Bobby Ryan, Coded Language, and Prejudice

(CW: prejudice and racism)

On the surface of things, Bobby Ryan’s answer to who he’s cheering for in Super Bowl 50 tomorrow might have seemed innocuous. He was just expressing a preference for one team, one set of players over another. He’s an NHLer with an understanding of what makes for a great professional. He just doesn’t like dabbing. It would be easy to read it this way.

Ryan’s been welcomed into the Ottawa community with open arms. In his three seasons with the team, he’s ingratiated himself to fans and the media alike, with his low key personality, honesty in interviews, and willingness to take responsibility for his and the team’s failings. He plays through injuries. He interacts with fans on social media and is willing to pose for pictures. He does a lot of things you want a player to do.

But he also has a pattern of racial prejudice expressed online and in the media that reflects the racist framework of North American pro sports like hockey. In today’s Ottawa Sun, a piece ran in which an informal poll of the dressing room asked which team the Sens players wanted to win tomorrow’s Super Bowl. Some expressed a desire for a Broncos win to see veteran Peyton Manning go out of top. However, a few players admitted to actively rooting against the Cam Newton-led Carolina Panthers. Clarke MacArthur commented that Carolina has “Just too much show after every play,” and Bobby Ryan echoed his teammate’s frustration. I don’t know if MacArthur’s comments are indicative of a professional conservatism often found in Canadian hockey players. They might be, as it’s certainly possible to dislike the Panthers and Newton for reasons other than race. But Ryan’s comments stand out because of how he pushed the issue and his personal history when it comes to topics of race. Here’s the relevant section from the Sun:

“I’m not a big Cam Newton fan,” Bobby Ryan said of the Carolina Panthers quarterback. “As a player, yes, I think he’s unbelievable. But I can’t stand the stuff he does.”

Over-the-top celebrating?

“Yeah, it’s idiotic,” said Ryan. “You’re up by 30 last week and you’re still doing it all over the field.”

Particularly annoying to Ryan (although apparently not to Mark Stone) is the dab, a dance move Newton has made even more popular that sees him stick both arms out to one side and bury his nose in the bent elbow.

“Guys do it around here now, which is really disappointing,” said Ryan. “It’s seeped its way into the NHL and I’m not a big fan.

“I don’t know the origin. I feel like it’s a song that’s been played, but you have to ask Stoner because he loves it.”

Prejudice and racism are easier to spot when people hurl slurs and are explicit in their language. It’s why it’s easier to denounce Donald Trump as racist but why we struggle to see why leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement take issue with many of Bernie Sanders policies.

Ryan doesn’t use slurs so many will just see these comments as a preference for the celebration style of Manning instead of Newton. Except it’s not. This is coded language, designed to obscure that race is the objection here. During the media frenzy that is the build up to the Super Bowl, Newton’s celebrations, pants, sandals, and general fashion sense has been interrogated in ways they never are for white athletes. Newton is just the latest in a long line of black quarterbacks who have been subjected to harsh criticisms their white counterparts never received. Interrogating personal choices such as fashion or on-field celebrations of black athletes is an attempt by mainstream media, professional leagues, and fans to control expressions of black masculinity, often perceived to be threatening. When white athletes, coaches, league officials, and media members talk about how to “act like a pro,” it is most often an attempt to discourage expressions of difference, whether it be sexuality, gender identity, religion, or in this case, race. “Act like a pro” more often means, “act like us” – white, cis, straight, and male.

It’s funny that in his concern for professional conduct, Ryan did not mention Manning’s longstanding misogyny, his documented sexual harassment, and his continued refusal to leave his victim alone. Peyton is viewed as professional; his substantial promotional work for pizza and insurance helps cement that image despite what we know about him. Another former NFL MVP, Aaron Rodgers, celebrates touchdowns with a wrestling title-belt gesture to cheers. Cam Newton is not granted similar leeway. Instead, Ryan attacked Newton’s ebullience after scoring plays, which as someone who has watched Bobby’s euphoric celebrations after each of his Ottawa goals, seems hypocritical. Bobby can fist pump, jump into the glass, shout, and hug teammates because his intensity is never viewed as threatening. He’s white. This also provides Ryan the protection to criticize a black athlete for a practice he himself engages in.

Ryan’s dismissal of dabbing is similarly coded and not a principled stance against appropriating black culture. Rather, his ignorance of dabbing’s roots in the hip-hop community and his refusal to acknowledge its current popularity are in some ways a rejection of black expression as valid, as culturally relevant. It’s a rejection of black culture’s influence on the professional sports landscape.

This isn’t a simple difference of opinion rooted in the respective distinctiveness of football as compared to hockey. Players of colour have been subjected to similar critiques in the NHL as well. P. K. Subban’s enthusiastic goal celebrations have been denounced by some Senators in the past and frequently by mainstream hockey media. When Ryan took ownership for his late slump last season by stating “I just suck right now,” it was seen as leadership. When Subban explicitly expressed his frustration at Montreal’s lengthy ongoing slump last month, it was a “profanity-laden tirade” and comments from his parents were sought. But when Erik Karlsson swears, the media doesn’t turn it’s focus to Sweden to consult his mom and dad. In both Subban’s and Newton’s cases what fellow players and media hope to contain is their expressions of individuality, what they hope to maintain is white privilege.

