From champs to chumps

October 4, 2017

Alex Wood is disappointed that the Pittsburgh Penguins agreed to meet with the Joker.

WHILE THE beginning of 2017 caused many to take to the streets in opposition to the least popular president-elect in U.S. history, the National Hockey League's (NHL) Pittsburgh Penguins entered 2017 on their way to repeating their success as Stanley Cup champions.

Unfortunately, as 2017 enters the home stretch, the back-to-back champions look to be ending the year on a bad note.

On September 24, the Penguins accepted the traditional invitation that the champions of the four major North American professional sports leagues usually receive to visit the White House with their trophy.

September 24 was also the same day that hundreds of National Football League (NFL) players, coaches, staff and, yes, even some NFL owners kneeled, locked arms or sat in opposition to Donald Trump's lashing out at athletes protesting against racism in America during the playing of the National Anthem.

That same weekend, the reigning National Basketball Association (NBA) champion Golden State Warriors had their White House invitation rescinded after NBA superstar Stephen Curry opted out because of Trump's racism.

Members of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate after their championship victory
Members of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate after their championship victory (Michael Miller | Wikimedia Commons)
Curry explained his decision to skip a meeting with the president by saying that "we don't stand for...the things that [Trump has\ said and the things that he hasn't said in the right times, that we won't stand for it...[B]y acting and not going, hopefully that will inspire some change.

Such words as well as the courageous actions against racist police brutality that Colin Kaepernick began during the 2016 NFL preseason when he took a knee during the National Anthem is in stark contrast to the words and actions of the Penguins.

"The Pittsburgh Penguins respect the institution of the Office of the President and the long tradition of championship teams visiting the White House," according to a statement issued by the team.

In other words, the Pittsburgh Penguins decided to scold their fellow athletes rather than express solidarity with the cause of racial justice. But this wouldn't be the first time that the Penguins passed on an opportunity to take a stand for what's right.

THE CIVIC Arena, the previous home stadium of the Penguins, was built in Pittsburgh's Hill District neighborhood in 1961.

The Hill District was a thriving African American center of art and jazz in the early 20th century--a history beautifully chronicled by the literary genius of the late August Wilson, whose award-winning series of plays, known as the Pittsburgh Cycle, brought to the stage the vibrant history, culture and struggle of African Americans in the Hill District.

With the building of the Civic Arena, the Lower Hill District was destroyed to make way for the city's "revitalization" efforts, and thousands of African American residents were displaced from their homes.

Those who remained were promised affordable housing and opportunity, but in the end, like many promises given to African Americans in urban centers, this never materialized. The Hill District's working-class residents have had to fight hard for small gains and have had to keep the fight going since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Fast-forward to 2007, and the Penguins were again searching for a new home arena. A deal was struck between the city of Pittsburgh, the Penguins and other stakeholders to build a new state-of-the-art arena across the street from the Civic Arena. Again, the city made promises to bring affordable housing and other opportunities to Hill District residents, and again, these promises have yet to be fulfilled.

"The Penguins' plans include mixed-used development of 1,100 residential units, between 500,000 and 600,000 square feet of office space, and retail space," the Pittsburgh Business Times later wrote. "That includes 20 percent affordable housing as low as $600 a month, according to information presented at the news conference."

Such proposals sound nice on paper, but in reality, such empty promises have only served to pacify opposition while the city continues to gentrify the Lower Hill District and push out African American residents.

Additionally, city residents subsidized the new arena and surrounding commercial developments with some $12 million taken from their own pockets. The Penguins and the city of Pittsburgh are dragging their feet on these promises--or completely ignoring them in other cases.

In 2010, as part of the construction of Consol Energy Center--which was renamed PPG Paints Arena in 2016 after PPG Industries bought the naming rights--the Penguins promised residents a public art installation dedicated to the history of the Hill District.

This piece would have been a part of the construction of the arena's green architecture and garden that would have redirected rainwater on the property to earn LEED environmental approval for the arena. However, these plans were also scrapped.

"When the arena was completed in 2010, the Pittsburgh Penguins said they did not have the $1.5 million required for the project," according to the New Pittsburgh Courier. "Yet this year, they erected a statue of Mario Lemieux [current owner and longtime Penguins player] in the same spot."

The decision to back out of the planned commemoration of the Hill District's history and replace it with a statue of the owner exposes the twisted priorities of the Penguins franchise.

"The public art piece was part of getting political and community support for the arena, and it was all a scam," said longtime social activist, labor organizer and Hill District resident Carl Redwood of the betrayal.

"The Sports and Exhibition Authority needs to stand up. The Penguins claim there is no money, but they are about to get all the net revenue plus 65 percent of the tax generated by 300 new parking spaces at the [old] Civic Arena site."

The Penguins may not have been the original tenants of the old Civic Arena in 1961, but when the Penguins were founded in 1967, they needed to be a helpful new neighbor to Hill District residents--not the complacent neighbors who let the community burn around them while they amassed their fortunes.

STEPPING BACK from the local to look at the bigger picture, this action by the Pittsburgh Penguins contradicts their own stated mission of broadening hockey's popularity as part of the NHL's "Hockey is for Everyone" campaign.

How does it look for the NHL when its back-to-back Stanley Cup champions accept the invitation of a sexist apologist for white supremacists to visit the White House? Clearly, this action repudiates everything the NHL campaign is supposed to accomplish.

But the NHL itself has a long history of siding with franchises in their ruthless bids to tap into the coffers of the cities where they're located as they seek to gentrify working-class neighborhoods in pursuit of profits.

NHL owners also have a long history of making huge contributions to both the Republican and Democratic Parties--but mostly the Republicans--to keep the profits flowing.

Fortunately, the NHL is not immune to players taking it upon themselves to show they stand against Trump, racism and the politics of hate. Some players are already discussing what actions they might take as the October 4 season opener approaches.

This could make for some intriguing dynamics this winter. The NHL has a history of public shaming when players go against the status quo. Add in the fact that the 95 percent of NHL players are white, and it's easy to see that dissenting NHL players will need real courage to be bold in their principles.

The Penguins franchise, by contrast, has made its choice clear--including head coach Mike Sullivan and team captain Sidney Crosby, who recently defended the decision to join Trump at the White House.

Sports are not an island separate from the issues that affect the rest of society. In fact, sports represent an extension of our society's social, political and economic structures. The Pittsburgh Penguins exist in the same social and political world that daily devastates working-class lives.

That is why it would be important for the franchise to not accept the invitation to the White House. But if the franchise and players fail to act, then the Penguins' working-class fans should channel their outrage into taking action to demand that their team fulfill its promises to the Hill District's residents, including but not limited to occupying the arena that we built and paid for.

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