Photo Credit: Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

Athletes didn’t drag politics into sport – it was already there

The Pittsburgh Penguins found themselves in an untenable position this week.

The 2017 Stanley Cup champions had a choice to make. They could tour the White House and meet the President of the United States, as previous winners have done, thereby enraging his many vocal detractors. Alternatively, they could skip the event, provoking the same anger at the other end of the political spectrum.

The choice faced by the Pens takes place within a larger debate about the place of politics within sports. Should professional athletes and sports teams use their formidable platforms to argue for political causes, or should they “stay in their lane” and stick to sports?

It’s a bad question, because it starts from a false assumption: that sports are inherently apolitical, and that athletes with particular views are bringing politics into sport. The reality is that the NHL and other professional leagues have long invited politics into their games, and that becomes apparent when we look at the recent flashpoints.

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The visit to the White House is an obvious example. It’s a lot of things: a tradition, a status symbol for the league, a perk for the winning team and so on. Above all of those, it’s a publicity exercise. In exchange for the press that comes with visiting the President, the Stanley Cup champion agrees to act as a prop for whomever that happens to be at the moment.

The Pens did their best to downplay that truth in their public statement, which all but screamed that it wasn’t about politics; they were only doing it because it’s one of those things you do. That stance was immediately contradicted by the current President, who seized on the statement to reaffirm his legitimacy:

When that legitimacy is under attack — as it is for Donald Trump, as it was with Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — just showing up is a political stance. That’s why Trump was so quick to seize on Pittsburgh’s announcement.

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Teams and athletes aren’t bringing politics into sport when they decide to go, or not go, to the White House. Anything they do is political, and the situation is the fault of the league and past champions who were so eager to sign up for a photo opportunity with a politician.

The tradition is longer, and the politics less obvious, but the dynamic is similar when the national anthem is played prior to a sporting event.

There was a time the anthem wasn’t routinely played prior to sporting events. Rather, it became a pre-game tradition in wartime, with World War II generally acknowledged as the point where it became a staple. It never went away after that, and the specific rituals around it became a particular flashpoint during the Vietnam War — where it was used explicitly by the NFL as a way of showing support for that military effort.

The professional sports establishment has often used pregame ritual as a way of making political points — both of the genuine and paid variety. It is less than two years ago that an American senate report came out detailing a marketing campaign by the military which paid sports teams for militaristic and patriotic displays.

Professional sports leagues have long recognized their events as opportunities to make political statements, both out of firm belief and cynical self-interest. Sport isn’t some apolitical zone suddenly thrown into chaos by radical players dragging their beliefs and causes into the mix. Instead, it’s a political venue in which individual players are realizing they don’t have to go along with the status quo preferred by their teams or leagues.

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Don’t believe me? As a thought exercise, imagine a world where pro sports teams didn’t visit the White House, one without pregame rituals featuring flags and anthems. There’s no opportunity within such a sport for an athlete to make political statements. He could still talk to reporters or hold events advocating for his particular cause, but those things would happen outside of the actual games.

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The point here is not to advocate for that change. It’s simply to say that sporting events are already inherently political. If people really don’t want to hear what athletes think about politics, the simplest solution is probably to stop putting them in politicized situations and expecting them to just go along with them.

***Note that this article is posted across the Nation Network and that comments are an open forum***

  • Burnward

    When a society needs athletes to be leaders in social change, that society is broken.

    We have to remember that they didn’t ask for the responsibility and it isn’t fair to expect it.

    Every single white person, especially males has to look in the mirror and accept the reality that we have failed our fellow humans by creating an environment where a racist, misogynist and uninformed buffoon has taken the most powerful position on earth.

    Until we all vote for change and do better as brothers and sisters each day, I’m not expecting kids who play a game to lead the way.

    • Killer Marmot

      Every single white person, especially males has to look in the mirror and accept the reality that we have failed our fellow humans by creating an environment where a racist, misogynist and uninformed buffoon has taken the most powerful position on earth.

      I consider Trump a bit of an uniformed buffoon myself, but I see no evidence that he is racist. and I’m tired of the R-bomb being dropped on everyone people disagree with. What reason do you think he’s racist — very specifically?