If you’re concerned that this examination of Ryan’s comments is a stretch or an overreaction, please note it fits a pattern of behaviour with the Sens winger. Last year when the Sens were visiting St. Louis, Black Lives Matter protests were in full swing. These activists and community members were protesting the murder of black teen Mike Brown by police in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. Ryan callously tweeted that the protests were interrupting his pregame nap. It showed disdain for both the protesters and their cause. It would have been a perfect metaphor for white privilege except it wasn’t a metaphor, it was real life.

Ryan’s prejudiced behaviour on twitter goes beyond his tweets. His “likes” are a dumpster fire of racism. They reveal a penchant for agreeing with the worst racists active in American politics right now. He’s liked tweets about Donald Trump preventing Muslims from entering the United States and racists tweets about Barack Obama. There are more examples. This is a pattern, this is prejudice. Like everyone, he’s entitled to his opinions. Like everyone, he’s not above criticism.

Bobby Ryan is polite. Bobby Ryan scored a goal and got a kid a puppy. Bobby Ryan was kind to you when he posed for a photo at the grocery store. Bobby Ryan has done all of those things.

But Bobby Ryan is prejudiced and he’s made that pretty clear too.

Nothing is served by ignoring this pattern in Ryan’s behaviour. Equally, nothing is gained from refusing to interrogate how Ryan’s actions fit within the larger racist framework of professional sports in Canada and the United States. When playing the game the right way is so often code for playing the game within acceptable white standards of behaviour, we will continue to have players like Ryan maintain those standards, and continue to attack players like Newton and Subban who challenge such arbitrary norms.



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15 thoughts on “Bobby Ryan, Coded Language, and Prejudice

  1. It’s always worrying to see these kinds of things play out, especially in someone who has been an asset to the organization. Even without investigating his Twitter account it gets clearer and clearer that Ryan straight buys into the racist bullshit that makes up the background of pro sports and North American society at large. Even more disappointing that he’s an asset to the team and unlikely to be challenged on this by anyone he cares even remotely about. I have a tendency to forgive a slip up, or two, or three even – but with Ryan it’s been constant and clear that he’s wholesale bought this continent’s racist mythmaking.

  2. I remember the very first time I became aware that my political and personal beliefs may not jive with the prevailing feelings of the majority of NHLers, or, to be more frank, most hockey players in general, hockey being the domain of primarily fairly privileged white folks. It was when I heard that an ex-Detroit Red Wing was considering running for political office as a Republican. The article wasn’t explicit about the player in question, or, if it was, I didn’t feel that the player’s name or identity was relevant enough to remember.

    It may sound stupid or naive, but I felt betrayed, in a certain way. I was young enough to think that everyone believed the same things I did in the same way I did, and it was a shock to learn that not only was that not true, I might in fact be in the minority, even amongst my hockey peers. Seeing the kind of discussion I do in beer league hockey dressing rooms throughout the city is sometimes depressing, and very difficult to combat, because people tend to shut down when you’re not being normative. Working through this took months, if not years, and, while I don’t think I will ever understand why some people believe what they do, I have at least come to a frame of mind where I can separate the athlete and individual from the organization and the things they represent, respectively. Only one of these has my undying support, mentally and financially, as an idea and as an entity, even if the things its owners and players say may not always be exactly what I think they should. Similarly, I can absolutely hate an organization as an idea and entity, the Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, and yet love some of the people associated with it, like Mike Babcock.

    There’s a certain level of cognitive dissonance required to be able to cheer for a professional sports team, period, let alone while simultaneously being aware that you might not, ever, in any other format, be supporting these players, coaches and people with anything like the degree of financial, emotional and material support we offer our favoured sports organizations. Just take a look at how much money the City of Ottawa has already poured into professional sports stadiums in the last twenty-five years, and consider that it’s about to make a similar long term investment in LeBreton Flats, despite what the plan’s proponents say about no public money being involved.

    Racism, sexism, LGBTQ-phobia and body-image shaming are fairly endemic of western society in general, unfortunately. Not necessarily in an overt way (although that exists as well), but in that our culture, traditions and behaviour have been steeped in those of the past such that we don’t even recognize why we do some of the things we do and behave the way we do, or that said reactions and behaviours may have root in prejudicial policies, patterns of thought and behaviours. This is, of course, not meant to exonerate Ryan, or justify his beliefs, it’s wrong to hate black people for being black, just as it’s wrong to hate LGBTQ folks for being LGBTQ or women for being women, bizarrely enough, as in that recent stand Jim Watson took against Roosh V, or whatever his name is .

    In fact, were Bobby to become explicit with his beliefs, and attempt to act on them in a material way, we would be entirely justified in asking the Senators to not continue to employ him. It is important, however, to remember that while Bobby Ryan does seem to have some definite tendencies towards racist thought and behaviour, and we shouldn’t ignore that, that doesn’t mean that you can’t cheer for the Senators, or for Ryan to have a great season, or even to change his mind about several of his current beliefs and thoughts. We should all strive to maintain some distance between our sports fanaticism and our real lives. It’s only a game, after all. Try and get Bobby to change his mind through positive words and actions, don’t conflate a team with a person, or even a person with an athlete.

