This past weekend we all bore witness to a monumental collision between politics and sports. You all know the backstory. I don’t need to rehash that here. The fascinating and horrifying thing to behold during all of this was the uncomfortable punditry watching every move of the sports entertainment industry. Watching solidarity and derision, anger and hubris collide in this fashion was something I never expected to see as a sports fan.
As an attorney, watching people twist and contort the first amendment to suit their personal political beliefs was difficult, as well. The anger and confusion about what the protests actually represent caused additional upheaval. Back in 2014, Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers took the stance that he was no longer going to stand for the national anthem prior to NFL games as a show of support for the people of color in this country who are victims of oppression, police brutality and injustice. It was out of this concept that #TakeAKnee was born. That was three years ago.
Fast forward to 2017, the Trump Administration has been a lighting rod for racial tensions and it came to a head (at least in the sports context) when Trump referred to players who would not stand for the anthem as “sons of bitches”, who should be fired for their lack of compliance. This led to league wide protests on Sunday; teams either kneeling or remaining in the tunnel or locker room during the national anthem, with teams locking arms in solidarity and other means of protest.
Since this story became national news, the arguments surrounding it have been distorted in multiple directions. The first was that this was a protest in unified opposition to Trump and his administration. Since this movement began during the Obama administration, it is impossible to have been created for this purpose. It was always and has always been about systemic racism and police brutality. On the other side of the coin, the argument became about disrespecting the military.
The right and the choice to protest your government and voice your feelings of dissent against its actions are a profoundly American concept. Of course, you can connect the preservation of those rights to the brave men and women who fight to defend this country. That is more or less where any application in this context ends. To say that kneeling during the national anthem is per se disrespect to our military service members ignores several things. First, it assumes that the military itself and those who serve have an unwavering and unified view of the objectives of, and current state of this country. Soldiers are people. They have their own views and opinions, come from different backgrounds and family situations. They have their own biases and political stances.
On Sunday, many veterans have come out in their support of the right of these athletes to choose to recognize the growing problems within America’s societal structure. To blankly state that the decision to exercise those rights are disrespectful to the military, turns your back on these brave men and women who believe the ability to protest is exactly what they fought to defend.
Second, you ignore the fact that the ability to question the conduct of your government is exactly the principle on which America was founded. Protesting and standing up to injustice is necessary for change. For the government to take away or condemn the rights for people to make their voices heard is tantamount to dictatorship. Whether you agree with what the voices are saying is irrelevant. It is the right to say them that is important.
The involvement of sports is a tricky one in these situations. People “follow” or “subscribe” or watch sports personalities more or less in a vacuum. They want coverage of their team or the ability to know the star player on that team a little more intimately, etc. However, when politics intersects with sports and a social media account makes their personal beliefs known, it becomes a “stick to sports!” shouting match. The problem with that is just because you are a sports writer/blogger/player/agent, etc., doesn’t mean that you are required to only speak to that topic. You are human being with every right to participate in the political activities of your government as the person telling you to “stick to sports”. The only thing people get more riled up about than sports is politics, and unfortunately in this country, we take an “us or them” approach to both. In sports, that’s fine. It’s generally harmless. In politics, however, it is a questionable intellectual approach and a dangerous practical one.
I guess my point to this backstory is twofold. The first, and quite frankly, more important is to point out the massive distraction that this whole thing has turned into. The movement itself is important to highlight the very issues that Kaepernick cites. However, the twisting, turning Trump rhetoric has served to disguise massively important issues. How about the fact that there are millions of people in Puerto Rico without water, power or access to medical care in the wake of hurricane Maria? Definitely seems less important than debating the morality of kneeling during an anthem.
The second point, since this is a hockey blog, after all, is to take a look at hockey culture through this lens. In probably the most ill-advisedly timed press release in the history of sports, the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins announced their decision to accept the President’s invitation to the White House to honor their victory. Penguins’ captain and face of the NHL, Sidney Crosby, supports the team’s decision to accept the invitation. He stated that he is “pretty aware of what’s going on” and believes that a teammate could choose not to go if they felt strongly about it. That is some fearless, unwavering morality, there.
There are several problems here. The first one is simply optics. In an environment of rising racial tensions, athletes of all colors have united to bring awareness to this movement. That hockey, a sport comprised almost entirely of affluent white people, takes a qualified, half-stance on the issue, especially in light of the NHL’s recently decreed “Declaration of Principles”, which purports to believe that “hockey is for everyone” comes across as woefully insincere.
The bigger problem, is that the NHL missed an opportunity not only to try to break from the perception of being exclusionary to people of lesser economic means and people of color, but more importantly, to the do the right thing, in general. When a movement grows big enough, people have a tendency to put their own meaning on it. Whether you believe in the original intent of the protest of police brutality or if it has morphed into a general defiance of the President, it can be a force for change. The NHL missed an opportunity to send a message that they are serious about inclusion, equality and freedom.
Hockey’s culture has traditionally been one of humility, team first, hard work and don’t make waves. I grew up in this culture and much of that experience has shaped me into who I am today. There are many virtues of embracing a team-first mentality. Respect, dedication, hard work, perseverance and caring more about the name on the front than the one on the back are good qualities to espouse. It makes for boring interviews, but it makes for close knit dressing rooms.
However, when that prioritization of the status quo bleeds into apathy, it can do much more harm than good. While it is true that most hockey players tend to be conservative based on their typical socio-economic profile, this has gone too far. I love this sport with everything in my being. My wife and I were married on an ice rink. My time writing here has introduced me to amazing people who share the love for this game. Just like a love for your country, it is natural to question it when it is morally out of bounds. For the love of hockey, I beg the NHL to do the right thing and take a stand. Put your money where your “declaration of principles” is and stand up for the people you pontificate about including. Hockey is for everyone.
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