Yesterday, the Pittsburgh Penguins announced that they were going to visit the White House at some point to celebrate their Stanley Cup victory. This would normally be a “business as usual” thing, but this comes on the same weekend that Donald Trump publicly called out NFL players who kneeled during the pre-game US National Anthem in protest of police brutality against minorities (and not as a slight towards the military as it’s been spun and parroted), and, in a “you can’t fire me, I quit” move, uninvited Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors from the White House before they could reject him.
Now, for what it’s worth, I fully respect the right of any player or team to make the decision to go visit, refuse to go visit, protest, or not protest; whether its a stance I agree or disagree with, it’s fully within their rights to make those decisions. But in a situation like this, context definitely matters. I’ve talked about most of the below on Twitter already, but I figure it’s worth bringing it all together into one long post before moving on from the subject.
The Non-Traditionalism of Visits
The Penguins opened up their official statement by addressing the long-standing tradition of teams in the league making their way to the Oval Office:
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.
For the sake of accuracy, it’s worth pointing out that this is a little misleading. As this stub from the New York Times in 1991 points out, the tradition actually started with the Penguins themselves when they won their first Cup:
PITTSBURGH, June 13— The Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins have been invited to meet President Bush at the White House on June 24. No other National Hockey League team has ever had the honor of a White House invitation.
White house visits connected to NHL teams only began in 1983, when Ronald Reagan had the hometown Washington Capitals over to promote an exhibition game, and again in 1987 to promote their season and the 1988 US Olympic Hockey Team. The gap between that first visit and the first champion stretched eight years and a President, but I doubt that was Reagan’s call: Rather, the champions of his terms were Edmonton, Edmonton, Montreal, Edmonton, Edmonton, Calgary, and Edmonton.
Not exactly the most American of lineups. So when the Penguins ended the drought, Bush Sr. gave them the invite, and they showed up. They came back again in 1992, but the next few champions after that were a little bit rocky: The 1993 Habs weren’t invited, the 1994 Rangers showed up late to a more informal get-together, and only nine members of the 1995 Devils organization showed up to their ceremony. The Devils also skipped entirely in 2000, as did the Avalanche in 2001 and the Lightning in 2004. The lockout wiped out 2005, and everyone has gone since.
This gives means the Penguins will be the 22nd visitor in 100 years of the NHL’s existence, and in 124 years of the Stanley Cup’s. It might be a tradition for Pittsburgh, who make up nearly a quarter of the visits in history and haven’t missed one, but should they have decided to not go, they wouldn’t really be bucking a long-term trend.
Poor Timing and the Consequence of Apathy
I think what really threw people off the most about the Penguins making their statement wasn’t so much the decision to go, but when they decided to put it up in writing. After all, we’ve known for months that they were going to make the visit. From Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on June 13th:
The Penguins’ Stanley Cup victory hasn’t earned them an invitation to the White House. Not yet, anyway. But if one comes, they will accept it.
“The Pittsburgh Penguins would never turn down a visit to the White House and, if invited, we would go as a team,” team CEO/president David Morehouse said Tuesday in a prepared statement.
What came yesterday was a re-iteration at a time where it contrasted the happenings of just about the entire sports world surrounding them. NFL players and teams were doubling down on their efforts of protests after the President had declared player-activists to be “Sons of Bitches” who should be cut/fired. Even in the Penguins’ home city, the vast majority of the Steelers roster decided to not even come out for the playing of the Anthem on Sunday. His singling out of Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors led to just about the entire NBA coming to the support of a player that they would otherwise consider a primary rival and Goliath to take down on the court.
With all that considered, a statement that continued from the tradition paragraph with the following:
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.
Felt apathetic in a time where fellow athletes across the continent were fighting stronger than ever for their right to stand up (or, more literally, not stand) for what they believe is a socioeconomic disparity in a country they were born and raised in.
Here’s Sidney Crosby’s take on the situation, which none of us should have really expected to be any more than cookie-cutter “Staying out of it”-ism, from the Associated Press:
“I support it,” Crosby said after the Penguins’ 4-1 loss against the St. Louis Blues during the annual Hockeyville USA exhibition game Sunday night. “It’s a great honour for us to be invited there.”
“Everyone’s got the right to go or not to go,” Crosby said. “But we’ve been invited and we accepted the invitation. I don’t think you have to read into it any more than that.”
Again, it’s up to the Penguins to decide whether they’d like to go or not. On their own individual and team spectrum, they may believe it to be about the celebration and not the politics their decision represents, and that’s fine from a micro-perspective. Some have made the very fair assertion that the decisions of Trump’s administration and how the President has handled this weekend are counter to Point 8 of the NHL’s new Declaration of Principles (“All hockey programs should provide 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.”), but we’ll give the Penguins the benefit of the doubt that they have apolitical intentions here.
