A place you just don’t go

Sports taught me a lot in life as a kid — lessons as important as in the classroom.

Compete, lose, achieve, compromise, adjust, learn, dissect, etc.

My sons are better students than I was, thanks to my wife. Yet I can’t shake the role sports had on me, and I use sports still today as a tool for the boys for all the lessons I learned that still apply today.

I don’t remember race and black and white coming up as a kid in sports, and it’s likely because my Buffalo neighborhood was fairly diversified. Black and white was around enough in life that it did not stand out in sports. My kids do not have the diversity of my Buffalo neighborhood.

Race came crashing in on my oldest last week in an ugly way — the “N” word — and it was a good chance to embrace all the words that fall under the definition of “You just don’t go there.”

Hockey is one of our sports, and it means to play through scraps and scrums. It’s cute and dismissed when they are 6 years old, can be scary and reckless with teens and young adults and is downright silly in late-night adult leagues with 50-year-olds. But you know that it happens, and it’s part of the sport.

A teammate of my son’s got into a scrap/scrum with a Cleveland kid who was black. It quickly evolved into the black kid wrapping his stick around the white kid’s neck — never fully choking, but clearly in a position of control and clearly something you do not see in hockey, even amid the scrums.

The dad next to me said the obvious: “Hey!!! ... He can’t do that.”

No, he can’t.

But clearly, it was a scrum beyond normal hockey scrums. It was over as quickly as it started. The players went to their benches. After a chat with the black kid’s bench, the officials went to my son’s bench. Slowly, the white kid involved in the scrum made his way to the exit door and the locker room as his teammates watched. No penalties went on the clock for either side, which also is odd for hockey. Everything seems to get penalized 2 minutes in hockey.

I had a gut feeling what happened — that it was the “N” word.

That truth came out after the game, and in the hourlong ride home with just the two of us, it was a good time to discuss “You just don’t go there.”

Our conversation wasn’t limited to just the “N” word. I extended it to volatile words people use for Latinos, women and gays. I asked if he was aware of those words and had heard them. The answer was the dronelike “yyyyyeeesssssss ...” you get when you ask if they left a dirty plate in the living room.

I said those are all words that some people certainly use. But to go to those words goes to a level of decency that many in society choose not to go to.

I said you will get mad many times in life, and that anger will involve people who are white, black, Hispanic, Asian, male, female, gay, etc. Hopefully, you manage your anger properly and don’t let it accelerate into a hostile situation. If, sadly, it does get hostile, and heated words are exchanged, know there are just words that you don’t go to — if you are to be like most in society.

I said if his teammate had used “jerk” or some mainstream expletive (that I can’t print here), it likely would have been just like any other hockey scrum.

This incident became fodder over lunch with parents.

Race is so close to the surface of our existence. People politely will engage in pedestrian topics of the moment, such as Urban Meyer or Secret Service sexploits or Titanic. But introduce race, and especially black and white issues, and passionate debate ignites.

Helping along the debate every few years is a poster incident — Tawana Brawley, Rodney King, O.J. It is now Trayvon Martin’s killing. It seems I get an email every other day from a white friend with a story that aims to be an example of violence against whites and wondering “Where’s the outrage?”

One hockey parent asked that if a black kid dropped a racial term on a white kid, would expulsion or ejection be expected then. I suspected yes, if you are to establish that anything racial is intolerable.

A black co-worker agreed this week at work that if “cracker” or “honky” or whatever came out, it, too, should be met with the same result as the “N” word.

“But ... ”

It was a long “but” that said as much as my son’s “yyyyyeeesssssss ...”

There is just not a word, my colleague said, that can be cast against whites that evokes the same pain and cultural indignation that the “N” word causes in the African-American community. The word just cuts, immediately and deeply. He even cringes when it’s used in the black community.

“Cracker,” we reasoned, opens racial fractures in the moment.

But the “N” word opens racial wounds that are seeded in an American history as painful as it is prideful.

Given hockey’s rough ways, an old adage is: “I went to a boxing match and a hockey game broke out.”

While my son’s teammate’s incident was unfortunate in many ways, it was beneficial to go to a hockey game and have a life lesson break out.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at tfranko@vindy.com. He blogs, too, on vindy.com.

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