Taking a Knee & The Penguins’ White House Visit

Taking a Knee & The Penguins’ White House Visit

I prefer to keep my views on political or social issues out of my daily coverage of the National Hockey League. However, recent events have compelled me to weigh in with my rambling thoughts.

Last Sunday, NFL players and team owners staged a protest over President Trump’s comments against several black players staging peaceful protests against police brutality toward the black community by taking a knee during the national anthem.

On the same day, the Pittsburgh Penguins issued a statement confirming they had accepted a White House invitation to commemorate their 2017 Stanley Cup championship.

Both stories sparked strong opinions from NHL pundits, bloggers and fans.

Some feel that athletes who kneel to protest social or racial issues during the national anthem are disrespecting their country.

Speaking as a Canadian Forces veteran with a quarter century of service, I’m not offended by anyone declining to stand the national anthem, regardless of the reason.

It’s their right to do so. It’s among the rights and freedoms that veterans and current members of the armed forces served to protect and sometimes gave their lives to defend.

Serving my country doesn’t entitle me to enforce my beliefs and opinions upon my fellow citizens. That’s not what a free society does. It is, however, what dictatorships do.

If we reach the point where we force people to stand for an anthem, we will be no better than those countries where basic human rights are denied.

I realize there are veterans and serving military members in Canada and the United States who don’t share my views. I’m not attempting to change their minds. They have a right to their opinion and I have the right to mine.

It appears none of the NHL’s 27 black players will take a knee during the national anthems. Buffalo Sabres right wing Kyle Okposo, San Jose Sharks right wing Joel Ward and Philadelphia Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds expressed the hope that this issue leads to a more meaningful and constructive dialogue toward addressing discrimination and social injustice.

It’s a long-overdue conversation that’s well worth having, in America and around the world.

As for the Penguins’ upcoming trip to the White House, they were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. They were going to catch hell, no matter what. 

Some observers are disappointed by their decision. They believe the team, and the league, missed an opportunity to show their support to their NFL peers and stand for social justice. Some even suggest the Penguins, by accepting Trump’s invitation, are standing with him or are at risk of becoming pawns for his agenda.

Others feel the Penguins are simply honoring the tradition of previous Stanley Cup champions (like themselves) being feted by the president at the White House. Those folks feel that not going would be an unforgivable snub by the team.

The timing of the Penguins’ statement, coming when emotions around the North American sports world were charged by President Trump’s comments, was piss poor. It inadvertently injected them into a contentious issue they, and the league, obviously wanted no part of.

Lost in the uproar, however, was the Penguins’ clearly indicated in their statement that their visit had nothing to do with the President’s policies or opinions. It’s the same protocol they followed when they attended last year’s ceremony under then-President Barack Obama. The same as every prior US-based Cup champion that visited the White House House, regardless of the occupant.

Nobody suggested those previous visits were tacit approval of presidential policies. It’s a leap in logic to suggest the Penguins’ visit this year is somehow supportive of President Trump.

Most NHL players pay scant attention to society’s problems. That’s not an excuse or defense. Their lives are largely sheltered from the burdens of real life. Those who do get involved in political or social issues tend to do so behind the scenes. They’re uncomfortable with drawing public attention to their views or lives away from the rink.

Some NHL followers wish the players would become more outspoken and step outside their protective hockey bubble and their bland public personas. Most fans and scribes, however, prefer hockey’s “team first” culture, criticizing players they feel put themselves above the team.

In 2012, goaltender Tim Thomas opted not to join his Boston Bruins’ teammates during their White House visit, citing his personal beliefs that the federal government was getting out of control. Some fans and reporters supported Thomas. Most did not. Now, many of his critics are calling upon the Penguins to follow his example.

We shouldn’t be surprised over the Penguins’ decision to accept the invitation to the White House. After all, their ownership signaled their intention months ago. In June, CEO and president David Morehouse told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the team would go to the White House if they won the Stanley Cup. A month later, co-owner Ron Burkle shared that view during a Post-Gazette interview

Everyone knew the president was a polarizing figure long before the Penguins officially announced their decision. Curiously, those who expressed their disappointment and outrage since last Sunday were silent when the comments by Morehouse and Burkle appeared over the summer.

Many of those calling for the Penguins to change their minds are fearful that Trump could use the event as a stage to further his agenda against protesting NFL players. 

If that happens, the Penguins and the NHL will have to deal with the consequences. Still, this is a choice they made willingly, not one that was forced upon them. It could come back to haunt them but at least they had the freedom to make it. 

It’s likely this will remain a thorny issue for the league, and future Stanley Cup winners, over the remainder of Trump’s tenure in the White House.