Opinion: By joining Golden Knights teammate in protest, Robin Lehner reminds us change possible

There are days when the future of this country seems bleak, that our polarized divide can never be bridged. We cannot even agree on a common set of facts, let alone find common ground.

And then something happens to remind you that empathy still exists and, with it, the hope for understanding.

On Monday night, before the game between the Vegas Golden Knights and Dallas Stars, four NHL players knelt during the national anthem to protest racism. One of them was Golden Knights goalie Robin Lehner, who almost four years ago put a sticker on his mask to honor Donald Trump, then the president-elect.

“I did a mistake once, putting the Trump sticker on my mask, something I regret now after seeing how divisive things have been. But … this is not politics. This is human rights,” Lehner said.

“Everyone’s talking about conversation and education and listening. But it’s time to start doing something,” he added. “Not just let this be a news cycle and forget about it, do it all over again.”

Vegas Golden Knights goalie Robin Lehner, right, joined teammate Ryan Reaves and Dallas Stars players Jason Dickinson and Tyler Seguin in taking a knee during the national anthem. (Photo: JASON FRANSON, AP)

Political differences will always exist in this country, and that’s one of our greatest strengths. We have the freedom to disagree about what is the best approach to managing the deficit or whether a tax cut is necessary. We can argue over who will be a better shepherd for our cities, states and country, and have the means to make those opinions heard.

But what is not a matter for debate, what cannot be marginalized under the guise of “politics,” is the basic humanity of Black and brown people.

For 400-plus years, this country has clung to a system that elevates and safeguards whites at the expense of people of color, Black people in particular. The recent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor exposed how woefully unequal this country remains, and it has prompted a long-overdue reckoning among white people about systemic racism.

Polls show that most whites now believe Blacks are subjected to biased policing, and there has been a significant increase in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Even athlete protests during the national anthem, so divisive when Colin Kaepernick began them four years ago, are now considered acceptable by a majority of Americans.

While seeing athletes kneel during the anthem has become commonplace in the NBA, WNBA, MLS and NWSL, it remains a rarity in hockey, an overwhelmingly white sport. But after the Minnesota Wild’s Matt Dumba became the first NHL player to kneel, Lehner went to teammate Ryan Reaves, who is Black, and said he wanted to kneel.

Tyler Seguin and Jason Dickinson of the Dallas Stars, both of whom are white, joined them.

“I love America. But there’s a bunch of things that need to be corrected,” said Lehner, who was born and raised in Sweden. “… I think it’s time for whites to step into battle with our brothers and sisters and make some change. Stop just talking about it and actually do something.”

Lehner said four years ago that his support of Trump had nothing to do with the president’s race baiting, noting that his wife’s family is from the Middle East. But he clearly has been listening these last few years and, more important, learning.

He has taken note of his family’s experiences – “what I’ve seen and how things are, it disgusts me” — and had conversations with teammates.

It all has influenced Lehner’s thinking and, now, his actions.

“Everyone should have the same chance in society,” he said. “Everyone should be treated the same.”

If we could all agree on that, there's hope for us yet. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

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