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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***


  • Happy McDavid Decade

    I have no issues whether athletes decide to stand or take a knee for the purposes of protesting / supporting / continuing their normal routines.

    If Colin Kaepernick wants to sit during the Star Spangled Banner, fine.
    If prior to a race NASCAR drivers stand, or prior to a President’s Cup match golfers stand for the anthem, fine.
    If Jerry Jones wants to lock arms and take a knee, but then stands once the music starts, fine.
    If Johnny Gaudreau wants to stand when guest singer starts belting out “Oh say can you see,” but takes a knee when George Canyon begins “O Canada,” I’ll raise my eyebrow (maybe he think Justin’s still not ready, or the amount he’s being taxed, or that he’s relegated to possibly playing in an aging Saddledome for the forseeable future).

    The point is, as very eloquently worded by Mr. Willis, is that politics has always been in sports to some capacity. These past few days have only amplified that relationship due to the actions of one politician / businessman and the response of many athletes, sports teams, owners, businesses, etc. I’m not American, but I can certainly understand why they would want to exercise one of their rights that they dearly to: the First Amendment. Just as their President can state his opinion on the largest social media platform, Athletes can state their opinion on another platform.

    It is unfortunate that this topic is only further polarizing individuals and possibly making some people choose a side. I just hope that we all come out of these interesting times as better people individually and collectively, whether we’re Canadian, American, French, Syrian, Korean (whether you’re from Pyongyang or Pyeongchang).

    Yes I know it’s a fluff post full of optimism. I’m hoping for the best, but maybe still will plan for the worst. But while some current National Anthem actions are taking heavy criticism, I still remember other National Anthem actions not too long ago that were being praised (see Preds fans singing O Canada as a return thanks to Leafs Fans, Oilers fans helping out Brett Kissel with his wonky mic during the Star Spangled Banner). Not all National Anthem incidents end so badly…

    • That's My Point

      A player/coach can’t be truthful about the terrible officiating of their games without getting fined but yet can spout whatever they want about anything else and there are no consequences. Maybe the NHL should get rid of the fines for players speaking the truth about the game and clean up the mess they created by not letting the problems be voiced in the first place.

  • OilersDynasty

    Of course politics are in sports. How else do you explain the last 25 Stanley Cup champs being American teams? Or that the Coyotes are still where they are when they should’ve been shipped out a decade ago?

  • 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.

  • beloch

    The Penguins had two options:

    1. Go see Trump, as is tradition.
    2. Don’t go see Trump, and break with tradition.

    As you say, people are going to be upset with you no matter which option you choose, but which is the bigger political statement? They’ve tried to make the case that they were just going through the motions. This is somewhat possible to do with option 1, but how about option 2? Not so much. Snubbing a sitting president, no matter how little public support he has, is a *huge* statement in and of itself. Also, NHL fans in the U.S. appear to be somewhat skewed towards being Republicans.

    Making the smaller statement, and making the statement that plays better to the demographics of your fans (if you assume Republicans actually still like Trump) means the Penguins made the choice that was less likely to screw their business. It’s a bit cowardly, but it is logical. I can see why they did it.

    As for the anthem ruckus… I’m a born Canadian. It’s just a freakin’ song. You can stand on your head and spin in circles while blowing bubbles for all I care. Want to respect our veterans? Volunteer to visit them in senior homes, hospitals, or wherever they may be. Service is a far better way of showing respect than impersonating a plank during a song. The same goes for supporting racial equality and the demilitarization of police. You can kneel if you want to make a gesture, but actions speak a whole lot louder. Players can stand or kneel as they see fit, but I respect those that get out and *do* something a whole lot more.

    • truthseeker

      Exactly. People are only against athletes speaking out when it’s something those people disagree with.

      Which is instant proof that they are not people who believe in freedom even though they will swear up and down that they do.

      They are authoritarians, but they are too cowardly to just admit it. Especially to themselves.

  • 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.

  • Larionov18

    Keep politics out of the NHL. Sportnet 650 was so left wing it was unbearable to listen to after the kneeling event. Let’s keep left and right wing politics out of our Hockey

  • OriginalPouzar

    A Willis sighting on ON?

