when I speak out against racism, there is someone on my Twitter who tells me they want to hang me, or calls me the word n. The backlog strengthened my belief that I was doing the right thing. I know the hockey community, it was the black community that heard me acknowledge their pain and realized that I swore to that game that I always fight for equality.
Before raising my fist, I never considered myself an activist. I’ve always been focused on being a professional hockey player and thinking about how I could stay in the NHL. That changed in 2017. In June, a Minnesota police officer who killed Philando Castilla in 2016 was acquitted of a murder in court. Castile was shot and killed while sitting in her car in front of her girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter. A viral video depicting a little girl pleasing her mother with her handcuffs as they were both placed in the back of a cop’s car broke me. Until then, I had a daughter, Lily, and realized that I had a responsibility to fight for a better future for her and other black children.
Fast forward to 2020, when Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. For the first time, I saw a look at a league made up mostly of affluent white men speaking out against issues that were once ignored. Promised activity in the NHL is progressing. The urgency of social change does not end as screams of protests disappear and disappear from our schedule. So whether you use your hands to sacrifice, to volunteer, to hold signs when you go to protest, to be famous online or to raise your fist in solidarity, we are all responsible for the fight for equality. The story cannot continue to be repeated.