On April 19th of this year, many of the New England Patriots gathered at the White House to celebrate their fifth Super Bowl, as has been customary for many championship teams for decades. While some players opted not to attend for either personal or political reasons, many did, both black and white. Though this was well before the infamous attacks by U.S. President Donald Trump on NFL players exercising their First Amendment rights in protest, it followed his well-documented history of making racial comments ranging from flippant and ignorant, to conspiratorial and outright discriminatory. From Obama birther claims to a “so-called” judge. From his doubling-down of the Central Park Five fallacies to his criticism of a Gold Star family, the ongoing list can lead to nauseous ire.
No one in good conscience though would accuse the black Patriots or those of other minority backgrounds who attended in April of sharing those sentiments by simply accepting the traditional invitation. Yet somehow, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been widely castigated under the premise that by choosing not to take a political position of any kind, that somehow means they’re taking a political position of the worst kind. That by sticking to sports, they’re actually not sticking to sports at all.
It is not just flawed logic, but a non sequitur of massively unfair proportions.
Before there are any delusions of grandeur about my own leanings, any claim of being a Trump apologist is an absurd one. As a dual citizen with half my family living in the States, I’m cognizant of the anxiety and trepidation some of my kin have under the current administration. As a human being—and perhaps more notably in this context as a Jew—I was nearly moved to tears at the sight and sounds of white supremacists in Charlottesville and the president’s deplorable characterization of them. As a sports journalist, I’ve been heartened by the display of unity among NFL teams supporting each other in the face of Trump’s tirades, whether they stand, kneel or link arms. And just yesterday, I retweeted the Washington Post’s article of the 1,318 false or misleading statements Trump has made in only 263 days.
Obviously, I would be impressed if Sidney Crosby were to break his pattern of being apolitical, even though he like all athletes, are under no obligation to do so. Recent history suggests there’s a clear understanding of why he wouldn’t. When Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas did exactly what many wanted Crosby to do, he was extensively vilified not because he took astand, but because he took what many perceived to be as the wrong stand. Regardless, the idea of projecting endorsement of Trump’s thoughts based purely on—as the Penguins have constantly stated—honouring the office of the president and not the actual occupant, is not only faulty to Crosby, but small-minded.
That’s not to say there was a lack of suitable arguments for them not to have attended, one of the more notable ones being the possibility of being used as political props. Indeed while Trump stayed mostly on message during the event, he did refer to them as ‘incredible patriots’ and made a joke, albeit a bland one, about NAFTA.
There’s an obvious remedy: actually listening to head coach Mike Sullivan. He not only refuted the suggestion his players were props, but more importantly said the following when asked if he would have an issue with one of his players taking a knee:
“No, I would not. As we’ve stated all along, we understand the circumstance surrounding this visit. We have, we are very respectful of anyone’s right to protest or demonstrate as they see fit. And so we are very respectful of that. We chose to come here as a team, to celebrate our championship and this group of players and what they’ve been able to accomplish.”
Needless to say, this completely defies the central point of Trump’s attacks on NFL players.
It is clear we are witnessing a new manifestation of social and political division in the United States, magnified by Trump’s unrelenting obsession with loyalty. At the slightest hint of disapproval by anyone, he counterpunches to unhinged extents with seemingly no regard for the inner workings of his administration, let alone the potential ramifications for the rest of the world. In this context, he has fragmented the unifying nature of sports for those of all stripes and backgrounds.
But we’ve seen what the us vs. them format can do and we would be hypocrites to adopt the divisive practice so many revile Trump for promulgating. We can certainly draw a line in the sand on serious issues, but we shouldn’t project those positions on others either without true reason. We could continue to paint the unwarranted perception as Crosby and the Penguins as supremacist sympathizers or recognize taking such a stance is well beneath our capacity to have meaningful discourse. As I said last month, it’s possible for P.K. Subban to stand, Joel Ward to kneel (though he later said he wouldn’t) and Crosby to visit, without pitting them against each other.
Just because Crosby found himself entwined in a cultural tug-of-war does not mean he is required to be someone he’s not or bear an unwanted burden. Athletes should be applauded for engaging in public discussion, but staying in their lanes shouldn’t be a penalty. We are better off expressing our own feelings, not presuming those of others.