DeSantis v NHL: Florida governor targets unlikely foe in ‘anti-woke’ crusade

What does the Florida governor and Republican presidential hopeful look to gain from attacking North America’s whitest sports league as ‘woke’?

As part of its forthcoming All-Star game weekend in Sunrise, Florida, the National Hockey League planned to host a special event called the Pathway to Hockey Summit. Part of the league’s Hockey is For Everyone initiative, the summit was described in a now-deleted LinkedIn post as a “career event for diverse job seekers who are pursuing careers in hockey”.

In addition to be over 18 and a US resident, participants had to “identify as female, Black, Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic/Latino, Indigenous, LGBTQIA+, and/or a person with a disability”. Also welcome: veterans.

Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, didn’t like the sound of it. The Republican’s office issued a terse statement suggesting that the inclusive event had been too exclusive.

“We do not abide by the woke notion that discrimination should be overlooked if applied in a politically popular manner or against an unpopular demographic,” DeSantis’s press secretary, Bryan Griffin, said. He demanded that the NHL “remove and denounce” the “prohibitions it has imposed” on the event’s attendees. The NHL quickly replaced the original post, deleting the self-identification criteria.

As far as conservative political targets go, the NHL is a strange one. The league’s own data shows it’s brimming with this so-called “unpopular demographic”: white guys. In October, the league’s inclusion and diversity report noted that its full-time workforce is 62% male and nearly 84% white.

But that’s not the point, of course. The well of the US culture wars is deep, as is the capacity Americans seem to have for fighting them – especially when they involve sports. Former US president Donald Trump tapped a seam with the NFL, taunting the league about (what else) its TV ratings and upbraiding it for becoming too soft. At a Colorado rally in the final weeks of his 2016 presidential run, Trump said that the “number one” reason people weren’t watching as much football is because politics “is a much rougher game”. The other reason: Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who protested police shootings by taking a knee during the national anthem.

A year later, Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, made a show of walking out of a football game in Indianapolis after members of Kaepernick’s San Francisco 49ers also took a knee. Trump immediately sent out a fundraising email. “Your Vice President REFUSED to dignify their disrespect,” it shouted.

DeSantis is no doubt hoping to leverage the same angry anti-woke dollars now, as he warms up for a bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. And while that anti-woke cash supply isn’t bottomless, it has apparently yet to be fully exhausted: DeSantis has already raised more than $200m.

But making the NHL the target of that ire is a surprising move. Not only are NHL team owners overwhelmingly white, male and rich – they also mostly donate to Republicans. Between 2016 and 2020, NHL owners donated around $7m to Republican politicians versus just $1.7m to Democrats, according to an analysis at FiveThirtyEight of publicly available contribution data. To put that into perspective, the same analysis found that NFL owners donated just over $5m to Republicans during the same period.

It’s fair to wonder just how far the NHL thought it could take its inclusivity message before it naturally ran aground against the political ideology held by the majority of team owners – not to mention, in the case of Jeff Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lighting and part of DeSantis’s economic advisory committee in 2018, their political friends.

But when it comes to accusations of ‘woke-ness’, DeSantis is an equal opportunity deployer. Last year, he vetoed $35m in funding for a future Tampa Bay Rays spring training site, partly due to the team’s outspoken support of gun violence prevention in the wake of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. DeSantis called it “inappropriate to subsidize political activism of a private corporation”. He also threatened to fine the Special Olympics $27.5m if it imposed a Covid-19 vaccine requirement for its event in Orlando last summer – and only dropped the threat when the Special Olympics acquiesced.

This week, the NHL had to respond to yet another attack on its inclusivity efforts, when Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov refused to wear a Pride-themed jersey for the team’s warm-up on Tuesday night. “I respect everyone’s choices. My choice to stay true to myself and my religion,” Provorov said, incorrectly suggesting that being LGBTQIA+ is a choice. The league responded by waffling: “Players are free to decide which initiatives to support, and we continue to encourage their voices and perspectives on social and cultural issues.”

While hockey fans are now left to wonder whether the NHL’s stated support for inclusivity is just a cynical marketing ploy dropped at the first sign of pressure, they can be assured that DeSantis’s efforts certainly are. One unnamed Republican strategist told the Daily Beast that the attack on the NHL was “a great play to make”. The average Republican voter, the strategist argued, “more than likely wasn’t even aware this was an issue – and to be fair the left probably had no idea this was happening – until DeSantis came out with his statement.” Something new to fuel the partisan fury – and open their wallets.

During his second inaugural address as governor in January, DeSantis said Florida “is where woke goes to die”. In his cynical pursuit of reactionary cash, DeSantis might also ensure Florida is where sports – or at least its spirit of fair play – goes to die, too.


Colin Horgan

The GuardianTramp

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