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Joel Ward NHL Twitter Controversy Raises Questions About Cyber Racism

Washington Capitals' Joel Ward should be basking in the glory of his game-winning goal against the Boston Bruins last night; instead, he is at the center of a racist tweet controversy. After Ward won the game, angry Bruins fans took to the Internet, expressing their rage with racist comments. The question is – what should be done about it?

Joel Ward scored the most important professional goal of his life on Wednesday, and also allowed a collective sigh of relief from the die-hard Caps fans – myself included – who were glued to their TVs. In an ever so quick follow-up strike to a missed shot by Mike Knuble, Ward deftly tucked the puck into the right corner of the goal, suddenly ending the electrifying seven game series against the reigning champions. Ward, a Canadian-born son of Barbadian parents, is new to the Caps this season, and has already made his mark.

He has also made his mark as one of only about seventeen black sportsmen in premier hockey. The NHL has never been known for its diversity. Up until the 1970s, the league reflected the demographic makeup of Canada: Canadian players comprised about 95% of the league. Even now, only 2.5% of Canada is black or African Canadian. More recently, the league has become more global, though perhaps not interracial. In 2008, 50% of NHL players were Canadian, and the majority of the remainder came from the US, (about 15%) and Eastern Europe.

To the NHL’s credit, they are trying to recruit more minorities to the league, and are creating systematics interventions to do so. In March, National Public Radio reported that the NHL entered a partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) to offer scholarships to students in hockey programs to attend historically black colleges and universities (HBCU). To create a pipeline of talent, the NHL is also building hockey initiatives at the K-12 school level to create a talent pipeline. Since most HBCUs do not have hockey programs, the NHL and the TMCF will feed students from these programs to cities like Miami, which are home to HBCUs and hockey training facilities. The league has also been successful in deploying its “Hockey is for Everyone” program, which is their official youth development program to offer children of all backgrounds the chance to play hockey, and develop critical life skills.

So, now that the NHL is doing its part, what is to be done about the fans using inappropriate N-words? One could argue that Twitter is self-correcting. For all the virulent, ridiculous, and abhorrent racist comments following Ward’s goals, there is a slew of opposing tweets from fans condemning the bigotry. 

@MikeHabs tweeted: “I am glad these people have been exposed. It's disgusting and out of line to say these things just because he scored the OT winner. Racism doesn't belong anywhere. Grow up please.”

Unfortunately, the back-and-forth between fans has devolved into unproductive, 140-character name-calling from, “a disgrace to the human race,” to “a small minority of idiots.” People are harping on Boston, which was where several great black athletes rose to fame, including the Celtics’ Bill Russell, and the Bruins’ Willie O’Ree (the first black NHL player). Several users call Boston “the South” of the North, and have instigated condemnation against gross, insensitive generalizations by users from Southern states and New England.

Beyond the heated stream of tweets, it’s hard to know what to do. There was a recent incident in England where college student Liam Stacey tweeted racially aggressive comments against professional soccer player Fabrice Muamba after he collapsed from a heart attack on the field. Disgusted Twitter users forwarded his tweets to police who put Stacey behind bars for 56 days. 

A recent article in the Guardian condemns the tweets, but asks critical questions about freedom of speech, and the role of the government. Our government is unlikely to undertake such measures, but this incident makes us wonder what how citizens can effectively condemn online racism. One Twitter user, @DrunkHockeyFan, thinks we should take it offline: the user shared the name, school, and principal’s email of a user whose comments were inappropriate, and urged fellow Twitterers to “email his head master … and let him know what his student has been up to.”

In a moment when sports fans should be celebrating one of the most tactical, athletic sports around, we find ourselves occupied in another soul-searching moment about racism, and our ability to fight it. With the increase of social media, we can more easily express our thoughts, but perhaps, we are more confused about what to do with them.

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