Diversity consultants give perspective on racial gesture accusation against former Icemen player

What happened on the ice at a Jacksonville Icemen game has gained national attention over the past week.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – What happened on the ice at a Jacksonville Icemen game has gained national attention over the past week.

Former Icemen player Jacob Panetta was suspended by the East Coast Hockey League after an investigation found he made a racial gesture at another player, putting out a statement saying, “Insensitive actions and gestures, regardless of intent, cannot be tolerated in our game.”

Diversity consultants say they agree with the league’s findings that words and actions should be judged by the effect they have rather than the intent behind them.

During a fight on the ice, Panetta puffed out his arms and moved his shoulders up and down. He said it was meant to be a “tough guy bodybuilder” gesture. But the player on the receiving end, Jordan Subban, saw the gesture as a racist imitation of a monkey.

After an on-ice fight, South Carolina Stingrays defenseman Jordan Subban (5), left, is held by linesman Shane Gustafson while Jacksonville Icemen defenseman Jacob Panetta (15) is face-down on the ice engaged with another player during overtime of an ECHL hockey game in Jacksonville, Fla., Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. The ECHL has suspended Panetta after the brother of longtime NHL defenseman P.K. Subban accused the Jacksonville defenseman of making monkey gestures in his direction. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)

Diversity consultant and president of All Things Diverse Dr. Tammy Hodo said that this was a microaggression and that they happen every day.

“They come in the form of verbal and nonverbal attacks that are demeaning to the receiver,” Hodo said. “Although the person saying or doing the act may not mean it that way, it tends to happen to people in marginalized communities.”

Panetta has said he didn’t realize how the gesture had been perceived at the time and later apologized on social media.

“I want to express to everyone, and especially Jordan, that my actions were not racially motivated at all and I sincerely apologize for the pain and suffering and anger that my actions have caused,” Panetta said.

Diversity consultant and founder and CEO of BKH Consulting Brittany Knowles said he did the right thing in taking responsibility and pledging to learn from this incident.

“It’s unfortunate that he lost his job in the process, but I think that with him doing the work and learning from this incident, hopefully, he’ll have a better opportunity someplace else,” Knowles said.

The ECHL has suspended Panetta for the rest of the season with the chance to shorten the suspension by participating in a learning experience with the National Hockey League’s Player Inclusion Committee, which Jordan Subban’s brother, NHL player P.K. Subban, is a co-chair.

In a statement posted on social media Friday, Panetta said he’s disappointed with the ruling and felt sick that he made Subban feel attacked because of his race. He said he’s looking forward to completing the educational program.

Hodo said the problem is likely larger than one player, noting the NHL is overwhelmingly white. The Boston Globe reported 97% of players in the NHL were white in 2020.

“When you’re a minority, that’s a very small percentage of the players,” Hodo said. “So I’m sure this wasn’t something new, and so that may be why he perceived it as very racialized because I’m sure he’s had other experiences.”

Panetta shared on social media a statement attributed to Icemen players, saying Panetta doesn’t deserve the treatment he has received from the league, the media and their organization. The statement reads in part, “Jacob is a man of character, filled with kindness, sincerity, and compassion for others and we fully believe his actions were not racially motivated.”

The players went on to say they fully understand now how Panetta’s gesture was received and said, “We are truly saddened and sorry for all the harm that it has caused.”

The diversity consultants told News4JAX that this incident and its consequences are a lesson on thinking of others before acting.

The Icemen organization has said they want to use this as an opportunity to learn, listen and make a difference in the sport of hockey.

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