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If we’re being totally honest — and really, there isn’t another way to be — I had never heard of Saroya Tinker before this week. My days of covering college hockey are long behind me, the Friday and Saturday nights shivering in the tiny press box at Providence College’s Schneider Arena or drinking hot chocolate at Brown University’s Meehan Auditorium, and the 2004 women’s Frozen Four in Providence now memories.
A rookie defenseman for the Metropolitan Riveters of the NWHL, Tinker found herself in the headlines this week after a controversial sports media outlet tried to push its way into the conversation surrounding NWHL’s ongoing bubble tournament, and Tinker pushed back, noting the company’s history of seemingly racist and sexist behavior. In essence, she did what so many other Black women have done before her: stood up for herself and those that look like her because others would not.
And I feel a deep pull to stand up for her, to tell her that I see her and uplift her in some way.
Tinker has been confronted by angry backlash for a familiar reason. She pointed out racism and said she won’t accept it. Those attacking her are not new to such ugliness, and indeed seem to revel in it. It’s been documented. Repeatedly.
I don’t want to wade into that pool.
She’s getting support online from some women’s hockey fans, but predictably as the sunrise, she’s also getting a fair amount of vitriol from misguided individuals making the same claims so many before them have. They are trying to silence her and take away her power.
It’s not working, at least not to give a glance to Tinker’s Twitter feed, where she has continued to post, retweeting some who are praising her for saying in no uncertain terms that the NWHL does not need support from a platform that is “openly racist.”
After the comments agreeing with her, however, are the ones aimed at knocking her down.
It can be lonely at times, fighting for what you know is right. Reminding some people that their comfort comes at your expense is always met with resistance.
Being a young Black woman in an overwhelmingly white sport, which has made shallow, stumbling efforts at best at inclusivity, is to feel even more isolated.
Tinker told NHL.com writer William Douglas earlier this month that her love for hockey nearly disappeared over the years, racist comments from opposing players, fans, and even coaches and teammates whacking away at her passion.
“I felt like I didn’t have many allies on my team at Yale,” she said.
Sixty years after Willie O’Ree heard hateful comments in every arena as he broke the color barrier in the NHL as a member of the Boston Bruins, Tinker still endures the same.
She has written that she’s always questioned her place at the rink, of a time when another parent commented to her white mother that “cross-breeds make the best athletes,” of always being doubted by those who saw a brown-skinned girl on skates and assumed she just wasn’t as good as white teammates.
Tinker credited Mark Bolding, hired as Yale’s coach before her final season, with helping restore some of that love for the sport. Enough that she decided to turn pro, drafted fourth overall by the Riveters to help a defense that allowed 3.8 goals per game last year.
Just as that love started to return, here we are, with Tinker targeted by those who seek to tear her down.
Know you’re not alone, Saroya. Know that there are many of us, followers of hockey and not, who have your back. Who know that feeling of having to speak up because no one else, not those coworkers or teammates who pretend you’re all building toward the same goal, won’t do it for you.
Being a Black woman is to constantly be doubted, to constantly have to prove yourself, to so often do the work of uplifting others who won’t do the same for you.
On Friday, Tinker posted a video of legendary actress and activist Cicely Tyson, who died this week. Tyson was sharing words of wisdom, and Tinker said she wanted to pass them along and that she needed to heed them too.
Hopefully she ruminates on Tyson’s last words:
“Keep your chin high and your standards higher, and remember: you are a queen.”
They won’t take your power.
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