          • Al Rain

            Oh brother. Ok, here you go:
            1) Top advisors and cabinet picks are racist, have history of suppressing black votes (see Sessions, Bannon, Mnuchin, etc)
            2) Created travel ban targeting Muslims
            3) Was sued twice for refusing to rent apartments to black people
            4) Refused to condemn white supremacists and KKK who advocated for him
            5) Began the birther movement with no evidence
            6) Encouraged the mob anger that led to the wrongful imprisonment of the Central Park Five. Demanded their execution. Stands by everything to this day.
            7) Condoned the beating of a BLM protester
            8) Denied responsibility for 900 hate incidents in the 10 days following the election
            9) Pardoning of Joe Arpaio
            10) Launched his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists

            I could go on, but why? If you’re giving this man the “benefit of the doubt” at this point then you’re deluded.

          • Killer Marmot

            Yes, this particular post was about the particular charge that Trump’s father was a klansman. I don’t try to address every issue in a single post.

          • Killer Marmot


            Come on! The list of evidence Al Rain posted is overwhelming, you’re going to have to refute every single point if you want to make your case, not just an outlier.

            We both know I haven’t the resources to do so, since it takes paragraphs to refute a single point.

            But the fact that even some of the points can be easily refuted means the entire list is questionable.

          • Killer Marmot

            Here’s the exact quote:

            “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people,”

            Is claiming that a high proportion of Mexican immigrants are criminals racist? I wouldn’t say so, especially as he says that Mexico is not sending its best. He might be factually wrong, but that’s a different issue.

          • Me

            So are you denying the video evidence that he called Mexicans (as a group) rapists? Was that gratuitous smearing?

            Come on! The list of evidence Al Rain posted is overwhelming, you’re going to have to refute every single point if you want to make your case, not just an outlier.

          • That's My Point

            And to think that “CROOKED HILLARY” whose husband was impeached was a better option? USA has 323 million people and these were the two BEST candidates for President? Therein lies the problem; FIX the SYSTEM.

          • PandaBearJelly

            Man, if you don’t think trump is racist, you yourself are probably a little bit racist. Yes, the quote about Mexicans being rapists is racist. Implying that the majority of illegal immigrants are “rapists” or “killers” is simply false. The majority are just people looking for a better life, likely trying to support their families. Saying “and some, I assume, are good people” doesn’t make up for what he said. That’s no different then saying “the indigenous people of Canada are all criminals, drug addicts and rapists… but some might be ok… I have a good friend who is native.”

      • oilerjed

        You can usually judge someone by whom they associate with. Trump has surrounded himself with people with white supremacist ideological views (openly) and as a president has gone out of his way to promote the tensions of racial divide in a country that is based on racial suppression. Have you ever heard Trump come out and openly speak against the white supremacists that are major donators to his election run?

      • mac

        He’s been a known racist for decades, trying to keep minorities out of his buildings. And don’t forget that he sees no difference between neo nazis and protesters.

        • Killer Marmot

          And don’t forget that he sees no difference between neo nazis and protesters.

          Some of the protesters in Charlottesville were Antifa, overtly violent Marxists. Is that what you are referring to?

          • Killer Marmot

            There are a couple of problems with the Antifa.

            First, assaulting someone is wrong, yes even if they are white nationalists.

            Second, the Antifa’s definition of fascism is rather loose. Someone in a MAGA hat will do just fine. Even a classic liberal holding up a sign supporting free speech seems to qualify. The Antifa are Marxists, and just about anyone to the right of Bernie Sanders looks to them to be fascist.

            Yes, we were allied with Russia in WW II, but Stalin was still a murderous despot for all that.

          • Killer Marmot

            I read Trump’s remarks after Charlottesberg. He should have explicitly denounced white nationalists right from the start.

            But claiming that he saw no difference between protestors and white nationalists does not stand up to scrutiny. He said there was blame on “both sides”, which is not the same. It was also factually correct, given the actions of the Antifa, although perhaps not politically astute.

          • Killer Marmot

            Depends what you’re talking about. Responsibility for running over those people rests with the person specifically and white supremacist in general. Responsibility for the riot and destruction of property rests with both sides.