    I watch sports for sports – couldn’t care less who takes a knee, who stands, who locks arms, who goes to the white house, who doesn’t etc.

    I wish this wasn’t the issue of the day in sports but it is. As long as it doesn’t take away from the games that are played, I’m going to continue to be ambivalent.

    Not ambivalent to the over-arching issue, that is important, but ambivalent to its place in sporting events and its relation to actions/non-actions of the athletes, managers, coaches, owners.

    Speak out, don’t speak out, take a stand, don’t take a stand – all of these actions and inactions are the rights of every person involved and I’m fine with whatever an individual person or team does or does not do..

    GO OILERS!

    • camdog

      I take it you don’t watch the Olympics good on you! The ratings for some sports are non existent during non Olympic events. People don’t generally watch Olympics for sport so much as they do to show support for one’s country.

      • OriginalPouzar

        I absolutely love the Olympics!!!! Love them!!!!!

        I watch sports that I generally don’t get the opportunity to watch and cheer for the athletes from my country.

        I’m not sure what that has to do with my post regarding not really caring if athletes protest, don’t protest, take action in that regard or don’t take action – they have the right to do or not do what they want and I’m fine with all of it.

        I will look past all that to the games and the events (Olympics).

        • camdog

          If you are just cheering for an athlete because they are from your country and then don’t watch the sport for 4 years you are you are watching the sport for political reasons as much as for sport reasons.

          • Southboy

            Or could it be that the Olympics are the best of the best, facing off against each other and has far better coverage than some javeline event in croatia, where you dont have the coverage or the best. Why does everything always have to be one way, why cant it be both? That is what divides

    • ChrisMorr

      It is true that the Premier League does not play anthems before games, a decision that makes sense to me after all you are supporting your team not your nation. However, to back up the author’s point the premier league has also had issues with politics in the game. For years they have been grappling with whether teams should display a remembrance day poppy on their shirts around Nov 11. It is for sure a political symbol as it is supposed to commemorate those who sacrificed in all conflicts the British (and commonwealth – thanks Canada!) Armies have been involved in, however most people associate it with just WW1 and 2. The issue is that the army has been involved in plenty of conflicts that some disagree strongly with not least in Northern Ireland. Again no right or wrong answer here, but confirms the point politics is in our sport whether we like it or not. Good article on this here: https://sports.vice.com/en_ca/article/3d9xpk/should-footballers-be-forced-to-wear-a-poppy

      • It’s a fair point, however if a footballer accepts employment in a country where the clubs where poppies around remembrance day, he’s obviously accepting that part of the uniform for that period of time. The poppy itself isn’t inherently political. Other than the poppy for 2 weeks out of the season, you don’t see a lot of nonsensical patriotic grandstanding. what baffles me about this whole kneeling during the anthem thing is how many people playing professional sports after having a free college education feel like their country is against them. I don’t know what it’s like to be a black man in America, but I have to say it doesn’t seem like there is an absence of opportunities for them to have successful lives. I don’t doubt that racism is alive and well there, but I’d be surprised if defining the country the way some would have us believe.

  • Fan the Flames

    Athletes are citizens which gives them the right to express their views, protest or refuse to attend a function if the oppose the President . They must also accept that others will oppose their position when they choose to protest on a national stage like the playing of the anthem. What is unfortunate is President Trump has turned The business of government into reality tv.

  • TruthHurts98

    I for one enjoy sports and don’t watch the political news. It’s bloody depressing and it’s all the same regurgitated BS in my opinion. None of us will agree with each other on many things, however as fans of a team we cheer wholeheartedly for the team we love. I hope the Oilers are invited to the Wh next year and the year after that. Then no matter what the political view is, we can all agree on one thing: being a Stanley Cup champion is far more exciting then arguing about politics! I’m picking the Oilers to win it this year and they have as good a shot at the Cup as any other contending team. Connor is our president in Oil Country:)

    • Scott_12

      Those actively oppressed by current political regimes never have the freedom to tune it out and only care about sports. That’s the point. That’s why these protests are happening, to try to wake the privileged people up to the oppression of the people around them.

      • oilerjed

        well said, its easy for those who are not subjected to oppression to say that it is no big deal.