But by coming out with statements which were, in effect, “We’re just here for the sports, everyone”, on the same weekend, completely unprovoked, as the White House made a lack of blind, unwavering support into a national issue of non-Patriotism, it made the Penguins and the NHL simultaneously look like they didn’t care about what was going on in the nation they played in, and like they were trying to gain by being the team and sport that was going to “stay out of it”.
Please to inform that the Champion Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL will be joining me at the White House for Ceremony. Great team!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
This is what the NHL, its teams, and its players are allowing for by being the one big league that says "we're just here to play, people": pic.twitter.com/CNkl5pPD30
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) September 24, 2017
Unfortunately, it looks like they might get that gain in a toxic, toxic way. I made an allusion on Twitter last night that this allows for the NHL and hockey to become the “Official Sport of the Alt-Right”; one that was misconstrued to suggest that supporting the league aligns you with the values of those people. It doesn’t do that, but when the NHL is the only high-profile sports league in North America where teams, players, and staff are staying silent and apolitical, it provides hateful people with the “safe space” they so often mock; an area where they don’t necessarily feel encouraged, but they aren’t made to feel unwelcome.
A quick scroll through far-right message boards, social media groups, and the like last night showed a pretty clear spike in people talking about becoming hockey fans because of the Penguins’ decision to “Stay out of it”. If you’re okay with this and believe that people deserve the right to not just believe what they believe, but to be tolerated and welcomed despite this, then that’s your call. If you aren’t, then you probably aren’t too happy with how things are unfolding. Either way, know that this is what comes out of trying to play neutral when the rest of the pack as picked a side; it’s up to you to decide whether that’s for better or worse.
Sports Are Always Political
Whenever I jump into conversations that involve societal issues, the “stick to sports” and “keep politics out of sports” crowds tend to come out in full force.
Firstly, I’d like to stress that my personal Twitter account is just that: Not a platform for hockey, but a platform for myself and what I believe in and would like to talk about. That hockey tends to cover the bulk of it is a matter of circumstance, not of design.
While the issues that these specific protests don’t impact me on a direct level, they certainly impact those around me, be it people I know personally, people who I cross paths with, or people I’ll never have a direct interaction with but contribute to the fabric of our society. A level playing field, both in terms of perception and opportunity, should be an absolute baseline for all people in this world, and we should always be worried about how societal issues impact our surroundings more than how they impact us on an individual level.
People who "want their sports politics free" mean that they want politics they disagree with removed. Sports have never been politics free. https://t.co/8jYQuWHWeN
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) September 24, 2017
With that out of the way, let’s not sugar coat the separation of Sports and Politics. If we’re being completely honest with ourselves, such a thing does not exist, and if your argument against players protesting during the anthem, speaking or posting in support of those who protest, or those who don’t want to acknowledge a politician that they don’t respect is “keep politics out of sport”, then you’ve already lost the battle.
After all, we can talk about how using the angle of your body while listening to the Star Spangled Banner is a political statement, but we don’t talk about how the act of playing National Anthems before privately-run professional sports events is a statement in its own right. From Slate, regarding Colin Kaepernick’s trend-setting actions in 2016:
Just as important, Kaepernick has made his fellow Americans think about what they’re standing for, and why. It wasn’t typical for NFL players to stand for the national anthem until 2009—before then, it was customary for players to stay in the locker room as the anthem played.* A 2015 congressional report revealed that the Department of Defense had paid $5.4 million to NFL teams between 2011 and 2014 to stage on-field patriotic ceremonies; the National Guard shelled out $6.7 million for similar displays between 2013 and 2015.
We don’t talk about how “give a military member a standing ovation” has become the go-to crowd engagement activity for sports teams in the last 5-10 years, of all games and professional levels. We don’t talk about the money that municipal and state/provincial governments put into funding stadiums, further benefiting billionaire owners at the expense of taxpayers. We don’t talk about how our athletes are often developed for these leagues in public programs with publicly funded facilities, we don’t talk about how political figures engage themselves in ceremonies and events with these teams, we don’t talk about how nearly every country in the world uses events like the Olympic Games as political propaganda, investing all sorts of resources into them.
There are so many other directions you can go, but the point is that sports have always been intertwined with politics. The only time this ever becomes an issue is when someone makes a disagreeable standpoint using their sport as their platform, on one side of the spectrum or another. Right now, the target of the conversation is racism; just as it was a few decades, but now we’re talking about what’s systemic rather than what’s overt. To argue that that the players aren’t using the correct times or venues; specifically, the ones where they have the most leverageable platform isn’t inherently an act of support for what they’re fighting against, but it is a trickle-down move that helps fuel those problems.
Either way, what they’re doing isn’t the first political act in sports. It won’t be the last, and once they’re done with them, be it through an accomplished mission or a burning out, you won’t have a politics-free game, no matter what sport you watch. You might be able to take away what makes you uncomfortable, but we’re so far away from an apolitical sporting climate that we might never find it. To pretend otherwise is disingenuous.
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