  3. A stretch? Oh yeah, just a bit. The problem I have with a piece like this is that the author is himself wallowing in coded language, the difference being that it’s the coded language of the liberal left and, therefore, above reproach. Let’s just pick out the most egregious example shall we? It may surprise Andrew to learn that Mike Brown was not ‘murdered’ last year he was shot by a white police officer whose actions were not only exonerated by the various investigating bodies but also corroborated by the majority of witnesses, most of whom were black. It was only ‘murder’ because for people like Andrew that is the only permissible way to view an event between a white person in authority and a black person. Because to even consider the possibility that the police officer acted in the exact same way he would have if Mike Brown was white is to undermine far too many of the axiomatic principles upon which the liberal philosophy is constructed.
    What I find the most disappointing thing about all of this is that 50+ years on from the start of the civil rights movement we are absolutely no closer to a prejudice free society than we were before the movement began.

  4. This is the dumbest thing i’ve read on this blog. Maybe the only dumb thing. But it makes up for that by it’s scope of dumbness. Andrew sites “a pattern of racial prejudice” and lists 2 examples, both of which are completely normal behaviour. Apparently Clarke MacArthur can eschew behaviour that is too much show..but then Ryan ECHOES HIS TEAMMATES SENTIMENTS!!! Wtf…he must be a racist then. Listen, if i acted out and showed up my opponents when i was a kid, i got my ears boxed and i was told in no uncertain terms, that kinda of taunting, choreographed behaviour was demeaning to me and my parents and would never be tolerated. Is that racist? It’s the exact same thing. If you are raised to keep a low profile, as Ryan had to be, with his unusual childhood, he would have a lack of understanding as to why that behaviour should be tolerated, let alone celebrated. And to suggest he celebrates like a white man, and thus shouldn’t criticize a black style…sorry, that dog don’t hunt. Showing joy is different than hot dogging. And to take the Mike Brown incident and call it a murder, like some juvenile blogger might, with no discourse as to whether it was or wasn’t, and condemn Ryan because they woke him up and he said as much, and to label that as racist…wow. The entire article states examples of supposed racism, and apparently the problem is, Bobby Ryan didn’t jump up and condemn racism each time something happened that offended Andrew. Subban can curse on the air and shock his 8 year old fans and maybe change how they behave…and its all sunny in Andrews world…he has found another example of racism, because someone questioned whether that was appropriate. Ryan can say he doesn’t like showboating, and what more proof do you need that he is a racist.
    Andrew, you should find another hobby…you aren’t smart enough to be writing for public consumption.

  5. Yeah, disagree with this article. I don’t like the tone at all, or the approach. Since the preoccupation is what kind of society we live in — I don’t want to live in a society where an author will take a couple of tweets or offhand comments and conclude that “X is prejudiced.” That is an incredibly strong accusation to level and none of us are in a position to judge categorically. You do yourself and whatever (maybe legitimate) point you hope to be making a disservice.

  6. Generally a big fan of this blog and I’ve found the occasional non-traditional subject matter interesting, all the more so with the series of questionable instances of behavior by NHLers this part year.
    But this is nothing more than reaching. As others have posted – this is not proof of a pattern. This is an instance. Furthermore it is very much an interpretation, made all the weaker by the lack of framing with relevant and supporting context. Love that MacArthur gets away with the same comment.
    I’m at a loss man. Truly disappointed to read that. Feels very much like you were looking for something like this to write about and then proceeded to ram a square peg through a round hole.
    If you are desperate for unworthy clickbait crap stick to trade rumours like everyone else.

    And of course I don’t know if Bobby Ryan harbours views that we would consider to be offensive or prejudicial. But I do damn well expect you to state a case reasonably and properly as opposed to this fluff piece. Come on man. This is the blog I recommend to my friends as the best Sena stuff that they aren’t reading.

  7. Pingback: Bobby Ryan deletes Twitter, taking controversial tweets with him

  8. Way to be racists, angry white rightwing snowflakes!! Bobby Ryan is a confirmed racist, whose ignorance has led him to display it on social media. He should be called what he is–an ignorant racist pig. Ryan is a garbage human being, he was in Anaheim as well. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; his father was a jailbird who probably indoctrinated Ryan in an antisocial, repugnant philosophy.

  9. Pingback: Bobby Ryan deletes Twitter, taking controversial tweets with him « Sports News Depot

  10. This author is a bigot who sees anyone who has a differing political point of view as not merely in error, but an evil racist, sexist, etc etc etc.

  11. And some of the people down below will be quick to justify and say “it was just a joke” if Ryan were to ever make a public racist statement. Pathetic little subconscious whiny racists. It’d probably make them happy if 99% of Africans and Asians (like myself)
    go back “to our country” Oh well.

  12. Pingback: Ball Of Confusion – Red Wings vs Hawks Games 5 & 6 Preview – Faxes from Uncle Dale

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