When The Ringer editor Bryan Curtis penned his late-January essay, The End of “Stick to Sports,” he stumbled, albeit backwards, into a good point: Donald Trump’s presidency could be a “watershed” moment for sportswriters. “The era of ‘stick to sports’ is over,” he wrote. Sports journalists who’ve often -- or even seldom -- ventured into the realm of politics have just as often been told they ought not to. It has almost always been true, of fandom’s purists, that society’s issues should be kept at arm’s length of sport.
But Curtis’ premise was inherently flawed by his lens. Trump may have awoken the liberal white sportswriters’ purview to their platform’s societal obligation, but sticking to sports hasn’t always been optional for minorities in fandom, writing, and broadcasting in sport. The post-Trump sports journalism landscape might be a watershed opportunity for most of its affluent white voices, like myself, but it probably isn’t for most others.
In the NFL, while the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady has either pedalled Trump’s rhetoric or feigned ignorance, pleading with the media to stick to asking him questions about football, most others in the community have put their sport on the backburner, bringing politics forward. When dozens of NFL players knelt in solidarity against police violence and Colin Kaepernick risked his career and spent his earnings on causes he believed in as part of an ongoing silent protest, the media rose to the challenge. All of Sports Illustrated, USA Today, Heavy, CBS, the Washington Post, and the New York Times have written essays on the Trump-Brady relationship and the issues it raises.
On the same day Brady refused to comment on Trump’s Muslim ban, NBA players and coaches spoke out against the immigration order, too. “I think it’s bullshit. I think it’s absolute bullshit,” Toronto Raptors all-star Kyle Lowry told reporters after being asked for his thoughts on the travel ban. That same week, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who lost his father to terrorism, joined Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, Raptors coach Dwane Casey, Spurs coach Greg Popovich, Brooklyn Nets players Rondae Hollis Jefferson and Jeremy Lin, Oklahoma City Thunder centre Enes Kanter, Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried, and Phoenix Suns coach Earl Watson, among others, in speaking out. Los Angeles Lakers forward Luol Deng, a refugee, also wrote a letter of solidarity for those seeking refuge. And basketball’s media responded, with mammoths such as ESPN’s Zach Lowe speaking out through essays, tweets, or broadcast airtime.
In both leagues, players have expressed their reluctance to visit the White House. LeBron James, arguably the planet’s biggest athlete and an oft-critic of Trump’s, has considered boycotting a Cleveland Cavaliers championship visit to the White House.
But the hockey world and its journalism, both run by a like-minded, more privileged, more sheltered, wealthier majority (hockey is the second most expensive sport to participate in, after waterskiing, according to a 2014 Solutions Research Group study), has been largely silent in the infancy of Trump’s presidency, and his campaign before that. While NFL and NBA players began silent (or outwardly loud) protests in the fall of 2016, Team USA World Cup of Hockey head coach John Tortorella warned his players – namely, though implicitly, Seth Jones and Dustin Byfuglien -- that they would sit if they sat. Lightning forward J.T. Brown was the lone player to push back, when he tweeted “Wouldn't benching a black man for taking a stance only further prove Kap's point of oppression?” before issuing a thoughtful, pointed statement via the Tampa Bay Times.
Since, hockey players have been inactive during Trump’s young presidency. And it’s several parts due to a different, hockey-playing demographic, but it’s also several parts a media that hasn’t forced the issue. Less than two dozen countries feed talent into the NHL, and none of them were affected by Trump’s early immigration policies like an NBA player such as Thon Maker, born in Sudan and a former refugee, could have been. Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola was briefly tapped as Trump’s Army secretary but he withdrew not due to differences of opinion but rather because he couldn’t properly divest himself from his business.
Whether we choose to value the political leanings and opinions of hockey players or not, their voices still matter. As professional athletes, they have a platform and the ability to make a difference in peoples’ hearts and minds. And some have tried to use that platform, but only tepidly. Leafs forward Nazem Kadri called the ban “unfortunate,” while Brandon Saad, of Syrian lineage, and Mika Zibanejad, who has family in Iran, both offered ‘no comments’ in the aftermath of the immigration order. When the media has attempted to discuss the issue, they’ve done so in misguided, poor faith. Saad’s father, George, who is trying to help his family immigrate to the United States, was backed into supporting the immigration ban when asked about it.
