Racial stacking is a phenomenon in sports in which athletes of a certain race are either over- or under-represented in a given position. North Americans are likely most familiar with seeing this in the NFL, where, traditionally, it has been “widely believed that blacks excelled in sports and team positions that demanded power and speed at the same time that inferior intellectual abilities prevented them from assuming leadership positions on the field and in coaching and management positions off the field” (Coakley, 2010).
While rational thought should immediately call this thought process into question, the problem of racial stacking persists and can be observed across various sports and races.
One notable example within Canada is the stacking of Aboriginal hockey players into the role of “enforcer”. While this represents more of an unwritten role within the team rather than a traditional position, it is still very much so an observable phenomenon. John Valentine explores this in a chapter entitled: New Racism and Old Stereotypes in the National Hockey League: The “Stacking” of Aboriginal Players into the Role of Enforcer
In this chapter, Valentine takes into account the number of Aboriginal players in the NHL since 1974, then compares their penalty minutes per game, major penalties per game, and fights per game to the rest of the NHL players during each playing season. What he found is that, during a period of from 1986 to 2004, a period where the role of enforcer was most common in the NHL, Aboriginal players were: penalized almost three and a half times more than non-Aboriginals, assessed major penalties five times more than non-Aboriginals in 1997, and fought between four and seven times more than non Aboriginals during this time period (Valentine, 2012).
Clearly, these numbers indicate that Aboriginal players were expected to fill a certain role within the team, one that was based in aggression and intimidation.
Well-loved former Canucks player Gino Odjick is an example of an Aboriginal player in the role of enforcer.
Since 2004, these numbers have declined rapidly. However, this does not necessarily mean that the NHL is moving in a more positive direction with regards to how Aboriginal players are represented. In fact, there has been a steady decline of Aboriginal players in the NHL at all since 2000 (Valentine, 2012). In conjunction with this is the fact that the role of the pure enforcer is no longer common. There is little room on a roster for a skater whose primary job is to protect the star player and, as such, we see almost no enforcers in the NHL today. Valentine suggests that “the reduction in enforcers [has] reduced the opportunities for Aboriginal players in the NHL overall”.
So, why is racial stacking important for us to consider? First, limiting a player of a certain race to any role or position is extremely limiting of their potential as a whole. Assuming that black football players are less capable in leadership roles gives them a glass ceiling of potential, and in fact last year’s NFL MVP Cam Newton is a perfect example of why we should never send this message (his team’s play this year notwithstanding). Similarly, sending the message to Aboriginal players that their biggest opportunity within a team is to be an enforcer, goon, or fighter limits their potential to become a sniper on the wing.
Furthermore, as we have seen since the decline of the “enforcer era” there is now a significantly lower number of Aboriginal players in the NHL altogether. Stereotyping them into this role meant that, when the role was no longer there for them to fill, they were given less opportunity for a career in the NHL. In a time where we are trying to move away from racial inequalities, it is alarming to know that these kind of issues still persist.
Recently, another league MVP, NHLer Carey Price, gave his acceptance speech and recognized the importance of acknowledging the uphill battle that Aboriginal youth face. I leave you with the video of his words below.
Valentine, J. (2012). New Racism and Old Stereotypes in the National Hockey League: The “Stacking” of Aboriginal Players into the Role of Enforcer.In J. Joseph, S. Darnell, & Y. Nakamura (Eds.) Race and Sport in Canada: Intersecting Inequalities, pp. ?? Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.
Coakley, J. (2010). Race and Ethnicity in the Sociology of Sport in the United States. Colorado Springs, CO: University of Colorado.