        On another note, Truthhurts98 mentioned that the Oilers would go to the Whitehouse if they won. Do Canadian teams get invited as well? It has been so long I honestly can’t remember. It is possible that this current tradition wasn’t happening when the Canadians last won in 93.

        • oilerjed

          Did some research and oddly enough it was the Pittsburg Penguins in ’91 who were the first NHL team invited to the Whitehouse. The BlueJays were there in ’92. Couldnt find any mention of the Canadians in ’93 though./

  • oilerjed

    Whether people want athletes expressing their political beliefs or not, it’s important to remember that sports athletes are also people and citizens who pay taxes and must be afforded the same rights as everyone else. How we feel about them bringing their beliefs into our escape is beside the point and it is a wee bit hypocritical for us to expect otherwise.

  • Burnabybob

    Good article. The default arguments I always hear is that “I agree with his right to protest. I just don’t like how he’s doing it.” Or “Athletes shouldn’t be political.”

    The truth is that people don’t want to be reminded of problems like police brutality, especially the NFL’s predominantly white male fan base. They think that black athletes should be “grateful” for everything society has “given” them. And they feel entitled to enjoy the entertainment provided by black athletes, without thinking about the disturbing persistence of racism. If black athletes saluted the flag and wore “bless our troops” armbands during every game, there would be no controversy. It’s pretty gross when you think about it.

  • Break The Canuck's Curse

    One of the reason people watch sports and entertainment in general is for escapism. They want to be able to shut off the garbage of politics, business and world issues for a couple hours to have a little fun.

    If the entertainment industry continues to shove the world down the throat of the paying public when they are looking for escapism, they will just look somewhere else for that escape…..like video games.

    The entertainment industry is walking on dangerous ground when it refuses to stick to its primary job.

    It is not that their customers do respect that they have an opinion, it is just that they want to shut it all off for at least and hour or two

    • Killer Marmot

      Sports and other entertainment are free to leverage their popularity to advance political causes. But the customers are also free to turn away.

      I had no problems with The Dixie Chicks making political statements — I think their concerns were legitimate — but they complained too hard when much of their fan base evaporated.

  • CRONENBERG

    A lot of liberals think they’re much more open and accepting than they are, when in reality they not willing to listen to the other side of the story. Just immediately write it off as racism. I understand some white people feel a little under attack; we’re supposed to feel white guilt, for something that we as individuals had nothing to do with. But Trump is not the answer. I stand with the athletes protesting all the way. It doesn’t take a genius to see who’s wrong. Trump has another tantrum like a 6 year old over a peaceful protest by athletes but is silent when people march through the street waving nazi flags? Who in their right mind can defend that? This guy is doing whatever he can to please the far right… because they’re the most loyal. He’s finally relevant again and now he’ll have all of them buying all his products. He’s a business man. He doesn’t care about the USA, he cares about making money. No matter what he does from here on, his followers will never ever blame him. They’ll just point the finger at someone else. If he resigns he’ll say “I was treated more unfairly than anyone ever and I can’t do this anymore” and the far right will lose their minds. They’re dumb and loyal and he’s got them in his pocket. One more thing – I hate how many people think that there’s only two sides; you either support Trump or you’re a tree hugging Trudeau supporter. There’s ABSOLUTELY no inbetween. Uhhhg…

  • madjam

    Truth or a lie test : Canada does not constitutionally exist to this day and the federal government has no constitutional right to exist to this day because of it . Yet you and I have been taught from cradle to grave that The BNA act and it’s founders formed the country known as Canada , when they actually voted against it . Each province is still it’s own country with allegiance to the British crown until such time as we form the country of Canada .

      • madjam

        That did not change a thing as we are still basically under The Statutes of Westminster , until the premiers can agree 100% on forming Canada . Same question was posed to Mulroney and Pierre Trudeau , yet they basically failed to produce a resolution to solve the problem . Provinces have in unity still passed such legislation such as Bill Of Rights , Canada Act , etc., and other legislation they have all agreed upon despite not finalizing the forming of Canada as a legal and constitutional nation .

  • Free Bird

    I agree with Willis that sports are inherently political due to the rituals they have adopted over the years. However, I think the issue here is the extent to which they are politicized. It seems like anyone with an account on a social media platform can now express faux-outrage towards any athlete who associates with a politician with views that differ from theirs, and the media then recycles the chatter to fill their daily quota of tabloid news. The result is even further politicization of sports when the silent majority (assuming there is one) just want to enjoy sports and keep the moral judgements and political circus out of it.

