Divyne Apollon II, a 13-year-old African-American hockey player, was playing in a recent tournament in Maryland when the opposing team hurled racist insults. While Divyne and his father — who was at the tournament — have seen this behavior at rinks before, they were both stunned when his teammates came to his defense.
"It made me feel appreciated, like I actually was supposed to be there, and that somebody that wasn't just my dad or my family members actually cared," Divyne tells NPR's Noel King.
Divyne, who has been playing hockey for five years, says he has experienced racist taunts on the ice multiple times. However, it has never been as extreme as this past tournament, where the other team called him the N-word and chanted for him to get off the ice and go play basketball.
As reported by the Washington Post's Petula Dvorak on Jan. 3:
"The game Saturday was buzzing with racial animosity. The monkey sounds were constant when the players were in Divyne's zone. And he tried to ignore them.
" 'Normally, stuff like that doesn't happen directly to my face,' said Divyne, who is in eighth grade at Fusion Academy. 'But it was there.'
"He kept looking at the other coach, the refs. They did nothing. Maybe they couldn't hear. But his teammates heard, and they were furious. The game got rough.
"At the end of the third period, the fed-up teammates started yelling at the other team and a fight began. Divyne said he got punched in the face, and he fought back."
The subsequent brawl caused Divyne, who plays defense for the Odenton., Md., Metro Maple Leafs, to be ejected from the game.
"I knew when he fell in love with hockey that this would be part of the experience, unfortunately," his father, Divyne Apollon Sr., tells King.
He says his advice to his son was to focus on playing hockey. "You don't deal with the refs; you don't deal with the coaches — that's my department," he says. "I transfer that also into police, teachers, adults. That's not your realm to deal with, that's for me to deal with."
Divyne says he usually does brush off the jeers. "I realized if I was to retaliate or hit the kid or something, I'd end up getting penalized again, so I just brushed it off." That is, until his teammates stood up for him and he defended himself in the uproar that followed.
The parents of Divyne's teammates had no idea that he — and his father — had been increasingly experiencing similar racist sentiments at games for the past few years.
"I've had people ignore me at other rinks who work there, they will brush me off, and you kind of know the telltale signs that 'OK, we aren't wanted here,' and you kind of keep moving on and find other ways to deal with things so it doesn't get to a point where I'm the 'angry black guy,' " Apollon says.
Divyne had a different take on the surprise of the other parents.
"I just thought it was funny because they didn't know it was something that happens, even though it happens to me pretty often," he says.
Divyne's experience has sparked professional hockey players to voice encouragement.
Moved by the support of Divyne's teammates, two players from the Washington Capitals invited the Metro Maple Leafs to an NHL game on Jan. 14.
And P.K. Subban, a high-profile black NHL player, has been similarly driven to respond to young black hockey players who have recently faced racism on the ice. Subban and his father have encouraged them to keep playing hockey, according to the Washington Post.
Despite the recent events, Divyne doesn't want to give up the sport. "I enjoy it too much and put too much time and effort into it to give up on it," he says.
Emma Talkoff and William Jones produced and edited this story for broadcast.
Lindsey Feingold is the NPR Digital Content intern.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Thirteen-year-old Divyne Apollon II plays hockey. He plays defense for a Maryland team called the Metro Maple Leafs. In a recent tournament, he was suspended after a fight broke out. Divyne says he was punched. He was punched first, and he fought back.
DIVYNE II: The game was sort of tied. And at one point, they were beating us by a point. But then we were also beating them. And the other team was saying stuff to the entire team in general, like we were bad. But then as they got closer to the middle of the game and further on, then they started saying racist things, like making the monkey noises and that sort of stuff. I wasn't really worried about it because my dad, he's told me not to pay attention to things like that and just keep on playing.
INSKEEP: Divyne is black and says he was called the N word and received chants of get off the ice, go play basketball. His teammates didn't stand for it. They yelled back, and the brawl broke out. Divyne II's father, Divyne Apollon, told Noel King, this is nothing new.
DIVYNE APOLLON: We've had this situation before. He's been playing hockey now for the past five years, and about two years ago is when it first started. And, you know, I explained to him, listen, your job is to play hockey. You don't deal with the refs. You don't deal with the coaches. That's my department. You, I transfer that also into, you know, police, teachers, adults. That's not your realm to deal with. That's for me to deal with.
I had the same conversation with my daughters, unfortunately, who play tennis, because that's a predominately nonblack sport. So I knew when he fell in love with hockey that this would just be part of the experience, unfortunately. So for the most part, we took it, we handled it and kept moving, you know? And I always told him, you know, your performance on the ice is the single most important thing you need deal with.
NOEL KING, BYLINE: The day that this all happened, did you know it was happening?
KING: You didn't...
APOLLON: No. We could see the kids were very aggressively speaking to everybody. His coach is also black, and they were yelling at the coach, yelling at benches, yelling at the refs. And apparently, what we found out later on is, I guess they have a reputation of doing this on a regular basis. Not in terms of the racial piece because obviously, they - not only black kids, but I guess they were well-known for mouthing off back at the refs. And in our opinion, the refs let too much of it go on for too long.