          • mac

            They’re anti f ascists. They exist in opposition to f ascists. The neo nazis etc show up with weapons and guns to intimidate people. If they don’t do that, antifa disappears because it has no reason to exist.

            Like, literally one side showed up to support statues of people who fought for slavery and marched with racist chants. And people show up to fight against that. In WW II we called them The Allies.

            (*weird spaces added because I think some words trigger the site to block the comment)

          • mac

            Can’t say I’m a fan of antifa.

            Doesn’t change that Trump sees no difference between racists and their protesters, and tries to lay blame on “both sides” for someone running over 20 protesters.

          • mac

            Dude come on

            Look at it this way

            When a neo nazi runs over 20 protesters (not even antifa) at a rally centered around statues of people who fought for slavery, marching with racist chants, trump blames both sides. Then later says he needed more information. When else does ever wait for more information before going on weird rants?

            When a black guy protests racist police violence during the anthem, trump criticizes only him.

            You can hide behind “well there were some antifa there” but the pattern of racism and apologism is blatantly obvious.

          • Killer Marmot


            First, no more personal remarks.

            Second., it’s an impressive sounding list, but much of it does not stand up to scrutiny. For example, Trump suggesting that Obama was not born in the U.S. were totally screwy (and irrelevant, as Obama would still be a “natural born citizen”), but there is no reason to think that it was racist. Saying that Trump has never said that any white presidents are foreign is just silly, as they were not the current sitting president. Obama was.

            You are wrong, however, in saying he “advocates”. Trump has since admitted he was wrong, and that Obama was born in the U.S.

            You’re other points also don’t stand up to scrutiny. I don’t have time for a point-by-point rebuttal, but as an example, Islam is not a race.

          • ScottyPrime

            Marmot, if you give yourself the latitude to tune it out, you’re obviously not going to hear all the racism that flows out of him and his administration. But unless you’re willingly avoiding coming into contact with it, it’s very difficult to not see.

            -It took intense cajoling on the part of his staff for Trump to even throw out a mild condemnation of the Nazi rally in Charlottesville, but he was more than happy to hold a RALLY and throw out unequivocal condemnation towards black athletes for kneeling during an anthem ceremony that the NFL didn’t even start participating in until a few years ago.

            – He has TWICE been sued by the Justice Department for racial profiling in choosing renters.

            -He launched a travel ban specifically targeting Muslims from countries that both A) have literally no history of being threats to America, during the War on Terror or before and B) are not currently important trade partners.

            – He publicly belittled the ruling of not one, not two, but FOUR senior judges because they were “Mexican”. That was his reason for them not being qualified.

            -He has repeatedly struggled with whether or not he should condemn the overtly white nationalist groups who support him. Their support alone should be enough to suggest he himself is racist, but that he seems to kinda like these guys makes it hard not to believe.

            -He literally advocated for the crowd to physically assault BLM protesters at his rallies, on at least two occasions. He hasn’t done that for any other type of protester, despite their being many.

            -He advocates that Obama was not born in the US, and indeed has carried that campaign despite years of conclusive evidence that he is wrong. Trump has never suggested any of America’s white presidents are foreign, despite many having foreign branches to their families and a general wealth of white people all over the world.

            – He publicly attacked a Gold Star family that didn’t support him based exclusively on their ethnicity. When it was pointed out he was being incredibly foolish, he doubled down on the race card.

            – He advocated for a pair of men who pointlessly assaulted a homeless man simply because he was latino. Trump described the men as “loving their country” and being “passionate”. Most would use words like “thugs” and “criminals”.

            – He literally shared several anti-semitic memes. In one case, he copied it straight from a white supremacists groups page.

            And there are indeed many more, from him demanding his accountants not be black, to his meddling with the Central Park Five case, to his choices for cabinet and party affiliates. It takes a tremendous amount of cognitive dissonance for someone to decide that there is “no evidence” of him being racist.

