“Tim Thomas has turned New Boston into Old Boston”
—Howard Bryant, author of Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston
As rapidfire as Twitter itself, what started as a moment of a sports euphoria turned decidedly ugly. There were the Washington Capitals beating the Boston Bruins 2-1 in Game 7 and moving on toward the National Hockey League's greatest prize, the Stanley Cup. Before my disbelieving eyes, the Caps' Joel Ward scored the winning overtime goal against last year’s Stanley Cup hero, Tim Thomas. But Ward is a black man, and before you could say “post-racial,” self-identifying Bruin fans tweeted a cascade of ugly invective, with the “N-word” being their epithet of choice.
For a small group of sad fools, the symbolism of the moment—Ward beats Thomas!—overtook them in the worst possible ways.
Tim Thomas is the player who created a sports media firestorm by refusing to join his team and meet with President Obama after the Bruins won the 2012 Stanley Cup. To be clear, I have zero problems with athletes refusing to be part of presidential photo ops, but his political reasons are not irrelevant to what caused last night’s spasm of hate. Thomas is a proud, financial supporter of the Tea Party. He counts Glenn Beck as a hero and once emblazoned the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag on his helmet. When asked by reporters why he wouldn't meet with Obama, Thomas didn’t comment and instead referred people to his Facebook page, which had a paragraph about “out of control Federal government.”
To see no connection between the Tea Party, Glenn Beck and the politics of racial resentment is to subscribe to either blind ignorance or political cowardice. (Even Beck, last December, inferred that racism in the Tea Party drives anti-Obama animus.)
Howard Bryant, senior ESPN writer commented to me this morning, “The goal itself wasn't particularly important. [Barbadian-Canadian] Anson Carter was a Boston playoff hero during the 1999 playoffs. The significance of Ward's goal is that the man he beat, Tim Thomas, has through his thinly veiled racism undermined what should be a glorious revival of hockey in Boston. In turn, he encouraged the revival of an attitude that people wanted to think was out of fashion. I don't care if it was a lunatic fringe or a larger portion of the Bruins' fan base, but Thomas by himself turned new Boston into old Boston, and the embarrassing fan response to Ward's goal proved it.”
Old Boston is also part of this story, as much as many from New England don’t want to hear it. No city in the United States has a more tortured intersection of race and sports than our supposed cradle of liberalism and democracy. It’s the city whose Boston Red Sox was the last team to integrate, waiting until 1959, twelve years after Jackie Robinson broke through with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It’s the city that for decades rejected the greatest team basketball player in history, Bill Russell, because of his proud, unblinking opposition to racial intolerance. After dealing with years of everything from verbal abuse to the vandalizing of his home, Russell called the city “a flea market of racism.” Boston then embraced Larry Bird, to such a passionate degree his very jersey became a symbol of white arrogance, exemplified in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. It was also, paradoxically,(and fitting in a city this paradoxical), the first hockey town to integrate, when Willie O’Ree took the ice for the Bruins in 1958 (he would be the NHL’s last black player for sixteen years). Now, when Joel Ward plays the hero, the reflex is the “N” bomb. As Faulkner said, “The past is not dead. It isn’t even past.”
Of course, racism is not a “Boston thing.” Of course, the sewers of the Internet overflow with bile if you have the stomach to look. Of course, we’ve just collectively witnessed the character assassination of the slain Trayvon Martin, with no regard for either his humanity or his grieving parents, so we should probably refrain from being too shocked. As sports writer Bomani Jones tweeted when people pointed out the anti-Ward hate, “Folks called a n-word repeatedly behind a dead teenager. of course someone would say it over a game 7.” None of that, however, should blind us to the basic truth. Today should be a day when we celebrate the unbelievable upset by a Caps team over the defending Stanley Cup champs. But racism is a reality in sports and in life. We can choose to ignore it, but the only thing willful blindness guarantees is that it will continue. All Bruins fans of conscience should take to Facebook and Twitter and say, “Not in my name.” The organization should release a statement as well.
After the game, both Thomas and the Bruins stayed on the ice, waited for the Caps celebrations to die down and congratulated their opponents. When speaking to the media, neither Thomas nor his teammates exhibited anything but class. There were no excuses, no resentments. America has a ways to go to catch up.