The organization known as Players Against Hate was formed under extremely unfortunate circumstances. In early 2019, 13-year-old Divyne Apollon II was the victim of racially motivated taunts and slurs during a youth hockey tournament in Bowie, Maryland.
For most young hockey players, the idea of confronting racial bigotry is an entirely foreign concept. For young Divyne, however, this was a sad reality to which he faced with almost unimaginable regularity.
Divyne began his hockey career at the age of eight when he joined the Wells Warriors in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The Warriors, a diverse hockey program, provided Divyne with a safe environment free from hateful remarks from opposing teams.
It wasn’t until Divyne started playing travel hockey against out-of-area teams that he began to be harassed by his opponents.
At first, Divyne tried to ignore the chants, comments, and insults as best he could. Throughout the game, he kept glancing at the other team’s coaches and referees, but to no avail. Whether or not the adults heard the taunt is unknown.
What is known, however, is that Divyne’s teammates found out about the harassment – and they were outraged. As the taunts continued, play became increasingly rough, and when the final buzzer rang, a battle ensued between the two sides on the ice. While Divyne had grown accustomed to his opponents’ taunts, his teammates, their parents and his coaches were shocked and outraged to learn of the abuse he was subjected to.
“No kid should have to put up with that nonsense to play a game,” said Players Against Hate founder Tammi Lynch. “To hear how pervasive it was and how he had just ignored it for that time, I think we just had no idea what he was going through.”
In the end, Divyne was suspended for the rest of the tournament and forced to watch the final games from the stands.
To support her son’s friend and teammate, Lynch decided to design a special logo in the hours after the fight. Using her amateur graphic design skills, Lynch opened Microsoft Word and superimposed a hockey stick crossing out the word “racism.”
The team put the stickers on their sticks for the rest of the tournament, while parents and other supporters put the logo on their jerseys.
What started as a simple show of support quickly gained tremendous momentum. Apollon, Sr., Divyne’s father and co-founder of Players Against Hate, posted a picture of the stickers on social media and was inundated with messages of support from across the country. Along with messages, Apollon received hundreds of requests from other hockey teams wanting stickers for their players’ helmets.
News of the incident even reached former Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly and the defenseman John Carlson, who invited Divyne and his teammates to a game. After the game, Smith-Pelly, Carlson and several other Capitals players spent time with the team to show their support for Divyne and to commend the players for standing by their teammate.
“That [Capitals] Players may not have realized how much of an impact they had on the kids, but they will carry that with them forever,” Lynch said. “The power and importance of the children that players meet and know they support Divyne has shown this game is truly for everyone.”
Inspired by the unexpected attention garnered by the logo, Lynch and Apollon Sr. officially launched Players Against Hate in January 2019. Since then, Lynch has worked to build a safe community for those who have been victims of racial injustice by educating the public and recognizing the issues that have plagued the sport of hockey.
As a teacher and lifelong educator, Tammi was struck by the finding that no data was being collected on discriminatory incidents in youth hockey.
“How can you address an issue if you don’t know where, when, or at what age these incidents occur?” Lynch wondered.
To better understand and track such information, Players Against Hate has developed a first of its kind incident reporting system. Persons who have been victims of racially motivated attacks during youth hockey games can use the PAH website to submit information about their incident. This information includes, among other things, the nature of the harassment, the age of the participants and whether or not the incident was reported to the authorities.
Almost 100 reports were submitted in the first year of the tracking system. While the number of incidents may paint a bleak picture, Lynch cautions that the reports provide quantifiable data that can then be used to better educate coaches, leagues and governing bodies that discrimination exists in the youth field and provide tools to prevent this .
Providing children with the knowledge and resources necessary to recognize and combat bigotry when it arises is imperative to Lynch.
Reporting on the incident in 2019, Lynch mused, “Would any of them at that age have had a good toolkit to stand up and stop what was going on?”
“I think this is where the teacher part of me stepped in and said, ‘You know what? This really needs to be stopped by the kids,'” Lynch said. “But unfortunately, most kids haven’t been taught what to do when their boyfriend is verbally abused.”
Going forward, Players Against Hate is developing a curriculum aimed at teaching young athletes how to deal with instances of discrimination, celebrate diversity and end systemic racism in hockey.
The curriculum, called “Hockey Cares,” will be modular, with youth players working through the lessons over several years. Currently, the curriculum consists of five separate modules including Caring for Self, Nurturing Relationships, Responding to Differences, Imagining a New Way and Solidarity for Belonging. According to Lynch, the modules are designed to be easy to digest, with each subject broken down into phases that can be taught in the dressing room before practice or games.
Lynch claims that teaching children these skills will create a generational shift in the youth hockey ecosystem and help better prepare athletes to respond to potential situations. At the same time, Lynch also strives to create curriculums for adults, including coaches, umpires, and league officials responsible for overseeing youth hockey teams.
In the past three years since the incident, Players Against Hate has garnered significant attention across North America, and youth hockey teams are keen to spread the organization’s mission. Consequently, Lynch believes the curriculum can be shared not only with organizations in the DC area, but also with youth sports programs in the United States and Canada. Additionally, Lynch believes that by combining the curriculum with the event reporting system, programs can be fine-tuned based on the needs of a specific geographic or socioeconomic area. By aggregating the data collected by the reporting software, Lynch can see what patterns or trends are emerging. This information is then used to inform them of improvements that can be made to the syllabus.
In recognition of the important work Players Against Hate has done to eradicate racism from the game of hockey, the organization was named the first beneficiary of the Washington Capitals Capital Impact Fund grant. As such, PAH will receive $10,000 that will be used to further advance diversity, equity and inclusion in sport.
“We are so grateful for everything the Caps have done to amplify our message and further our work,” Lynch said. “The recognition honors us.”
In particular, the funds provided by the grant will help support the organization in its efforts to complete the first age curriculum, which is PAH’s top priority. This spring, Lynch and her colleagues have created approximately two-thirds of the curriculum and are eager to begin piloting the program as soon as possible.
Although Divyne’s story began as a result of his opponents’ reprehensible actions, the result offers an inspiring glimpse into the supportive and inclusive hockey community that exists throughout the Washington, DC community. Through its work, Players Against Hate embodies the motto “Hockey > Hate”.
As a volunteer-only organization, Players Against Hate is always looking for volunteers dedicated to promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in the game. If you know someone who might be interested in volunteering, please visit the Players Against Hate website at www.PlayersAgainstHate.org.
To learn more about the Washington Capitals Capital Impact Fund, please visit www.WashCaps.com/CIF-Grant.