NFL lawsuit raises questions about discrimination in Canadian sports

Story by Evan Loree and Jason Octavo

Photo by Johnathon Olsen-Koziel on Unsplash

Former head coach of the Miami Dolphins, Brian Flores, has recently filed a lawsuit against the National Football League alleging practices of systemic racism. He claims he endured a sham interview with Denver Broncos president, John Elway and CEO, Joe Ellis. The Broncos dispute this claim. These allegations raise questions about how Canadian sports leagues fare relative to American ones in their drive to diversify. 

Founder of the Black Canadian Coaches Association, Lee Anna Osei, says complaints like Flores’ are common in Canada. “I’ve heard it multiple times by male or female football coaches across all levels of Canadian sport. Our grassroots level, our U-Sports level, as well as our CFL level.”

The motto of the CFL is diversity is strength. However, the racial makeup of the league still doesn’t compare to the racial diversity of Canada. CFL teams tend to trade upper managers and coaches to other teams over and over. This makes it hard for new coaches and especially racialized coaches to get higher-ranking positions in the CFL.

Coaching at the university level suffers from a similar lack of diversity. There are currently only three head coaches in U-Sports football from a minority background.

Systemic racism doesn’t just affect coaches either. It remains a pervasive problem for athletes as well. Historically, the NHL has been a tough league for racialized minorities. Take for example the story of Herbert Carnegie.  

Carnegie never played in the NHL but when he was young he caught the eye of Conn Smythe, then-owner of the Maple Leafs. In 1938, Smythe said that he would sign him if he were white and would pay $10,000 to anyone who could turn him white. 

Stories like these don’t just exist in the past though. A fan threw a banana peel at Wayne Simmonds during an exhibition game in 2011. And Bill Peters resigned as head coach of the Calgary Flames on November 29, 2019, over allegations of racial slurs against Akim Aliu. Even Edmonton Oilers defenceman, Ethan Bear, received racist comments after the team was eliminated in the first round of the NHL playoffs last season. 

Black coaches in the NFL have a different experience altogether. To date, Paul Jerrard is the only black head coach the NHL has ever hired in its 102-year history.  

“It’s an elitist sport. It costs a ton of money,” said Osei. “If it’s not affordable you’re likely not going to have newcomer groups, immigrant groups, and other racialized bodies participating in the sport.”

The Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA) was founded on June 8th, 2020 in recognition of the discrimination against racialized players. Shortly after they came forward with allegations of systemic racism in Hockey, the NHL released a statement outlining a series of commitments to protect racialized players and develop opportunities for racialized players and coaches. The NHL did not commit to hiring a specific number of racialized coaches, in this press release. At the youth level, high equipment costs continue to present barriers for minority groups. 

The NHL has shown precious little support for pro-black social movements. After the shooting of Jacob Blake in 2020, the NHL held a brief moment of silence to reflect on the issue of systemic racism before the Boston Bruins faced off against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the third game of their Eastern Conference semi-final series. 

In contrast, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play in protest of police brutality. Basketball in Canada has a much better record when it comes to issues of diversity. For example, the Canada Basketball Foundation (CBF) is launching the “I Dream Because I CAN” campaign in celebration of Black History Month. 

The CBF seeks to make the sport more equal, diverse, and inclusive. As part of the campaign, they will be sharing the stories of influential black Canadian athletes, coaches, and officials.

Michael Bartlett, the Chief Operating Officer at Canada Basketball says CBF will stay committed to raising the voices of Black Canadian Players. 

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