    • Arminius

      Every single white person especially males has to accept that we have failed our fellow humans? Speak for yourself..you really buy into all that hey? That’s unfortunate

      • crofton

        I think it was said in the sense of “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” So yeah, any white male that hasn’t acted in ANY way to combat racism has failed our fellow humans. But you need to take that statement farther……any person of any color that hasn’t acted or spoken up against racism have failed their fellow humans

        • Marcellus Wallace

          So every Muslim that has not spoken out against Muslim terrorists should be considered to be one?
          Bottom line, there is a lot of blame to go around. If you dig deep into anyone’s past, you will find what you want to find. Using MSNBC, Huff Post, CNN etc as your resource lends no credence to your argument as they spend 24/7 looking for it and twisting it.
          As for the comment about who you associate with, Obama’s Rev Wright, Bill Mayers (sp?) and others could be called out but the MSM ignores that. Left wing politician lining up to align with BLM after they called for the death of cops (“What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want it…) also ignored by the MSM.
          Bottom line, Trump is a buffoon, disgrace whatever you want to call him and add the R word to make it stick. Obama had his comparably bad past relationships, Clinton is on a whole other level of corrupt and depends where your beliefs fall, you will decide who to listen to and what to tune out.
          Best not to disrespect the flag, those who fought for our countries or those who buy your jersey and pay your salary while living in your life of privilege in pro sports

          • truthseeker

            no…you’re not reading properly. He never said any white person who doesn’t stand up to racism is a racist. Read it again.

            geezus…is your comprehension that bad?

    • mac

      The website is blocking me from writing something more substantive, but if you remove white evangelicals from the vote, the rest of the white people would have elected Clinton.

      There are multiple distinct white subcultures in the USA.

      Trying to make people feel shame for what past people did will backfire. “Hope and change” won for Obama, not “be ashamed”

    • Scott_12

      Many people follow this blog for the opinions of the writers. The facts are available in many places, and while the Nation Network does a great job of digging into those facts, analyzing all of the statistics etc, what the Nation Network provides that makes it most engaging is thoughtful contributors who interpret those facts and inject their own thoughts and opinions. It’s then up to us as readers to think critically about what they have said and form own opinions.

      Ari writing about the politics of sport and “injecting [her] own political bias” is no different than another writer stating that a particular player should or shouldn’t play on a particular line. Both are relevant to the common interest of those reading the blog (hockey) and both are open to be agreed with or rejected. I for one welcome commentary on the politics of hockey and find it underrepresented across the board in sports media.

      • cberg

        No matter the topic, there is a vast difference between presenting the facts and your views of those facts, versus presenting your views as facts. Stick to the former and we have no problem. Present the latter and you have biased propagandization which is divisive and uncalled for.

    • Al Rain

      WW, are you against the injection of political ideas, or against the injection of political ideas with which you disagree? Because reading some of your posts yesterday one might be left with the impression that it was the latter. Just saying.

  • Killer Marmot

    Players must be free to exercise their politics on their own time.

    But when wearing their uniform out on the ice, they’re on company time. The organization has the right to specify how they will behave. Some clubs will allow the players latitude, but if some clubs do not, well I’m fine with that too.

    • Scott_12

      They are paid to play hockey (or football, basketball etc.). They are not paid to go to the White House, stand for the anthem etc. Of course players are not able to protest during play, and the clubs should not allow that. The whole point of the article is that if players are to not exercise their politics they can’t be put into political situations. As long as they are, they must have the right to make their own statements as they see fit. Also, why would we NOT want people to be able to protest the killing of innocent black people? That IS what this is about after all.

          • Killer Marmot

            I don’t think visiting the president is political coercion, or if it is then it’s very mild. It’s recognized to be an honorary occasion, not a political endorsement. When the Penguins visited the White House last year, did anyone ask “Why is Crosby supporting the Democrats?”

          • supra steve

            You admit that you “consider Trump a bit of an uniformed buffoon”, yet you are just going to go ahead and defend this buffoon to the death, aren’t you? Have a good day.

          • Killer Marmot

            Only against the charge of racism.

            Why would I defend a man I would never vote for (if I were American)? First, because I am not convinced he is racist. But also because I believe that misplaced charges of racism are warping our political system, preventing us from candidly addressing real problems. It has a become a massive witch hunt, the new McCarthyism.

