- As teams continue to hold moments of silence and set up donations for victims in response to mass shootings, some find there is a need to do more with the platform of professional sports.
The memorials are displayed outside the staff kitchen at Los Angeles Kings headquarters in El Segundo, Calif., beneath a block-lettered heading that reads, MAY WE NEVER FORGET.
On the left, a black glass panel pays tribute to Mark Bavis and Garnet “Ace” Bailey, members of the scouting department who died aboard Flight 175 on Sept. 11, 2001. To the right, above a small white heart stamped “CD,” a list details how the franchise has honored 22-year-old fan service associate Christina Duarte, one of 58 fatalities last October in Las Vegas: helmet stickers, a high school scholarship, a dedicated park bench, a monthly office award...
Exactly one week ago, a handful of somber team executives shuffled past those memorials around 10:30 a.m., headed for a nearby conference room to map out another tribute. Most of them had learned about the latest mass shooting upon waking that Friday morning. Others were alerted in the middle of the night: Twelve people killed at a country music bar in nearby Thousand Oaks, a sprawling valley city that annually ranks among the nation’s safest.
In less than nine hours, the Kings would host the Minnesota Wild—the first pro sports game in town since the shooting, COO Kelly Cheeseman reminded colleagues as they entered the conference room. A moment of silence would be held, of course. That much was given, the staple of so many similar ceremonies after so many similar tragedies, three others at NHL rinks in 13 months alone. But what else? The group was stuck. Finally, a frustrated Hall of Famer spoke up. “It has to be more than this,” president Luc Robitaille said. “Enough is enough here.”
With that, an idea whirred into motion. Helmet decals were designed, placards printed, donations promised, players notified of the plans: As the pregame ceremony unfolded at Staples Center, everyone on both teams would hold signs declaring, simply, ENOUGH. “A lot of change has to happen on a lot of different levels, from mental health to gun control to safety initiatives,” Cheeseman says. “The one thing we have as a sports organization is a platform for messaging.”
The Kings weren’t alone. Over the coming days, the Lakers, Clippers, Hawks and Bucks would follow suit by sporting ENOUGH T-shirts during pregame warmups, printed with the names of all 12 Thousand Oaks victims. To the north, the most vocal gun control advocate in pro sports would issue another public plea for legislative action. "Our government has to address it,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, whose father was assassinated at the American University of Beirut in 1984, via the San Francisco Chronicle.
“We can’t just keep spewing out the same garbage about, ‘Well, it’s the second amendment. This is the price of freedom.’ Give me a break.”
The truth, of course, is that ENOUGH is nowhere near enough. Not when 96 people die of gun violence every day, according to five-year averages compiled by the CDC. Not where 307 mass shootings had occurred this year, at least through Thousand Oaks. Even so, it can serve as a sliver of encouragement that the Kings desire to nudge the needle in this regard: initiatives, campaigns, funds ... something instead of nothing. “We don’t know what that exactly is going to be yet, but for now we’re going to focus on pushing this message out there,” Cheeseman says. “More than anything, this can’t be accepted as our new norm.”
Roberto Luongo remembers feeling as hopeful as Cheeseman about the prospect of change. On Feb. 22, the Panthers goalie delivered an emotional, three-minute pregame speech about the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where his family has lived for more than 12 years. He was especially inspired by survivors like Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg and Cameron Kasky, teenagers who couldn’t yet vote but nonetheless found their voices as activist leaders. “I think that was a huge thing that happened with the kids fighting,” Luongo says. “I thought we were really close to some real progress. I mean, they’re [still] working their butts off to make a difference, but I feel like not a lot of people are listening.”
Now it’s Wednesday. Exactly nine months ago, a former student murdered 14 teenagers and three staffers on the campus that Luongo passes en route to the practice rink each morning. Calling from a road trip, he sounds defeated over the phone. “Pretty much the same old, right?” Luongo, 39, says. “It keeps happening and nothing gets done. It’s gotten to the point where it’s just sad we have to live through this, it seems, more and more often than in the past.”
He still thinks about Parkland every day. The reminders are unavoidable around town. Banners hanging from buildings, purple ribbons flapping from trees. The MSD STRONG bumper sticker on Luongo’s car. The steady police presence outside Stoneman Douglas. The fear that fills Luongo when his son and daughter are dropped off at school. “Because you don’t know what the hell’s going to happen,” he says. “It’s part of our daily life now, and it shouldn’t be.”
As a Canadian citizen, Luongo knows that his capacity for change is especially limited. “Once I retire I’ll definitely become a U.S. citizen,” he says, almost perking up. “Then hopefully I can start voting and make a difference.” Until then, he and wife Gina, who hails from Parkland, do what they can. Donations, drives, hammering the message home.
Last month, Luongo filmed a video supporting the #OrangeWaveInNovember initiative led by Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jamie was among those killed at Stoneman Douglas. After wrapping his goalie stick with orange tape, the color adopted by gun safety advocates, Luongo spoke straight into the camera, imploring viewers to “vote for common-sense gun laws for our children.”
Even the worst cynic must see some value in these gestures. The Golden Knights’ inaugural season applied an emotional balm to Vegas after bullets sprayed the Route 51 Harvest Festival on Oct. 1, 2017. “It played a big role, giving people a break from the grieving,” says Nick Robone, a UNLV hockey assistant coach who was among the 422 wounded outside Mandalay Bay.
The Penguins have raised more than $600,000 for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and a public first responders fund after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting last month. And even before Thousand Oaks, the Kings had partnered with several South Bay police departments to install trauma kits in every public school classroom--in case of an active shooter.
But Luongo wonders what more can be reasonably accomplished by his peers in times of crisis. “We have a big voice, because we have a big platform,” he says. “We send messages, like L.A. did. Hopefully they’re loud and people hear them and see them. [But] we’re not the lawmakers. We don’t make the laws. All we can do is keep fighting, right? Eventually common sense will take over and we’ll find a way to keep our children and people safe.”
That is the greater war, right there, waged in voting booths and congressional chambers. It’s near-impossible to imagine sports teams outright endorsing candidates—or even wading into mildly political waters with their messaging. But new battles are being staged each day; five more mass shootings have already occurred since Thousand Oaks, according to the Gun Violence Archive database.
As such, there is ample room for amplification. “At the end of the day, you’re a sports team,” Robitaille says. “You have to perform, but you have influence. I think each family and their parents needs to deliver the right message to their kids. But at the same time, if sports organizations get together, there are things we can do to help society.”
How? A committee of Kings executives has already met several times, plotting out the team's next move. Maybe their next call should go to Kyleanne Hunter, vice president of programs at the Brady Campaign, one of the country’s oldest gun control nonprofits. A lifelong Sharks fan who grew up tagging along to games while her father moonlighted as the team’s anesthesiologist, Hunter was watching the tributes closely after Vegas, and Parkland, and Pittsburgh, and now Thousand Oaks. She is encouraged by how the rhetoric has evolved at the rink. Toughened, even. But the voices can always get louder. What if the Kings—or Panthers, or Golden Knights, or Penguins--partnered with the Brady Campaign and their End Family Fire initiative? What if every athlete spoke out like Kerr and Luongo?
“Professional athletes have the power to bridge a lot of these divides,” Hunter says. “They can show just how universal these ideas are. They can use their platform to really break a lot of fear around talking about gun violence prevention. They can give permission for people to talk about it. It’s not a partisan issue. It’s an American safety issue.
“The tributes happen, the moments of silence happen in the wake of these, and we act surprised time and time again. But we can be proactive. If a team, or if particular players, were to take this on proactively, and not just be responsive to mass shootings, I think that would make a big difference.”