Editor's note: NHL players have spoken out against racism and social injustice since the death of George Floyd, a Black man, while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. Three years ago, JT Brown, then a forward for the Tampa Bay Lightning, raised his fist during the national anthem to draw attention to the same issues. With calls for social justice and the fight against racism taking center stage during the NHL's Return to Play, Brown wrote a special essay for the League about his decision to raise his fist:
On Oct. 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 get accomplished if we all keep our heads down and our mouths shut. So, during the national anthem in Sunrise, Florida, I raised my fist to protest police brutality and racism. The same fist that got arenas to their feet while I exchanged blows with outweighed opponents. The same fist that shattered from blocking a shot during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The same fist that has given countless daps to Black and Hispanic kids in the community while teaching them how to play hockey. I have always sacrificed for my team, for the fans, for my community. In 2017 I had an opportunity to sacrifice for something bigger than hockey, and I knew that I needed to do it.
While everyone was focused on making the team out of camp or getting ready for the season to start, I was being asked by media if I was going to protest during the national anthem. I was already feeling the pressure that comes with a contract year, and now I needed to decide if I was willing 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 stick around the fourth line. I knew I was replaceable. I knew protesting could make it even harder to get another contract next season. My family and I were prepared for this to end my NHL career. I had decided that I was comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Hockey is played predominantly by affluent white males and conforming to a team mentality that is ingrained from a young age. My entire professional career, I have been one of 30 something Black hockey players in the League. For most of my whole hockey career, I have been the only Black person or person of color on my team. It is an experience that can leave you feeling like the token Black guy. An experience that makes you hyperaware of your Blackness, questioning whether or not you are acting too Black or too white. Understanding where and how you fit in can be lonely and it fundamentally shapes you as a person. I will be honest, most of the time, we're all just teammates. We joke, we play videogames, we play cards, and we bet on the football game. Then there are times when I'm the only player asked by arena security for my credentials when I'm just trying to get to my locker room. Or when I'm asked by hotel security to leave the hockey players alone and leave the hotel lobby when I'm just waiting with my teammates for our bus. Let's not forget the classic line that every Black hockey player knows too well, "go play basketball," which I heard during a hockey game at the highest level from an opposing player. I worked hard my whole life to prove that I belong in the NHL, and when I made it, I was still reminded that I was a Black man playing a white sport.
Before I raised my fist during the national anthem, I spoke with the team's owner, general manager, coach, and teammates. I told them that I intended to raise my fist in solidarity during the national anthem as a symbolic protest against police brutality and racism. They were welcome to come and talk with me if they wanted to have a better understanding of my intentions. When I spoke with my coach about my plans to protest, I told him about the time I had a shotgun pointed at my head. I usually tell the story about when I was called the n-word during a youth hockey game, and my coach told the ref that our team would all leave the game if he didn't kick out the kid who said it. The ref wouldn't kick the kid out, and so my teammates and coach all stood with me as we left the game. Those are the stories people like to hear because they offer resolution and a sense of community. I usually don't talk about when I was at a house party in high school, and some kids from school pulled out a shotgun and aimed it at my head as they were calling me the n-word. People don't like those stories because they reveal truths they choose to ignore. These are the things that shaped me as a man. These are the things that all led up to putting my fist in the air.
Video: Predators and Stars stand arm in arm for anthems
My dad and I spoke at length about how this decision could impact my career, my family, and my livelihood. I leaned on him for advice because of his unique experience as not only a former National Football League running back, but also his post-football career as a Ramsey county probation officer and a juvenile correctional officer. I have always gone to my dad for life and career advice. While he was scared for me and the repercussions I would face, he knew this was something I needed to do, and he fully supported me.
I decided to go fist up after a long heart-to-heart with a friend who is a retired U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant (E-7) who served during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. We talked about how I needed to protest, but I also wanted to be mindful of those who are serving and have served our country. Given the logistics of where we stand during the anthem, I would have been unable to take a knee. I felt a raised fist best represented my intentions as it symbolizes solidarity, support, strength, and even resistance.
My first protest was during a preseason hockey game and went unnoticed. However, on Oct. 7, 2017, I was back in the lineup for a regular-season game. That protest went viral almost immediately. In the weeks following the game, I had an in-person meeting with management and then a meeting at the team owner's home. Both wanted to know what I needed and how they could help me achieve what I was trying to do. That was a tough question because I didn't know how to solve 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 was hopeful that it would facilitate a positive impact in Tampa.
My team was able to support my initiatives and with the resources provided I was able to implement changes I thought could benefit my community. The action plan included two things. The first was working with the Tampa Police Department. I developed a relationship with the police chief, I went on ride-alongs, and some of my teammates and myself even went through police training. The second, which unfortunately never came to fruition because I found myself playing in Anaheim, was a program that would bring police and kids from the community together to watch Lightning games. I got a lot of flak from the Black community for these actions. I understood how it was problematic to integrate myself into a situation where the narrative shifted from police brutality to using my actions for something that some viewed as pro-police rhetoric. As Black athletes, we were automatically put in a unique position that year. We were the only athletes continually asked if we would protest. It also put us all in a tough spot. We were forced to pick a side. Am I Black, or am I a hockey player? We were all dammed if we did and dammed if we didn't.
Video: Penguins, Flyers unite for social justice
I asked my wife before that preseason game to stay off social media. I knew it was going to get ugly. I want to make sure I also mention all the incredible support and love I received in the aftermath of my protest. Unfortunately, not everyone was understanding. I received death threats; people were telling me they hoped I had a career-ending injury; people were even calling my baby daughter the n-word. To this day, when I speak out against racism, there is someone in my Twitter mentions telling me they want to hang me or calling me the n-word. The backlash reinforced my belief that I did the right thing. I know the hockey community, and specifically, the Black community heard me acknowledge their pain and understood that I took an oath that game to always fight for equality.
Before I raised my fist, I never considered myself an activist. I was always focused on being a professional hockey player and figuring out how I could stay in the NHL. That changed in June 2017, when the Falcon Heights, Minnesota police officer who killed Philando Castile in 2016 was acquitted of murder at trial. Castile was shot and killed sitting in his car in front of his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter. The viral video of that little girl consoling her handcuffed mom as they were both placed in the back of a cop car broke me. By this time, I had a daughter, Lily, and I realized that I have a responsibility to fight for a better future for her and other Black kids.
Fast forward to 2020, when Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd. For the first time, I saw a glimpse of a League consisting of predominately affluent white males speaking out against issues that were once ignored. It has been promising to see activism in the NHL progressing. The urgency for social change does not cease as the roars from protests fade and disappear from our timelines. So whether you use your hands for giving donations, volunteering, holding signs as you march in a protest, being vocal online, or raising a fist in solidarity, we all have a responsibility to fight for equality. History cannot continue to repeat itself.