            And I think many Americans agree with me. The Democratic Party is in dire straits these days. They’ve lost the presidency, the senate majority, the house majority, and the majority of state governerships. The Republicans are running the country. What have the Dems done wrong? They have become steeped in identity politics.

            This is not healthy. I have this quaint idea that a healthy opposition is a good thing, and the Dems are emasculating themselves.

  • Edsez

    it’s not that people really don’t want to hear what athletes think about politics … they just don’t want them expressing contrary opinions

    the trumps of this world are quick to highlight and promote athletes which support them

  • camdog

    Remember when Tim Thomas refused to honour another weak president? End result was his career was done. Pro athletes are generally used as pawns by their countries ruling elite. The Olympics being the best example of this.

    • truthseeker

      what I remember about that was all the worthless anti PC backlash people who are the same ones now saying it’s wrong for the warriors to not go to the white house.

      Nothing worse in this universe than the angry (usually white) male anti PC backlash morons.

  • LittleSoldierSkates

    Imagine a cat that isnt yours dragging a dead rat no one wants to the doorstep, stinking up the joint and expecting praise. That’s you. This garbage is the absolute LAST thing the NHL needs.

  • The mistake we all make is confusing politics with policy or issues of the day when, more often than not, it’s about tribalism. Humans are tribal animals, and we act out our tribal impulses through our advocacy for a particular political position, our cheerleading or disdain for a particular candidate, or virtue signalling in social media.

    This is not to say that we cannot come to support a particular position through an analysis of policy or judging the merits or character of a political actor or calling for a better form of justice but, for many of us, we unconsciously look to those who share our values in general first and then consciously devise a reason for this support.

    This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it is a characteristic of our evolutionary success, binding us together with our kin in defence of our homes or to work together to solve problems.

    It gets far more complex as tribalism carries itself over millions of people in times of chaos such as today. Today, tribalism in the form of political speech starts to invade facets of life which have already developed its own subculture culture to a point that politics supersedes all else, including sports.

    Fewer things are more arbitrary than cheering for a particular sports team. We cheer for the home team, or we root against the bad guys, even though there is very little to distinguish between the character or values of players of team than the next. We do it, at our heart, because we are tribal.

    From a fan’s perspective, sports is an analog through which people can act out tribal impulses in a superficial and ultimately inconsequential form. We can take out our aggressions psychologically, or assign hero archetypes to star players, or discover the importance of humility over hubris, and so on. And we do it in a way that can be contained within that sports culture without turning the broader society into revolution or civil war (Vancouver Stanley Cup runs aside).

    So, yes, politics has already found its way through sports as Willis points out, but the backlash against this latest invasion comes from the idea that we must choose sides with one tribe or the other – ” to kneel or not to kneel.”

    Except sports already has its tribes cut out for us. Inserting politics to our sports in this way disrespects those who choose to act out their tribalism in a different way.

    This latest invasion also fails to consider that there are myriad other forums to discuss these broader issues, with the implication that sports fans are somehow unaware of these forums, or hold the wrong views because of our unforgivable ignorance, stupidity or alleged unconscious bigotry.

    Therefore, as supporter and regular reader of this blog, I ask FlamesNation to give us a bit of respite from the political chaos out there. We are all aware of the issues being discussed and fought over, and we all have means to discuss it.

    Please consider whether your political opinions are respectful of our own views or our ability to seek out opportunities to discuss these on other forums. I don’t want to see this nonsense here, nor do I appreciate the self-righteous lecturing.

    I’ve already quit Twitter because of how stupid this entire political culture has become, and I won’t think twice about discovering other means through which to appreciate the Flames.

    Or, at least, to jeer the bloodsucking Oilers.

