The decision of the Philadelphia Flyers organization to immolate Kate Smith from their history over the weekend shouldn’t surprise anybody who’s noticed the slow creep of the culture wars into the domain of sports. Earlier this year after the Mosque shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, the Canterbury Crusaders rugby team mulled over changing their name to not offend New Zealand’s Muslim population.
In Canada, McGill University just recently changed the name of their sports teams, the Redmen, due to student pressure over its misuse in the past regarding Indigenous iconography (despite the fact the name originally referred to the Red school colours and Gaelic Red Hair). At least in the McGill case, students initiated a challenge and voted on the issue, although I’m sure the alumni would also have enjoyed a say.
The Canterbury Crusaders have not changed their name, and their statement might simply be a low stakes signal of solidarity. It’s unclear how a name for a Rugby team referencing a conflagration fought over 900 years ago can mend the damage wrought by a mass murderer in the present, but this is an era where gestures mean more than substance. Rather than risk any negative attention, as there were no calls for the team to change their name, the Crusader’s organization simply pulled out ahead of the offence generating machine.
Over the past few days the Flyers decided to not only stop playing Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” but they have also draped her statue in black and removed it from the front of the Flyer’s home arena. It’s not just the Flyers, the New York Yankees first pledged to stop playing Smith’s rousing rendition of that patriotic tune. Why must Kate Smith be unpersoned now?
The Flyers play that version before home playoff games and compiled a tremendous 101-31-5 record when it’s showed. It commemorates the time Smith opened the 1973-74 season by belting the song at Philadelphia’s home opener in person, the season they went on the win their first of back-to-back Stanley Cups, the only two championships in Flyer’s history. But now, because of a song recorded in the 1931 titled “Why Darkies were Born” with racist lyrics, Smith is no longer welcome. Did anyone complain about the lyrics or about Smith’s association with the Flyer’s or the Yankees? Were there mass public boycotts expected, or just a few agitated activists?
Perhaps most troubling in this episode is the preemptive erasure of the past in order to mollify expected outrage. The New York Yankees’ press release says it plainly: “The Yankees take social, racial and cultural insensitivities very seriously. And while no final conclusions have been made, we are erring on the side of sensitivity.” In order to guard against potential offence, we remove nuance and simply err on the side of wiping out history to protect modern sensibilities.
What’s worse, the offending song is not as cut and dry in terms of its racist tone. Many have noted that the song itself is a satire of racist views. The song was recorded in 1931 by Smith, but also by Black performer Paul Robeson. Robeson was college educated, spoke Swahili, and became an important political activist for civil rights and social justice causes. This activity eventually landed him on Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist blacklist. Why would he sing the lyrics of a racist song against Black people, given his pedigree? The song also was featured in the famous Marx Brothers’ movie Duck Soup, again in a satirical manner. Upon even cursory examination, Smith’s singing of the song may not have the racial overtones the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Flyers believe it to have. But we do not live in an era where careful consideration of potentially offensive situations is possible.
One can understand the motives of these organizations. Hockey in particular lacks the visual diversity that so many clamour for in today’s cultural products. In a world where racial quotas are now more popular than they were when Woodrow Wilson severely banned immigration from all parts of the world except Western Europe, it’s still Progressives making everything about race. Except today it’s not quotas keeping out non-Whites (or even bad Whites for that matter), but the opposite, where the Progressive penchant is to reserve spots across the cultural landscape for people of diverse backgrounds. But ice hockey has always been a white sport, predominantly played by whites.
The game emerged in Canada and was segregated immediately. In the East Coast, black players were not allowed to play with their white counterparts. They started the first black professional sports league in North America, the Coloured Hockey League. These players were true innovators of the game, creating the slap shot and the butterfly style of goaltending while both tactics were outlawed in the proper white game. Professional big-time hockey did not integrate until Willie O’Ree, blind in one eye, played for the Boston Bruins in 1958. It was not until the 1970’s, when Kate Smith was revving up fans in Philadelphia, that another black player made it to the NHL
It’s also understandable that Philadelphia would be sensitive over the lyrics. One of their longtime players and team leader, recently traded Wayne Simmonds, was involved in a public and ugly racist incident. During a preseason game in 2011 in London, Ontario, Simmonds was taking a penalty shot when a fan threw a banana on the ice, a crude reference to Simmonds’ black skin. Sadly, the one idiot fan reflected poorly on a sport known for its white makeup. But as with everything in today’s outrage culture, where there is truth in the racism of the game’s history, the censorious take it too far. Just as with Smith’s singing of an arguably satirical portrayal of racist America, it’s a black and white situation. There is no room for nuance, no time to ponder if removal of the past will ameliorate the tensions of the present. We simply just ban first and ask questions never.