Sport, even in a politicized world, is one of the few places where people from the right or the left of the political spectrum can be heard by the other side, according to ESPN’s Rachel Nichols. “I think there are a couple intersecting lines that are all meeting up right now,” she said in conversation with Slate. “I think one of the big things about sports is that it is one of the few places right now that everyone still meets and participates in.” Players, increasingly, are participating in athlete activism too, she insisted. Athletes and their concurrent coverage don’t exist outside of the realm of politics in a time when the Muslim ban could impact them directly. “You just can’t say, ‘We can’t talk about it, it’s politics.’ It’s actually affecting people who play,” Nichols finished.
In his piece, “Should Athletes Stick to Sports?”, the New York Times’ Jay Caspian Kang argued that now, more than ever before, athletes’ voices might actually be heard by the White House too. “Let’s remember that Trump, perhaps even more than his basketball-obsessed predecessor, is a sports fan,” he said. “Above all, he has shown a crippling sensitivity to the opinions of his fellow celebrities. Professional sports usually provides a poor, inaccurate reflection of politics, but sometimes elements of that imagery — the machismo, the posturing, the adoration of stars — align exactly. Jocks, if nothing else, know how to get the president’s attention.”
Hockey writer Dave Lozo attributed the lack of commentary from players to their taught-not-to-say-anything culture. “If there’s one thing the NHL has over the other major North American sports leagues, it’s the number of very wealthy white guys,” he wrote in a piece for The Comeback. “So if your bloodshot, weary eyes are looking for a high-profile or any-profile athlete to speak out against Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, you probably want to direct them somewhere else.” And he’s right. “Hockey players are afraid to say anything too positive about a goal they scored because they don’t want to upset the team dynamic that has a level of conformity rarely seen outside military units and Scientology,” he opined.
But it’s also on the media to push that button. Some, including the Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur, have been vocal in the infancy of the post-Trump world. But most of hockey’s media has been dormant. Lozo was blunt with his colleagues: “Here’s the thing about hockey media — WE. ARE. COWARDS. We don’t want to put anyone on the spot or go to all 20 lockers and force the same question on people that may not want to answer it. But mostly, we are cowards.” But beyond Lozo’s editorial, there has been little commentary outside the confines of Twitter from hockey’s foremost media.
And hockey’s politics problem doesn’t even end with Trump. While the NBA and the NCAA have taken strong stances against North Carolina’s transphobic House Bill 2 (threatening to withdraw funding, and relocating events such as the NBA All-Star Game or the NCAA championships), the NHL has never released a statement. Instead, the Carolina Hurricanes released a club statement wherein they didn’t even name HB2 or the trans community: “The Carolina Hurricanes and PNC Arena are devoted to providing a welcoming and respectful environment for all fans. We stand against all forms of discrimination.” Though some, including SB Nation’s San Jose Sharks blog Fear The Finn, have questioned the NHL’s silence on the bill, players and the mainstream media have not been vocal, or even present, in the debate surrounding the policy.
So while giants from Nichols to the New York Times have posed themselves the question of whether athletes and their largest media platforms should stick to sports, and all of them have come to the same conclusion (no, they shouldn’t), the hockey world has yet to reach that answer. When Curtis listed nearly two dozen sports journalists who’d used their platform to write different, more political stories since Trump’s inauguration, every major professional sport in North America was represented… except hockey.
It wasn’t a coincidence.
Maybe that watershed awakening will never come for a group of players and media unsure, or afraid, of entering out of the sports bubble and into a more political dichotomy. Maybe the ‘stick to sports’ crowd is stronger, or at the very least has more clout, than Curtis thought. Or maybe Lozo was right, and hockey -- a sport built upon a foundation of sticking up for your teammates -- is bubbling with cowardice, ill-equipped for fights that, in places like Raleigh, North Carolina, home to the Hurricanes, are right at their door.