    • sloth

      Aww your favourite hockey blog infringed upon your right to ignore real-world oppression, and disrespected your choice to act out your tribalism in a superficial and inconsequential way. Good thing you had that choice, because the “tribalism” many people deal with in their day-to-day lives is called “white supremacy” and it often involves white cops shooting unarmed black people in the streets…

      And good job getting that pot shot at the Canucks and the “civil war” that was the 2011 Vancouver riot. Do you understand that a literal neo-Nazi attacked and killed anti-racism activists at an Alt-Right gathering to celebrate Confederate civil war heroes? Like, there was an actual Civil War in America 200 years ago which was fought largely over whether rich white people could continue to own black-skinned human beings as private property and farm equipment. And then like a month ago, thousands of people in America traveled to Charlottesville to condemn or celebrate this chapter of their national history, in an era of already unprecedented racial tension, and one of the “white nationalists” drove his car into a crowd of innocent citizens with the clear intention of hurting and killing. And you’re making fun of those nasty Vancouver Canucks and their fans for the rioters smashing some windows and burning some cars 6 years ago, because that was a real disgraceful “civil war.” You’re truly pathetic and really need to think about your identity and privilege that allows you to make such crass and flippant comments about very serious issues for millions of our neighbours in the name of your petty sports tribalism.

      And your points about the value of sports tribalism don’t hold up to scrutiny. If it’s such a good way to “take out our aggressions … in a way that can be contained within the sports culture,” why did the Red Mile in Calgary turn into a sexual assault festival in the 2004 and 2015 playoffs? Perhaps you should sign up for Twitter again and turn off the stupid NHL if you can’t see what actually matters and what doesn’t. I’ll give you a hint, the rivalries between the Flames and Canucks and Oilers sure don’t. Sheesh.

      • Southboy

        get over it. If a person wants to tune it out, and has the oppurtunity to do so, we should apologize for that? Because of this choice, you judge us all as people who dont care, or dont our part. You my friend are the type that fuel the fire.

    • Captain Ron

      Great comment Rob. I gave you 10 props for it. I came to this site to discuss hockey and was introduced to analytics because of it. Suddenly I find myself reading quotes from Martin Luther King of all people on my favorite hockey blog. We are being bombarded by political and religious views from every angle now and it seems there is no escape from it.
      Can we get back to talking about hockey on this site again? I’d rather read Oiler fan troll comments than watch people here become divided over political and/or religious debates that will go on for all eternity.
      Hockey is an escape from all the stupidity we face in the world so let’s keep it that way shall we.

  • Total Points

    There are many web sites where politics can be discussed. Please Oiler Nation don’t turn this into a political/hockey web site.

    Please Please

    I want discussions about McDavid’s greatness and how Flames suck

    • oilcanboyd

      or how McDavid sucks an the Flames are great!

      McDavid.s shot is the speed of a smurf ball-less than half the speed of Cosby’s shot…not just me saying this but hockey analysts on Sportsnet…

  • Nation Dan

    Wow Willis. Well put.

    I am pretty solidly convinced the White House put pressure on the Pens to say yes or no.

    The Penguins aren’t so tone deaf… can’t be. Had to have been given an ultimatum.

  • Derzie

    There will always be people that disagree. That’s a fact. All of this hubbub started by Colin Kaepernick to draw attention to the fact that white US police were shooting and killing unarmed black people without repercussions. The NFL elite blackballed him. Trump used to to sharpen the divide between his deploreables and the thinking population AND to distract from the fact that soon the Russia probe will end his adventure. The positive is more people are aware of the plight of unarmed black citizens in the US. The negative is there are roughly half of the population of the US that are just fine with racial and economic divides. In Canada, it is probably closer to 30% are OK with the divide. Most of the attempts to change the minds is blowing hot air around but the discussion chips away at the people who just need better information about the world to be able to draw better conclusions. Education is not a silver bullet but it is a bullet.

  • Killer Marmot

    Politics is in sports in the sense that athletes are required to be respectful to the flag and anthem — patriotism in its broadest and least controversial terms. When a politician does participate at a sporting event — the PM kicking a football to start of the Grey Cup, for example — it’s seen as honouring the political office rather than the politician.

    What sports does avoid, however, are specific endorsements or condemnations of politicians and their policies. That has traditionally been a no-go zone. And for good reason. It respects that fact that fans have wide and varied political allegiances. Sports is saying “It’s not our place to tell you whether your politics are right or wrong.”

    Hockey breaks that barrier at its own peril.