Sports media was alight this weekend with stories on NFL players, a cheerleader and an anthem singer kneeling bravely before games to protest against systems of racial injustice and oppression, continuing a movement started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. There were intense and often hilarious clapbacks from professional athletes at Donald Trump, who disinvited the NBA champion Golden State Warriors to the White House.
There was solidarity from Oakland A's catcher Bruce Maxwell, the first MLB player to take a knee, and from the WNBA's LA Sparks, who didn't take the court during the anthem of their championship game. But on a day where the world watched sports and politics become heavily intertwined, the Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins released a vacuous statement declaring that they had visited the White House before and would be going again.
The Penguins reminded us that "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."
Yes, political disagreements can be expressed "other ways." But "other ways" are not super helpful when trying to combat systems of racial oppression and police brutality. They are not super helpful in an environment where by even visiting the White House you are condoning a man who called Kaepernick a "son of a bitch" but Nazis in Charlottesville "very fine people."
I asked Jashvina Shah, a hockey reporter who covers men's college hockey and the CWHL, about the statement issued by the Pens.
"It's weak because they chose to "respect" the institution and tradition of visiting the White House without acknowledging or condemning white supremacy and completely ignoring how harmful that act is," she said. "I don't feel that who made the decision matters because it comes either from white ownership/management or an almost all-white team. While there may have been a "discussion," it seems unlikely the PoC, or any minority perspective was thought about."
It was Canada's own, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who delivered an earth-shattering display of meh when he said after a preseason loss to the Blues, "I support it. It's a great honour for us to be invited there."
Is Crosby unfamiliar with the inhabitants of the White House and the current administration? What is honourable about a misogynist who has insulted black people, Muslims, Mexicans, people with disabilities and terrorized folks who identify as LGBT, and just issued a brand new travel ban?
Yes, Crosby is the captain of a team that's mostly made up of non-Americans (only 18 Americans out of a roster of 44, many of whom will start the season in the AHL, per Hockey Reference). The assistant captain, Evgeni Malkin, is from Russia. I understand that this could be awkward for the players who have no allegiance to, or interest in, US politics, and they might even be decidedly uncomfortable with the entire situation. But the reality is that they can't escape the fact that they work in a country where sports and politics are tightly interwoven. Their choices could ultimately contribute to or obstruct a campaign that's trying to amplify the importance of racial justice, something their captain Crosby seems to have ignored despite coming from a country that's not without its own history of racial inequality.
I find it appalling that Crosby, a fellow Bluenoser (I was born in Halifax, too) would be so blinded by the 'put politics aside' crowd that he could forget all the students who fought against racial injustice in a neighbourhood from which he hails in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Twitter user Shannon M (@zchamu) summarized how close Crosby was to the racial tension, if you need a refresher.
Halifax activist El Jones described what a bitter disappointment Crosby's words and actions are in a piece she wrote for VICE Canada. "Crosby's choice to prioritize a photo opportunity with Trump doesn't only harm those protesting in the United States. For black Canadians it is yet another reminder that we are not included in Canada, that white Canadians can safely ignore us and be excused for doing so," she said.
Fortunately, there's pushback from Pittsburgh fans and in addition to tweets condemning the team's statement, a powerful open letter to Crosby has already started circulating asking the Pens not to go.
"It would have definitely mattered if the Penguins took a hard pass on a White House invite from President Trump," sports writer Evan Moore said about the optics of the Penguins not attending. "By nature, hockey players aren't allowed to have an opinion outside of matters pertaining to the game. And stepping out there bucks traditional hockey culture. Hockey fans love their stars to stick to the game and stay away from anything that makes them look like an individual, which is why one player (J.T. Brown) spoke up regarding Colin Kaepernick's protest from the jump."
We can't fully expect Crosby and the Penguins to have the life experience or complete understanding of these issues, as they are in a predominantly white sport, owned by privileged white men, coached by privileged white men, and played by, mostly, privileged white men.
But any sense of allyship or semblance of care for people (other than white men) was destroyed by the team's tone-deaf statement followed by unhelpful comments from Crosby, the game's most recognizable star.
Maybe there's a way for the Penguins to make this right, to make an attempt as allies and show that sports are deeply connected to politics and the human experience, that hockey is for everyone, and that fellow athletes and fans really matter. Addressing societal ills by having uncomfortable conversations is how we will actually make change. Maybe after a few Stanley Cups, world championships, and Olympic gold medals, Crosby might have the stuff of a real leader to engage in those conversations and actions. He, and the Penguins, can start by not going to the White House.