KING: So Divyne, your dad gets choked up talking about this. You seem like you're handling it with some amount of distance. You were the one on the ice when people were taunting you. You managed to ignore it in the moment. Can I ask you, how do you pull that off?
DIVYNE II: So I get penalized often because I'm big, and kids end up getting hurt when I hit them.
KING: (Laughter) OK.
DIVYNE II: So I realize if I was to retaliate or hit the kid or something, I'd end up getting penalized again. So I just brush it off.
KING: Have your teammates had to defend you against racism before, or was this the first time?
DIVYNE II: I think it was the first time.
KING: Wow. How did that make you feel?
DIVYNE II: Made me feel appreciated, like I actually was supposed to be there and that somebody that wasn't just my dad or my family members actually cared.
KING: Dad, you're nodding your head.
APOLLON: (Laughter) That's the first time I heard that. So yeah.
KING: Let me ask you - you said you were surprised that Divyne's teammates were as outraged as they were. Why were you surprised?
APOLLON: Because it's so commonplace, unfortunately. I've been dealing with it for so long. You're upset sometimes, but then you say, you know, at the end of the day, there's not much that can be done. The racism piece, like I said, I've been dealing with that since - you know, I've been black my whole life. So, (laughter), you know? My mother's Haitian. We're a Haitian family. So we've dealt with that a long time. So you kind of get a tougher skin about it because reacting to it, obviously, is going to cause more problems than it's going to solve.
KING: Divyne, how did you feel when your teammates' parents were really surprised that this had happened to you and they were really surprised that this is something you've dealt with before? How does it make you feel that there are grown-ups in the United States who, frankly, couldn't imagine something like this happening?
DIVYNE II: I just thought it was funny because...
KING: Funny? Why?
DIVYNE II: ...They didn't know it was something that happens, even though it happens to me pretty often.
KING: When you hear your son say, I just find it funny, what do you think? I mean, that's a pretty - that's a remarkable statement. You know? Because he's 13, and you think of adults as being older and wiser, and your son is saying, no, I don't expect them to be. What about you?
APOLLON: Unfortunately, after a while, you kind of get accustomed to things like that happening. And it being the society we live in, we're looked on differently. I don't want to paint a broad picture of everyone, but when we go to certain places, it's noticed that we quote-unquote, "don't belong." We, quote-unquote, "aren't supposed to be here." You know, I've had people ignore me at other rinks who work there. They'll brush me off. And you kind of know the telltale signs that, OK, we're not wanted here. And you kind of keep moving on and finding - we find other ways to deal with things so it doesn't get to a point where I become the, quote-unquote, "angry black guy."
KING: Divyne, has any of this, at any point, made you want to quit hockey?
DIVYNE II: No.
KING: No? Why not? It's a lot to deal with.
DIVYNE II: Because I enjoy it too much, and I put too much time and effort into it to just give up on it.
KING: And Dad, let me ask you a question. I'm curious about your son bottling up his feelings and feeling like he cannot have a reaction to this because if he does it's going to hurt him in the sport, and it's going to hurt him in the eyes of his teammates and it's going to hurt him in the eyes of the opposition. Telling a young person, just let it roll off you, it's often the only advice. That doesn't always make it good advice. You know? Do you worry about that?
APOLLON: You know, I guess I never thought about it like that. But at the end of the day, playing a team sport, you have to kind of understand it's a team sport. You know, I tell him a lot of times that when he gets penalized, when he's ejected from the games, your teammates are relying on you to be there. But that also transfers into life. You know, he's 13 now. In three, four years, he'll be driving. You know, if you get pulled over by the police, do you immediately start yelling at the police officer 'cause you think he's wrong for pulling you over? No. You listen. You see what's going on. And you deal with that accordingly.
KING: Divyne, let me ask you a question. If you had the chance to say whatever is on your mind or in your heart to the players who were abusing you out on the ice, what would you want to say to those boys who made racist comments at you?
DIVYNE II: I would ask them why.
DIVYNE II: Like, why were they doing it? For what reason? Even though we were already beating them.
KING: Dad, if you had an opportunity to talk to the coach of the other team about what his players were saying to your son, what would you say to this man?
APOLLON: I mean, as a coach, you're controlling young minds who are going to run the world at some point. When you feed into an environment of bigotry or racism, you're teaching them that's OK. Especially in the environment we're living in now where, unfortunately, it seems like things have gone backwards in terms of race relations, the last thing you want to do is encourage children to perpetuate that going forward over the next 20, 30, 50 years. As a leader, as a coach, you have control some of the greatest minds our future's going to hold. You need to utilize that a little better than you are currently.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: Noel spoke with Divyne Apollon II and his father, Divyne Apollon. We want to make note, we reached out to the team accused of racism - you do want to hear from everybody - haven't heard back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.