Most pro athletes know they should keep their beaks out of social or political issues.
That’s why you never heard Tiger Woods taking a stand on women at Augusta National, you never heard Michael Jordan talking about the O.J. Simpson case and you never heard Wayne Gretzky weighing in on Quebec separatism.
They’re athletes. Their expertise is in shooting baskets or making putts, in playing games. You wouldn’t ask Sidney Crosby to draw up the blueprints for your home, and you wouldn’t ask Kyle Lowry to drive the bus taking your kids to school.
So why throw Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier into the fire?
Bernier, invited by the Toronto Raptors to an event to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy prior to the team’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, promptly wedged his foot deeply into his mouth when asked by a reporter about Mandela’s legacy:
“Well obviously he’s been a tremendous athlete, you know obviously what he means to all the sports, you know the world can be changed by the sports is pretty amazing and I think he’s definitely got a lot of respect in every sport and he was definitely one of the athletes I watched growing up as well.”
Ooops. Yeah, are we talking about the same guy here? Unfortunately, it didn't end there.
The Raptors posted the video of Bernier’s on their website, and the rest is social media history. Bernier was, of course, ripped to shreds. The video was promptly taken down.
The next day, the Maple Leafs’ netminder was in full apology mode.
"I'm embarrassed," Bernier said. "I didn't mean to offend him, his legacy. I got flustered with the red carpet and I was nervous. I think everyone makes mistakes and that was me that night."
Of course Bernier should have known who Nelson Mandela was, just as he should know who Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi or Winston Churchill were. It’s part of a basic education to be familiar with key figures of the 20th century. And if you're going to an event honouring the man, you could take a few minutes to do some research.
But at the same time, we shouldn’t be so quick to jump all over athletes like Bernier when they show their ignorance. He’s paid to stop pucks. His entire life has been devoted to stopping pucks, to making sure his body and mind are as fit as possible for stopping pucks. Ever since he was a kid, his world has revolved around stopping pucks. That's what we expect of him, and that's his expertise.
So, does that make him an expert on Nelson Mandela’s legacy? Um ... no.
And besides, Bernier wasn’t the only athlete who didn’t say all the right things at the Raptors’ Mandela event. I understand that Raptors GM Masai Ujiri thought that a basketball game was a fitting setting to honour Mandela on the anniversary of his death, but realistically, such an event is fraught with potential gaffes because so many pro athletes simply don’t know much beyond their profession of choice.
When asked of his thoughts on Mandela, LeBron James – arguably the most important athlete on the planet – said:
"What that man meant to … not only his own native land, but to America and to Canada, and to the rest of the world, speaks volumes about what type of guy he was, how he was raised by his parents and so on and so on. And for us to remember him today, you know, in the greatest game in the world, as far as basketball, I think it’s perfect timing."
Charles Barkley famously rejected the notion that he was a role model: “Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”
No kidding. Next time we talk to Jonathan Bernier or LeBron James, let’s stick to sports, not politics or social issues, OK?