In the last 48 hours, President Donald Trump made “sticking to sports” impossible, because he stuck it to sports.
Or, more specifically, to athletes of color who dared protest police brutality through peaceful demonstration at NFL games, or decided not to be a human political commercial for a president whose words, deeds and actions they find abhorrent by visiting the White House.
Trump said NFL players who “take a knee” during the national anthem are “sons of bitches” who should be fired by some of the rich Caucasian team owners that contributed funds to his inauguration. That unleashed a firestorm of backlash from NFL players, the vast majority of them black.
He rescinded an invitation to the White House to Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, which Curry had already declined. This led LeBron James to call the president a “bum” with a tweet that has cleared one million favorites on Twitter. It opened up another firestorm of reaction of predominantly black NBA players, as well Steve Kerr, the white coach of the Warriors, who said, “because of the differences in this country, the president has made it really, really difficult for us to honor that institution.”
The Warriors announced they would not attend a White House ceremony, but would travel to Washington, D.C. for events that “celebrate equality, diversity and inclusion.”
“Inclusion” … great word.
It’s actually included in the last bullet point of the recent “Principles of Hockey” that the National Hockey League unveiled in concert with a dozen other hockey organizations around the world: That hockey should be “a safe, positive and inclusive environment for players and families regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation and socio-economic status. Simply put, hockey is for everyone.”
So how does one square the Pittsburgh Penguins’ meek statement on Sunday, formally accepting an invitation to stand with Trump for a White House photo op, with that alleged bedrock philosophy of hockey? How does one look around the current landscape of the sports world and the U.S., and as the current standard-bearer of a lily-white professional sports league (93 percent of the players identify as white) decide this is the best course of action?
The Pittsburgh Penguins respect the institution of the Office of the President, and the long tradition of championship teams visiting the White House. We attended White House ceremonies after previous championships – touring the historic building and visiting briefly with Presidents George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama – and have accepted an invitation to attend again this year.
Any agreement or disagreement with a president’s politics, policies or agenda can be expressed in other ways. However, we very much respect the rights of other individuals and groups to express themselves as they see fit.
The most hilarious part of this inane statement has to be that political protests “can be expressed in other ways” by NHL players, as if the Penguins or the League or hockey culture would ever allow a player to take a knee during the anthem or write “Black Lives Matter” on their pristine helmets. What nonsense, and it’s complete nonsense when you consider the political realities of standing with the president for a photo op at the White House. Congrats, you’re a campaign ad. But please shut up.
Two things about personal politics. By and large, NHL players are conservative. Not necessarily socially, but most certainly fiscally.
And the Penguins’ fan base is, by and large, based in crimson-red counties in Western Pennsylvania as well as West Virginia and parts of Ohio. We’re not saying this decision is completely fueled by that, but it’s not like we’re talking about the Golden State Warriors telling the Bay Area they’re not supporting a president that the community rejected with fervor last election.
So it could be said that the Penguins – who, for the record, have only a handful of American players and only one player of color in Ryan Reaves, acquired this offseason – are playing it safe, corporate and pallid in accepting this invitation.
Or it could be said that they’re actually putting their players in front of a speeding “never sticking to sports again until the president stops calling black athletes ‘sons of bitches’ for peaceful protests at sporting events” train.
Consider what another infinitely more popular Pittsburgh team did on Sunday. Coach Mike Tomlin of the Steelers decided to keep his team in the locker room during the national anthem, telling CBS Sports:
“We’re not going to play politics. We’re football players, we’re football coaches. We’re not participating in the anthem today — not to be disrespectful to the anthem, but to remove ourselves from the circumstance. People shouldn’t have to choose. If a guy wants to go about his normal business and participate in the anthem, he shouldn’t be forced to choose sides. If a guy feels the need to do something, he shouldn’t be separated from his teammate who chooses not to.”
Now, that’s a decision fraught with censorship and cowardice, and yet it’s 1000 percent a better decision that the Penguins have made by going to the White House and announcing it at this time.
Removing one’s self from the narrative is a better option, at this point, than symbolically mussing Trump’s hair while he mangles your names and talks more about the Rangers than he does the Penguins for 20 minutes. (“Great franchise, wonderful franchise, Jim Dolan is a friend, we always had the best seats, the best seats, nothing like a Rangers game, let me tell you. And here’s Evgeno Malkin…”)
Look, if the Penguins are going to the White House, and the team is saying “find another way to protest,” then one assumes someone like Sidney Crosby is going to shrug his shoulders and rest on “team’s decision” rather than taking a stand for his peers in the NHL and in professional sports that have been maligned by this president. And not just those peers, but their families and their children. So while they’re been rightfully asked about this decision, and rightfully demonized for playing along, they’re ultimately going to pass the buck to their teams.
But let’s be real: The Penguins, and thus the NHL, participating in his folly at a time when other professional leagues have decided to not to go through the motions with the single most destructive and divisive political figure I’ve seen in my lifetime is a tone-deaf disgrace.
(Perhaps the oddest part of this: That the NBA decided something first and Gary Bettman didn’t see that as coverage for the NHL to do the same, perhaps for the first time.)
It’s an endorsement of an office that’s made marginalizing a legion of hockey fans its priority, through deeds and actions. It’s an acknowledgement of the undeniable privilege that a predominantly white, predominantly foreign-born American sports league maintains, while athletes in other sports worry about their loved ones every time they’re pulled over by a cop or every time the administration threatens immigration policies. And it’s a cynical hypocrisy to the philosophies of inclusion that this “hockey is for everyone!” sloganeering so desperately wants the NHL to be defined by. It makes them not worth the giant framed scroll they’re printed on.
Unlike a lot of my peers, I stood by Tim Thomas when he decided not to attend an Obama White House celebration for the Boston Bruins. Sure, it’s a decision that carries consequences in its aftermath, which is something the marketplace decides for any outspoken athlete. (Although that decision can sometimes be collusion, quite frankly.) But it’s a stance and a freedom of expression that should be celebrated: That an athlete so vehemently disagrees with the current administration, he or she doesn’t feel the necessity to play grab-ass with that politician at a de facto campaign stop. That’s as ideally American as you get: Putting one’s freedoms and beliefs ahead of genuflecting to the crown.
The Penguins and hockey culture aren’t going to allow these players to speak out at the White House. This, we already know. So one hopes that in the spirit of “respecting the rights of other individuals and groups to express themselves as they see fit,” the Penguins allow their own players to take the Tomlin route and skip this event without punishment. To skip it as a form of personal protest, or simply to ‘peace out’ on politics like the Steelers did.
These are not normal times, and this was not a normal weekend in sports. Alas, the statement today from the Penguins, and by proxy the NHL, was as expected as it was docile and regrettable.
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