  • 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.

  • Oatmeal

    At least when the Oilers win it this year we won’t need to discuss them going to the White House right? I would imagine they would be visiting the Prime Minister.

  • Riley Miner

    Willis is entirely right; NA sports are inherently political. Heck, on a world scale, athletes have been politicized. Whether it be a politician taking a photo op with an athlete, an entertainment channel asking an athlete for their opinion on a social issue… Athletes are public figures. People look up to them, and that offers them an inherent power to inflict social change. Here’s the kicker here: NA sports are predominantly white. Athletes (and humans in general) do not speak much about issues they cannot relate to, and so a voice on things like police brutality, inequality and discrimination is decidedly lacking. Not to mention, there is a culture in sport that ‘distractions’ are abhorrent and should be avoided at all cost. To a majority white owned and occupied league, a black player speaking out about racial inequalities is a distraction because they do not have to think about it, and it’s an uncomfortable subject. And so here’s the trap; black players are discouraged and have not spoken out in large numbers until now.

    The fact is, it’s important for athletes to do this. To kneel, to speak out. Because as a community, we hadn’t paid a second thought to these issues before. It was a black issue. Now it is a national issue. Is that unfortunate? As a young, white dude who feels empathy to these groups and wishes social change, I believe not. We live in a state of privilege as white dudes, and that is uncomfortable to acknowledge. The fact is, hockey players (and the Penguins) have decided their ‘bubble’ is more important than addressing a serious problem that has plagued America, and let’s face it, Canada as well for decades. So yes, it’s important for us not to stick to sports. It’s important to think about these things, so we can grow as a society and as a sport. The truth of the matter is, this isn’t good for a lot of non-white hockey fans. This is what they have seen, heard and felt from the hockey community. Silence. How are they supposed to feel welcomed when the Stanley Cup champions decide to honor the office of a president who has denounced black activists and defended white supremacists? Who has decided to make white supremacists his closest advisers in his governance? Ignoring this issue like we always did before shouldn’t be acceptable anymore. We as a hockey community can do better, and should do better. Right and left aside, we need to stand up for our fellow human beings, and fellow hockey fans.

  • 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.

  • Not a First Tier Fan

    Great article by Willis here. He didn’t specifically mention Trump in it but you can’t ignore the fact that this latest supposed controversy is a direct result of the Tweeter-in-chief disrespecting the first amendment rights of the citizens he took an oath to protect.

    It goes beyond racism or sexism or any other ‘ism’… There are a ton of really good people who got swindled into supporting this professional con-man. The snake oil was in good supply last year and there were a lot of people drinking it.

    Here we are though – eight months into his corrupt and incompetent presidency. If After all he has done, and all the dereliction of the things a president is supposed to do, you find yourself still supporting him … then you are just as horrible a person as he is. And Trump is the President that you deserve.

    It’s just too bad that the rest of the world is on this nightmare plunge with you.

  • hockey1099

    The Olympics is all about politics. Hell a huge portion of the Cold War was fought through sport. I don’t agree with Willis about hockey often but he got this right even if he is only pointing out the obvious:

  • ed from edmonton

    I will premiss my comments with stating that I have never really understood why national anthem are played at North American sporting events. Throughout the rest of the world national anthems are not played other than when national teams are representing their country.

    To me the question is whether a player has the right to use the sporting event to express their own views. They are getting paid to play sport, should they be doing anything else? If one were to say they should not be expressing such opinions, would this also include athletes expressing religious outlooks, such ad pointing to the sky after a triumph? My

      • Oil consuming Flames

        Remove the National anthems from professional sporting events. This will remove the particular platform that these morons are standing on,.. Or not Standing on as it were. They can feel free to take a knee, link arms with their teammates and owners, pose a “Black Power” salute, or what ever they want during the game.

        Before the slings and arrows get broken out to be hurled at me for calling these losers “morons” in my post, just remember, if you support them, you are supporting their freedom to express their opinion and to demonstrate peacefully.
        I am simply exercising my right to express my opinion of the people doing that.