It began with Colin Kaepernick being the lone dissenter while kneeling during the U.S. National Anthem. It was his way of protesting what he felt were grave injustices perpetrated against black men which included deaths at the hands of the police and eventual shooter acquittals. "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," he stated as his protest began during a preseason game in 2016. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,"
Kaepernick is a football player and a mullato who was adopted by an upper-middle class family.
On the football field he took the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2013 and to the NFC Championship game in 2014 but had watched his short career decline after a coaching change. He never caught fire on the field like he did those two seasons in San Francisco and the football world was left with an average quarterback who'd probably end up being one of those notable career journeymen who stuck around for years as a back-up while ending up with a few starts here and there.
Kaepernick played in 12 games for the 49ers last season putting up average numbers. He remains unsigned in 2017 leading some to believe that he's being blackballed as there are other quarterbacks seen as lesser players who have NFL jobs, some even starting.
His singular protest of kneeling gathered heaping amounts of media coverage causing a fierce debate over it's meaning. On one side (the one I take,) Kaepernick is using his constitutional right to free speech to voice his distaste for the way blacks are being treated. The other side sees it as an affront to America and a desecration of the American flag and the National Anthem.
Up until this past weekend, the protest by Kaepernick gained little traction on the field as only a handful of players followed in his footsteps by kneeling through the Anthem. And as had been the case since 2016, there were other players who showed their support by standing next to the teammate with a hand on his shoulder pad.
A speech from the President was like a match in a munitions bunker
Then came the firestorm known as U.S. President Donald Trump. At a rally in Alabama on Friday he said the "son-of-a-bitch" protesting during the National Anthem should be fired. He followed up with a tweet telling fans they could enact swift change if they stopped going to the games "until players stop disrespecting our Flag and Country." Which taken together represented a salvo across the bow of the NFL.
The NFL responded by stating it stood by it's players and was proud of them while teams showed their support in a number of ways which included locking arms as a team as a way of protesting the onslaught by Trump. New England Patriots QB Tom Brady locked arms with a teammate while placing his hand over his heart but huge chunk of players, said to be over 250, knelt during the Anthem. Owners were seen on the field in locked arms with their players in a show of unification while the Dallas Cowboys and owner Jerry Jones locked arms and took a knee on Monday Night Football before the Anthem in response to Trump's salvos.
The entire Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks teams didn't take the field for the National Anthem while all but one player from the Pittsburgh Steelers stayed away. Lineman Allejandro Villeneuava, and Army veteran who had multiple tours in Afghanistan faced Old Glory while in the tunnel with hand on heart as the Star Spangled Banner was played.
It was a move he regretted afterwards.
“This national-anthem ordeal has been out of control, and there’s a lot of blame on myself,” he said Monday to the press. “Every single time I see that picture of me standing by myself, I feel embarrassed. The idea was to be unified as a team when so much attention is paid to things dividing our country. Unfortunately, I threw [my teammates] under the bus, unintentionally."
Protest affecting other sports while not reaching the NHL yet. Or is it?
The protests hit Major League Baseball as Oakland Athletics rookie catcher Bruce Maxwell took a knee during the Anthem and an entire WNBA team stayed off the court during the Star Spangled Banner.
On the other side, much to Trump's pleasure (as he tweeted,) NASCAR racing legend and team owner Richard Petty split no hairs when he said, "Anybody that don’t stand up for [the Anthem] ought to be out of the country. Period."
And the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins reiterated over the weekend that they will head to the White House to accept congratulations from the President as is customary. “The Pittsburgh Penguins respect the institution of the Office of the President, and the long tradition of championship teams visiting the White House,” the statement read as reported by the Pittsburgh Gazette. “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.
"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.”
Of the four North American sports, hockey is the only one with it's roots outside the United States with a majority of it's players being Canadian. It also the only sport that's predominantly white while the economics of playing the game mean many of it's players come from middle and upper-middle class families.
Sportsnet's Mark Spector in a piece today summed up the sport and politics this way, "to expect a bunch of mostly Canadian and European white men — the products of largely upper middle class upbringing — to make a stand against bigotry and divisiveness in America is a reach.
"There just isn’t enough oppression in hockey, or interest in American politics, to create an issue, yet."
That 'yet' at the end of the sentence is interesting as it does leave the door open for the controversy to sneak into the NHL. Spector writes that hockey players do not want to stand out from their teammates and asks the question, "Could you ever see a hockey player not standing for an anthem, while 19 teammates stood, helmets in hand?"
The answer is, no. In fact there are some cities where both the Canadian and American Anthems are played and players stand through both. In Buffalo they play both and it's kind of cool as hockey fans in the city know the Canadian Anthem.
However, that could change.
Hockey players are different, but we're all the same.
Hockey players are human beings too and when push comes to shove, they shove back or drop the gloves. That's what happened in the NFL as the protest by Kaepernick and then a small group of individuals really ramped when that group was attacked in a personal way by Trump when he called a kneeling player a "son-of-a-bitch." Normally complacent teammates entered the fray in defense of their "brothers" and/or to protest an iron fist being thrust their way.
