Skip to main content

Why the Ice Is White

The Chicago Blackhawks may be so good that "they got black people loving hockey," but the NHL is still the most segregated professional sport. Why is that?
  • Author:
  • Updated:
A very white crowd at the 2010 Winter Classic at Fenway Park. (Photo: Victoria Welch/Flickr)

A very white crowd at the 2010 Winter Classic at Fenway Park. (Photo: Victoria Welch/Flickr)

You’ve seen the video a thousand times: a television news anchor reports near a riled-up crowd; a fan, perhaps invited—oftentimes not—yells something inappropriate into the microphone; the host fumbles to recover; the video goes viral.

On Monday night, hours after the Chicago Blackhawks had won their third Stanley Cup in six years and thousands of fans had taken to the streets in celebration, WGN’s Marcus Leshock seemed destined to experience something similar. As he stopped a passing fan for a short interview, Leshock cautioned: "You’re live on the air." With almost no hesitation, and a precursory "this sounds messed up," the fan, who was black, said the Blackhawks are so awesome that "they got black people loving hockey."

It was an unexpected comment, and one that left the anchors, as well as the Internet, laughing. But, of course, there’s truth in humor. Hockey has always been a sport dominated by white players and spectators—and in its lowest moments, it can even be aggressively racist. Today, 58 years after Willie O’Ree, the first black NHL player, took to the ice, only five percent of the league is black, according to a report by NPR in February. This is in stark contrast to other sports leagues: 67 percent of players in the NFL are black; 77 percent in the NBA, according to twin reports by the University of Central Florida. This poses an interesting question: What are the cultural, economic, or sociological factors that work to segregate some sports more than others?

For decades, researchers have explored the exclusionary nature that appears to linger in certain sports. There are a few theories as to why this bias exists, but most experts agree that cost is the main culprit. In hockey, this is particularly pronounced. With ice time, travel, and a seemingly endless list of required equipment, hockey has an especially large economic barrier to entry. Research by Florida Atlantic University sociologist Thomas C. Wilson showed a direct connection between wealth and people's likelihood to attend or participate in a sport. "Those rich in economic capital are more involved in sports generally, presumably because they can better afford their cost, both in terms of money and leisure time," Wilson writes. And, of course, there's a stark race-to-wealth differential in the United States.

What are the cultural, economic, or sociological factors that work to segregate some sports more than others?

The lack of diversity on the ice is mirrored by the fanbase as well. According to a 2013 Nielsen report, 92 percent of NHL viewers are white and only three percent black. You don't need an expensive set of sticks or pads to watch hockey, so what’s driving the segregation there? A 2013 joint paper from researchers at Penn State University, University of North Florida, and Alfred State College explored the issue of minority spectator attendance throughout the sports world. Their conclusion: things like the entertainment value of the sport, the social nature, the atmosphere, and the convenience are major motivation drivers—but the most significant factor was previous exposure and/or access to the sport. "[C]ultural affiliation is a viable motive for African Americans’ sport consumption," the authors write. "Therefore, it seems plausible that environmental or socialization processes play a larger role in African Americans’ sport attendance and consumption."

Exclusion from sports like hockey functions as a sort of self-perpetuating loop. In Wilson’s aforementioned paper, he draws a similar conclusion: People create social networks based on their similarities in class and taste. Simply being a part of a taste-based social network provides some with more access to material or symbolic goods than it does to others. Sports function as a form of ritual identification, argues Wilson; oftentimes "neither [the rich] nor those they exclude necessarily intend or even recognize the social reproductive implications."

The lack of diversity in hockey—both on the ice and in the stands—is not necessarily explained by the nature of the sport itself, but instead by the cyclical feedback of its affluent, white culture. Echoing this sentiment, William Douglas, editor of the blog Color of Hockey, told the Chicago Tribune last week: "Not seeing players of color on the ice on a regular basis or not knowing there are players of color ... reinforces the stereotype. Then it became a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts."

There's good news, though: This is changing. And, to no one’s surprise, the most recent winner of the Stanley Cup is leading the way. In the same Tribune article, it's reported that the number of black Chicagoans who identify themselves as very or somewhat interested in the Hawks increased from 12.6 percent in 2011 to 21.9 percent in 2014. And among those fans, the number who watched a game on TV or listened on the radio grew from 28.1 to 37.9 percent over that same span.