When I think about South Asians in sports, there are few names that come to mind for me. Two trailblazers that I instantly think of are Sim Bhullar, the first player for the NBA of Indian descent, and Robin Bawa, the first South Asian player in the NHL.
Following Bawa’s lead in the NHL was Manny Malhotra, from Mississauga, ON, and now, Jujhar Khaira from Surrey, B.C. Despite these big strides, it still remains difficult to come up with names of professional South Asian athletes in major sports such as hockey, football, basketball.
It is clear that there is a lack of South Asian representation in the sports industry across a number of sports.
I came across Robin Bawa’s story when visiting the Paldi Gurdwara in Duncan, B.C., a small town with an enormous amount of history. Throughout his career, Bawa played for the Washington Capitals, the San Jose Sharks, and the Vancouver Canucks, but he didn’t achieve this success without having to break through barriers.
He started playing hockey at the age of seven in his hometown of Duncan despite having no family background in sports. When playing, he has spoken about how he would get comments like “your kind doesn’t play hockey.”
At the time, hockey was a mainly white sport, and even outside of the professional leagues, not many Indians were playing hockey. Bawa wouldn't have made it this far without having to break through societal barriers and take up spaces that were largely dominated by white people.By being a disruptor, he was able to pursue his passion and become the first South Asian NHL-er, paving a path for the many young South Asian hockey players who came after him.
Despite Asian Americans being one of the fastest growing communities in recent decades, they continue to be underrepresented in sports at the professional level. Not only are there cultural barriers to sport participation, but also patterns and preference among ethnic/racial minority groups that have become a longstanding barrier.
The issue isn’t that there aren’t any athletes wanting to perform at the level, there is an abundance of Indian-Canadian participation in sports, but the issue is that there is a lack of acknowledgement of the structural forms of racism within the industry.
For example, a recent news article outlines the end of the ban on religious headwear for athletes in American schools. Before the ban was lifted, this could have been a deterrent in participating in sports for kids who wear religious head wear such as hijabs and turbans.
When we look at hockey and sports culture here in B.C., it's clear that the South Asian diaspora is passionate about sports. We don’t need to look any further than Hockey Night in Punjabi to see this, because there is a clear demand for this type of content catering to this community.
However, this level of enthusiasm is not reflected in terms of diverse representation at the professional level.
But Bawa says that he believes that things are improving. “We are seeing more visible minorities on the ice and around the game in general,” he said in an interview with Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi.
Bawa went on to share his hopes of seeing more Punjabi athletes in the NHL.
“You start to realize that maybe you did help create a path for people after you.”
While athletes like Bhullar and Bawa were the “firsts,” they represent and inspire many that will follow in pursuit, hopefully creating space for a new generation of South Asians in sports.
About the author: Navneet holds a bachelor’s degree focused in Health Science - Population and Quantitative Studies from Simon Fraser University, cultivating a passion for health promotion, policy and social justice. She has recently found a passion in writing about pop-culture, mental health and living in a South Asian diaspora. Her passion for feminism, diversity and progress lights a fire beneath everything she does. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, travelling and baking.