It's a natural reaction.
Although hockey has been in a mostly white bubble thus far, lest we forget, there are black players in the NHL. Not a lot, but there are some and one of them may take umbrage with the President. The Sabres have a black player in Evander Kane who Spector stated, has "been known to march to the beat of his own drummer." That individualism, wrote Spector, may cause him to stand out "not because he's black, but because he's "said to be a poor teammate which does not work in hockey circles."
In stating it that way, Spector laid the groundwork for a player like Kane to make a stand even though he's still a Canadian who's political focus may be directed elsewhere if it exists at all. As independent as Kane may feel, he may be averse to American politics and may have the same view as Milan Lucic, another Vancouver-born player.
"Americans are more emotionally involved in politics, compared to us (Canadians,)" Lucic told Spector. "It’s a bigger part of their lives, and a bigger topic at social events. At family or neighborhood barbecues, it’s a topic.”
Lucic was on the 2011 Cup-winning Boston Bruins who visited the White House when Obama, the first black president in U.S. history, was in office. Ironically, one of two Americans on his team, goalie Tim Thomas who is white, made a political statement by not going on the White House.
In a statement released by Thomas explaining his decision not to attend he wrote: "I believe the Federal government has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties, and Property of the People.
"This is being done at the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial level. This is in direct opposition to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers vision for the Federal government.
"Because I believe this, today I exercised my right as a Free Citizen, and did not visit the White House. This was not about politics or party, as in my opinion both parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country. This was about a choice I had to make as an INDIVIDUAL."
Thomas' statement set a precedent for any NHL player who wishes to join the political fray created by Kaepernick controversy.
Will the NHL or any of it's players be pulled into the controversy?
Eventually the NHL could be lured into the fray. I'm not sure what President Trump, who's known for his incendiary remarks and tweets, could do to tick off the NHL, a team or any of it's players, but rest assured, if it's out there, he'll find it.
The NHL is about to start a new season and it just added a team in the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. The league is coming off of a very successful 100th anniversary season and they have a stable of young players who may be the best assembled group of superstars to hit the ice since the 80's. Edmonton's Connor McDavid leads the charge followed by a group that includes two American franchise players in Toronto's Auston Matthews and Buffalo's Jack Eichel who are not that far behind him.
Although the U.S. media has refrained from asking about things of a political nature, the 19 yr. old Matthews was lauded for his "well-spoken" take on the protest issue by Sportsnet.ca writer Chris Johnston.
Matthews "hasn't considered taking a stand during the U.S. anthem," tweeted Johnston, but the U.S.-born superstar did ask rhetorically, "Isn't that one of the Amendments? You have the right to say what you want."
Perhaps that lone statement from a future superstar wrapped in a well thought out question is the beginnings of the NHL being drawn into the controversy.
Fellow American hockey player Blake Wheeler chimed in in a similar manner when he tweeted, "It's the First Amendment to our Constitution. The First one!!" and followed with, "Regardless of how it makes you feel individually, these are literally the principles the US was founded on. Come on, Mr. President."
The Penguins, however, decided that they would not be a part of the controversy by accepting the White House invitation. However, in doing so they just opened themselves up to criticism. "Colin Kaepernick has the right to kneel during the national anthem," began a piece by Luke Fox of Sportsnet.ca.
"Sidney Crosby has the right to feel honoured that Donald Trump invited him and his team to the White House.
"And you have the right to wake up feeling sick to your stomach that an athlete with great power squandered an opportunity to take a stand."
Crosby is the face of the NHL, a Canadian who will go down as one of the all-time greats. He's here to play hockey, not make political statements. “Everyone’s got the right to go or not to go,” Crosby told reporters. “But we’ve been invited and we accepted the invitation. I don’t think you have to read into it any more than that.”
Regardless of what Crosby thinks of the apolitical nature of the invitation to the White House and the Penguins acceptance, it's now political. President Trump forced people to take a side and in accepting the invitation, especially during a polarizing weekend, the Penguins, however inadvertently, sided with Trump who took a moment to harken it as a triumph. "Please to inform that the Champion Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL will be joining me at the White House for Ceremony," he tweeted. "Great team!"
I'd rather sports and politics be separate too, but that will never be the case again. There has always been an intertwining of the two but they really came together back in 1991 at Super Bowl XXV, 10 days into the Persian Gulf War. Years later 911 would make sports gatherings equally about patriotism and we'd soon see constant military fly-overs to begin a game and huge U.S. flags unfurled on the football field as well as the introduction of God Bless America with regularity.
Yet, despite all this, the flag represents an America that is special because of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. As was intimated by Matthews and outwardly said by Wheeler and a host of others from a large cross-section of Americans, we as Americans have the right to free speech which can take many forms and those documents are there not to protect the majority, but to protect the minority who's view would otherwise be shackled.
When the president takes the Oath of Office he "solemnly swears and will to the best of [his] Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
With no reference to the flag or the National Anthem, the way I read it, President Trump is sworn to protect the Colin Kaepernicks of this country.
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