The organization known as Players Against Hate came to fruition under exceedingly unfortunate circumstances. Back in early 2019, thirteen-year-old Divyne Apollon II was the victim of racially motivated taunts and slurs during a youth hockey tournament in Bowie, Maryland.
For most young hockey players, the idea of facing racial bigotry is a completely foreign concept. For young Divyne, however, this was a sad reality that he had faced with almost unimaginable regularity.
Divyne began his hockey career at eight, when he joined the Wells Warriors in Prince George's County, Maryland. The Warriors, a diverse hockey program, offered a safe environment for Divyne, devoid of hateful remarks from opposing teams.
It wasn't until Divyne began playing travel hockey against teams from outside the area that he began to experience harassment at the hands of his opponents.
At first, Divyne attempted to ignore the chants, comments and slurs as best he could. Throughout the game, he repeatedly looked towards the other team's coaches and the referees, but to no avail. Whether or not the adults heard the taunting remains unknown.
What is known, however, is that Divyne's teammates found out about the harassment - and they were incensed. As the taunts persisted, the game became increasingly rough, and when the final buzzer sounded, a fight between the two sides ensued on the ice. While Divyne had grown somewhat accustomed to the taunts hurled by opponents, his teammates, their parents and his coaches were shocked and outraged to learn of the abuse he had been facing.
"No kid should have to put up with that nonsense to play a game," said Players Against Hate founder Tammi Lynch. "To hear how pervasive it had been, and how he had just ignored it for that time, I think we just had no idea what he was going through."
In the end, Divyne was suspended for the remainder of the tournament and forced to watch the final games from the stands.
In an effort to show support for her son's friend and teammate, Lynch chose to design a special logo in the hours following the fight. Putting her amateur graphic design skills to use, Lynch opened up Microsoft Word and superimposed a hockey stick crossing out the word "Racism".
The team placed the stickers on their sticks for the remainder of the tournament, with parents and other supporters donning the logo on their shirts.
What began as a simple show of support quickly picked up tremendous momentum. Apollon, Sr., Divyne's father and co-founder of Players Against Hate, posted a picture of the stickers on social media and was inundated with messages of support from across the country. Along with messages, Apollon received hundreds of requests from other hockey teams wanting stickers for their players' helmets.
News of the incident even reached former Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly and defenseman John Carlson, who invited Divyne and his teammates to a game. Following the game, Smith-Pelly, Carlson and several other Capitals players spent time with the team to show their support for Divyne and commend the players for standing by their teammate.
"The [Capitals] players may not have realized how much of an impact they had on the kids, but they will carry that with them forever," Lynch said. "The power and the importance of the kids meeting the players and knowing that they support Divyne showed that this game truly is for everyone."
Inspired by the unexpected attention gained through the logo, Lynch and Apollon Sr. officially started Players Against Hate in January of 2019. Since then, Lynch has worked to build a safe community for those who have been victims of racial injustice by educating the public and acknowledging the problems that have existed in the sport of hockey.
As a teacher and life-long educator, Tammi was struck by the realization that data related to discriminatory incidents in youth hockey were not being gathered.
"How can you address a problem if you don't know where, when or what age these incidents are occurring?," Lynch wondered.
To better understand and track such information, Players Against Hate developed a first of its kind Incident Reporting System. Through PAH's website, individuals who have been victimized by racially motivated attacks during youth hockey games are able to submit information related to their incident. This information includes, but is not limited to, the type of harassment that occurred, the age of the participants and whether or not the incident was reported to authorities.
In the tracking system's first year, nearly 100 reports have been submitted. While the number of incidents may paint a grim picture, Lynch points out that the reports provide quantifiable data that can then be used to better educate coaches, leagues and governing bodies that discrimination does exist at the youth level and provide tools to stop it from happening.
For Lynch, it is imperative to provide children with the knowledge and resources necessary to recognize and combat bigotry when it arises.
When recounting the incident that took place in 2019, Lynch pondered, "Would any of them at that age have had a good toolkit to stand up and stop what was going on?"
"I think that is where the teacher part of me stepped in and said, 'you know what? This really needs to be stopped by the kids,'" said Lynch. "But unfortunately, most kids have not been taught what do when their friend is called a name."
Moving forward, Players Against Hate is developing a curriculum aimed at teaching young athletes how to navigate incidences of discrimination, celebrate diversity and end systemic racism in hockey.
Coined "Hockey Cares", the curriculum will be module-based, with youth players working through the lessons over a number of years. Currently, the curriculum is made up of five separate modules, including Caring for Self, Attending to Relationships, Responding to Difference, Envisioning a New Way and Solidarity for Belonging. According to Lynch the modules are designed to be easily digestible, with each subject broken down into phases that can be taught in the locker room prior to practice or games.
Lynch contends that teaching children these skills will provide a generational shift in the youth hockey ecosystem and help better prepare athletes to respond to potential situations. At the same time, Lynch is also intent on creating curriculum for adults, including coaches, referees and league officials who are responsible for overseeing youth hockey teams.
Over the past three years since the incident, Players Against Hate has gained significant attention from across North America, with youth hockey teams eager to spread the organization's mission. Consequently, Lynch believes that the curriculum can be shared not only with organizations in the D.C.-area, but also with youth sports programs throughout the United States and Canada. Additionally, by pairing the curriculum with the Incident Reporting system, Lynch believes that the programs can be fine-tuned based on the needs of a specific geographical or socio-economic area. By aggregating the data collected by the reporting software, Lynch will be able to detect what patterns or trends emerge. This information will then be used to inform them of improvements that can be made to the curriculum.
Given the important work Players Against Hate has done to eradicate racism from the game of hockey, the organization has been named as an inaugural beneficiary of the Washington Capitals Capital Impact Fund grant. As such, PAH will receive $10,000 that will be used to further advance diversity, equity and inclusion in the sport.
"We are so grateful for all the Caps have done to amplify our message and promote the work that we do," said Lynch. "We are honored by the recognition."
Specifically, the funds provided by the grant will help support the organization in its efforts to complete the first age group's curriculum, PAH's top priority. As of this spring, Lynch and her colleagues have created approximately two-thirds of the curriculum and are eager to begin piloting the program as soon as possible.
Although Divyne's story began as a result of the reprehensible actions of his opponents, what has resulted offers an inspiring glimpse into the supportive and inclusive hockey community that exists across the Washington, D.C. community. Through its work, Players Against Hate embodies the motto that "Hockey > Hate."
As a strictly volunteer organization, Players Against Hate is always looking for volunteers dedicated to promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in the game. If you are anyone you know may be interested in volunteering, please visit the Players Against Hate website at www.PlayersAgainstHate.org.
To learn more about the Washington Capitals Capital Impact Fund, please visit www.WashCaps.com/CIF-Grant.