Pittsburgh Penguins stride apolitically into political firestorm — and side with Trump in the process

During last year’s NBA playoffs, after a game in Cleveland in which he had swatted the Toronto Raptors away like a gnat, LeBron James was asked about an incident in Boston in which Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones was subjected to racial slurs.

James, earmarked for stardom since he was a teen and no stranger to a microphone, gave a long and thoughtful answer that talked about his own experiences, what he teaches his kids, and ended up at Martin Luther King. “Racism is going to be a part of (life) forever, I believe,” James said. “But for us, the people that have opportunities to have a voice and people that have an opportunity to have some effect on the youth that’s coming up, we have to lead them the best way we can.”

I recall thinking: these are definitely not the NHL playoffs.

The NHL has long been the whitest of professional leagues on this continent, but never has the stark difference between it and its counterparts been put in such relief as Sunday, when the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins said they would visit the White House — a declaration that came as the NFL’s morning shows featured speaker after speaker upbraiding Donald Trump for sticking his orange head all up in their business.

“Great team!” tweeted the U.S. President, who will probably be dismayed to learn that the Penguins only have one Russian.

Though the timing of the Pens’ move was particularly objectionable — the team’s claim that it intends to keep the visit apolitical was undercut rather severely by stepping right into the middle of a firestorm of Trump’s own making — the past few days have seen them be blasted for even making the visit at all.

Sidney Crosby, as the biggest star on the team and one of very few NHL players that most American sports fans could name, finds himself bearing the weight of the criticism because he’s the captain and he’s a good kid from Cole Harbour, N.S., and why won’t he just denounce Trump already? (Crosby has simply said he supports the planned visit and that it’s an honour to be asked.) It’s a weird thing: Crosby is beloved in Canada thanks in large part to his two Olympic medals and his golden goal, and in Pittsburgh, obviously, but is hated just about everywhere else. And now everyone, on all sides, is reconsidering their opinion.

Crosby’s expectation that he could keep politics out of his life is understandable. He never says anything controversial — like LeBron, he was groomed for this from a young age, but unlike LeBron, it has stuck — and his personal life is a closed book. When Alex Ovechkin was telling anyone who would listen that he would play for Russia in the Olympics even if the NHL didn’t participate, Crosby was saying gosh, he hadn’t thought about it.

It’s also true that White House visits have historically been pretty damn apolitical. Aside from former Boston goalie Tim Thomas’ noted snubbing of Barack Obama, teams go, they smile and shake hands, and the President holds up a jersey for the cameras and that is that. No one ever considers this much of an endorsement of who is holding the office.

In 2008, the Anaheim Ducks visited the White House of George W. Bush. By that point in his presidency, more than 4,000 Americans had died fighting in Iraq, in a war that was widely considered to have been started under false pretenses. The Ducks represented a state that voted 55 per cent in favour of Democrat John Kerry in the previous election, and they did all the usual things with the Republican then-President without anyone considering that they had, for example, endorsed war crimes.

But, that was then, et cetera. Donald Trump is unique in our lifetimes in that he has made the presidency a very personal thing. He blasts anyone and anything he doesn’t like, without regard for whether it’s appropriate for the holder of his office to do so. You cannot reasonably claim you intend to just visit the White House to respect the institution and pretend that Trump won’t claim it as a personal victory if you do. He did it more or less immediately.

It’s possible that Crosby is just slow to come to this realization. He smiled for more than a few photos with Stephen Harper, who was fairly polarizing in his day, and managed to escape condemnation. It’s possible that he, in the middle of a lifetime of anodyne comments, is determined to not take sides even when it’s impossible, with this President, to stay neutral.

There has been an awful lot in this space in recent days about freedom of speech, and of course Crosby and his teammates have every right to accept a White House invitation. But in the context of the social issues of the moment, it’s also a decision that puts the NBA, and much of the NFL, over on one side, and the NHL over on the other. Next to NASCAR.

Sidney Crosby, master of banal utterances, has chosen a side. It will be fascinating to see how much interest he has in defending it.

Email: | Twitter: @scott_stinson

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