As athletes protest, Crosby and NHL strike an off-key chord

It turns out Sidney Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the rest of the NHL have decided to take a knee after all.

The league and its players have historically taken a dim view of political or social stands

Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins' willingness to meet with President Donald Trump at the White House is at odds with how other pro athletes and leagues in North America are reacting. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

It turns out Sidney Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the rest of the NHL have decided to take a knee after all.

The National Hockey League has stayed mostly silent, content to sit this one out, as most of North America's professional sports world engages in a fiery debate around anthem protocol and the broader role of athletes pushing for societal change.

This past weekend was one that saw a raw intersection of sports and politics, fused together by the incendiary rhetoric and tweets of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump touched off controversy on two fronts.  With the NBA champion Golden State Warriors waffling about visiting the White House, Trump rescinded the invitation via Twitter.

"Going to the White House is considered a great honor (sic) for a championship team. Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!" Trump tweeted on Saturday morning, in response to Curry telling media on Friday that he would not be going.

The harshest of the widespread and unified condemnation was from the NBA's biggest star, Lebron James.

"Going to White House was a great honor (sic) until you showed up!" James replied via Twitter, referring to Trump as "U bum."

"For him to try to use this platform to divide us even more is not something I can stand for and not something I can be quiet about," he later added via video.

Top 5 other times athletes protested​

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After President Donald Trump called for protesting NFL'ers to be fired, over 200 of them did it anyway. We have seen many athletes perform protests over the years, and Rob Pizzo counts down five of them. 2:03

The Warriors added that instead of their White House visit, the team would use a February trip to Washington "to celebrate equality, diversity and inclusion — the values that we embrace as an organization."

The President's move didn't appear to concern the Pittsburgh Penguins. As Trump feuded with Warriors on Saturday, that same day the Stanley Cup champions accepted their invitation to the White House.

"The Pittsburgh Penguins respect the institution of the Office of the President, and the long tradition of championship teams visiting the White House," the team said in a statement. "Any agreement or disagreement with a president's politics, policies or agenda can be expressed in other ways."

"I support it," Crosby said. "It's a great honour for us to be invited there."

The league's biggest star's comments are hardly surprising. Crosby rarely, if ever, uses his vast platform to weigh in on societal issues such as race or inequality.

He's hardly an outlier. The NHL traditionally doesn't do politics.

Take the roiling anthem debate.

Members of the Buffalo Bills kneel during the national anthem on Sunday. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press)

To stand proudly for the national anthem or take a knee in quiet protest? To stand with clenched fist held high or with head bowed, hand over heart?

These questions have been front and centre in sports locker rooms across North America since NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the anthem last season.  

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour," Kaepernick said at the time. 

Kaepernick is since without a job in the NFL, but an increasing number of players have continued his protest this season.

The issue was enflamed this weekend again by Trump, who has been a vocal critic of anthem protesters.

"Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He's fired. He's fired!'" the president said at a political rally in Alabama on Friday night. "Total disrespect of our heritage, a total disrespect of everything that we stand for."

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President Donald Trump continued to attack NFL players who kneel during the national anthem as a form of protest. 3:00

Racial overtones

The racial overtones of the president's comments drew rapid and widespread condemnation.

Who was Trump to tell the NFL's all-white owners to fire the league's predominantly black players for their anthem protest?

"To have the president trying to intimidate people — I wanted to send a message that I don't condone that. I'm not okay with somebody trying to prevent someone from standing up for what they think is important," Miami Dolphins tight end Julius Thomas said.

Thomas has previously stood for the anthem, but was one of many players who joined the protest this past Sunday in the wake of Trump's comments.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell issued a statement condemning Trump's comments. So too did the league's players association and many team owners, some of whom had supported the president politically.

"In this incredibly polarizing time, there's no longer a place to sit silently. It's time to take a stand," Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carrol said. "We stand for love and justice and civility. We stand for our players and their constitutional rights, just as we stand for equality for all people."

Cleveland Browns fans show their support for President Donald Trump's no-kneeling stance. (Michael Conroy/Associated Press)

Comments from teams, officials and players in other sports have followed the same sentiments.

Earlier this month, NBA Players Association director Michele Roberts and league commissioner Adam Silver co-signed a letter to players encouraging them to express their views on social issues affecting their communities.

And when Bruce Maxwell, an African-American player for the Oakland Athletics, became the first Major League Baseball player to kneel during the national anthem, the Athletics released a statement saying they "respect and support all of our players' constitutional rights and freedom of expression."

From the NHL? Silence.  

Last year, when Kaepernick's protest began, John Tortorella, coach of Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey, said: "If any of my players sit on the bench for the national anthem, they will sit there the rest of the game."

The league would rather its players focus on hockey.

"When they're showing up for work to participate in a game that people are focused on, care about, pay a lot of money to attend, then it should be all about the game. That block of time should be apolitical," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told a conference last year.

The players appear to agree.

Can league stay silent?

It's rare for an NHL player to stray beyond hockey talk, concerned about creating any kind of distraction or ripple in the dressing room.

"To me, I don't know if kneeling, sitting, stretching is something I'd really look into doing because to me it's like a dishonour to the men and women who fight for that flag, that fight for the U.S.," said Leafs forward Auston Matthews, a native of Scottsdale, Arizona.

Yes, hockey is different. It is a game played predominantly by white Canadians and Europeans. The deep historical and racial issues that lurk beneath America's surface are not their story or their struggle.  

But should that mean the league can stay silent in the face of veiled racism?

Can it look the other way when efforts are made to intimidate and stifle constitutional free speech? 

Can the NHL be the global player the league envisions by saying nothing, staying neutral and refusing to engage.

"The behaviour of the President is unacceptable and needs to be addressed" Seattle Seahawks defensive back Richard Sherman tweeted. "If you do not Condemn this divisive Rhetoric you are Condoning it!!"

Have to wonder whether Sid the Kid and his teammates will make that visit after all.


Jamie Strashin is a native Torontonian whose latest stop is the CBC Sports department. Before, he spent 15 years covering everything from city hall to courts and breaking news as a reporter for CBC News. He has also worked in Brandon, Man., and Calgary. Follow him on Twitter @StrashinCBC


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