Last year around this time, J.T. Brown went viral. As San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest began reverberating, Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella — preparing for a stint coaching Team USA in the World Cup of Hockey — said he would bench any player who did the same.
That led Brown, the Tampa Bay Lightning winger and one of about 30 black players in the NHL, to fire off this tweet:
The impact was immediate: aggregation plus retweets, and comments by the thousands. Some commended Brown. Many condemned an athlete for entering the political arena. Others conjectured the motivation stemmed from a grudge held against the coach, which led Brown to clarify his stance in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times that he had no “ill will towards Tortorella.” He wanted to show young minorities who love hockey that issues in America weren’t “going unnoticed by the hockey community.” Brown concluded the statement with: “While I don’t plan on sitting during the national anthem, I will look for more opportunities to positively impact my community and bring awareness to racial issues.”
Brown found one such opportunity earlier this month. The 27-year-old donated $1,500 toward a fund to remove a Confederate statue from downtown Tampa. Brown wrote the check after “feeling uncomfortable” watching news coverage of violent, race-provoked rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“Stick to sports? I’ve heard it,” Brown told ESPN.com. “I heard it last year. I’ve heard it now after this. I’m not afraid of backlash. Everybody has their opinion on what people should say and when they should say it. But if everybody stuck to what they’re supposed to do, we wouldn’t have made the strides we made to get to where we are.”
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy publicly challenged Tampa’s pro sports teams to help raise the $140,000 required to remove the statue. (The Buccaneers, Lightning and Tampa Bay Rays each contributed; the Lightning have not disclosed how much they donated.) “When I saw Tony Dungy’s tweet, I knew I wanted to help too,” Brown said, noting he hasn’t heard from teammates since his donation and he “knew my team had my back because they got involved too.”
Brown, who lives in Minneapolis in the offseason, had another motivation: nine weeks ago, he and his wife welcomed their first child, a daughter.
“My wife and I had conversations,” Brown said. “How will I explain this to my daughter? At what age? You don’t want to dance around it, but she might have questions I don’t have answers to. With relocating the statue, we are creating a more inclusive environment for the community. Not just for my daughter’s sake — for everybody else, too.”
Inclusiveness drives Brown; in six years with the Lightning, he has mentored at-risk students. This season, he has partnered with the video-game platform Twitch. He will raise money through live broadcasts and donate all proceeds to “Hockey Is for Everyone.”
“It’s been a long time, maybe high school or before high school, where I didn’t feel included on a team,” Brown said. “When you get to the pro level, the end goal is to win. Everybody has different political views and maybe come from different places, but as soon as we step into the locker room, it doesn’t really matter.”
Because less than 5 percent of the league is black, Brown’s actions have an inherent platform.
“Being a role model for young minorities, I don’t necessarily see it as an obligation or something that I have to do,” Brown said. “But I think it is important to speak out when I feel strong about something and show any young minority, whether it’s African-American or Hispanic, or you could go along the line and show them that’s OK, and also that they can play too.”
As for the timing of this specific action? “It’s kind of eerie that it’s almost a year after the national anthem comments,” Brown said. “But I said I would look for other ways to positively impact my community, and I didn’t say it just to say it. I meant it.”