For over a year now, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been kneeling during the national anthem because, as he puts it, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. … 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.” This weekend, that controversy became the biggest issue in America when President Donald Trump intervened.

It started on Friday evening, when Trump called Kaepernick and others who kneel a “son of a bitch” at a Friday night rally in Alabama. Then the President lashed out at Steph Curry, point guard on the Golden State Warriors, tweeting “Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Stephen Curry is hesitating,therefore invitation is withdrawn!” In response, the Warriors, who are the reigning NBA champions,  and the NCAA Men’s Basketball champions, the University of North Carolina, announced that they would be foregoing their traditional White House visits this year. A large number of players from the NBA, NFL, and MLB have issued criticisms of the president’s comments, mostly on Twitter. And on Sunday, an  unprecedented number of NFL players took a knee during the U.S. national anthem as a symbol of protest and solidarity with Kaepernick. It was, in short, a watershed moment for political activism in professional sports — the first time in recent memory where large numbers of teams and athletes have publicly battled the president of the United States.

Through all of this, the NHL’s owners and players have largely stayed silent. The biggest exception were the 2016-2017 Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who opted to release a statement saying that they will be going ahead with their White House visit as planned. Their statement read:

The Pittsburgh Penguins respect the institution of the Office of the President, and the long tradition of championship teams visiting the White House. 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.

By drawing attention to the two former Presidents — George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama, a Republican and a Democrat — and by using the term “Office of the President” rather than Donald Trump’s name, the Penguins are positioning their decision as apolitical. Visiting the White House is something all winners do in every administration — making continuing with it a politically neutral move.

But this is not neutrality. This is taking a side: President Trump’s side, specifically.

The Penguins and, less directly, the NHL leadership, are saying that this president’s calls to fire athletes —private citizens who are exercising their First Amendment rights — will not be met with protest from them. Trump attacking black athletes like Kaepernick and Curry, who play other sports, does not impact them and is therefore not in need of comment. Showing respect for the “institution of the Office of the President,” when the president sitting in that office has issued racist, sexist, transphobic, Islamophobic, and ableist statements (and this is not an exhaustive list) that have provoked others to refuse their invitation, is a political act whether the Penguins choose to acknowledge this or not. While the Penguins may have been attempting to shield their players from controversy, this announcement had the opposite effect.

The clearest evidence for this is Trump’s own reaction. After the Penguins made their announcement on Sunday, the president tweeted a “thank you” note to the team, essentially using their announcement as a way of defusing the growing chorus of criticism from professional athletes. These ones, he’s saying, are on his side:

The timing of the Pens’ statement couldn’t have been worse. On the day after two other teams announced their decisions to forego their trips to the White House, and as scores of NFL players kneeled, linked arms, and spoke out against racism and President Trump, the Penguins’ statement undermines the activism of these athletes. When they state that “The Pittsburgh Penguins respect the institution of the Office of the President,” the implication is clear: the Golden State Warriors and the UNC Tar Heels do not. “Any agreement or disagreement with a president's politics, policies or agenda can be expressed in other ways,” they write. In other words, neither the Pittsburgh Penguins as organization nor its players should use their platforms to make political statements.

Their caveat, “we very much respect the rights of other individuals and groups to express themselves as they see fit,” does not diminish the implication of releasing this statement, at this time. It claims that, unlike those other teams, the Pittsburgh Penguins will not rock the boat. The team will smile for the cameras as they make the President look good. Participating in a fun photo opportunity for a President who has referred to their athletic peers as “son[s] of bitches,” who can only muster a lukewarm condemnation of white supremacists, who has attempted to ban Muslims from the United States, who targets trans service members, who has called for more police violence, and who has bragged about sexually assaulting women, sends just as loud a message as declining to participate. And deciding to announce it on Sunday, giving Trump an opportunity to gleefully tweet about it, further positions Pittsburgh as one of the ‘good ones’ in contrast to those unruly black teams.

The timing of Pittsburgh’s announcement delegitimizes the idea of athletic activism itself, in a way that pro forma language about rights could never fix. It implies that everything from Kaepernick’s protest, which appears to have cost him his job, to WNBA players Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, and Maya Moore, wearing “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts to protest the police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, is somehow outside the purview of what professional athletes should concern themselves. In other words, it’s the equivalent of yelling “stay in your lane” at the Penguins’ peers in the NBA and NFL.

But there never really was a time when we could just “stick to hockey” and avoid politics. Sports are inherently political, although what gets deemed political — kneeling during the national anthem versus choosing to play a national anthem before a game in the first place — depends on what perspectives are considered controversial, and which ones are deemed commonsense. It needs to be said: a professional sports league such as the NHL that receives public subsidies for arenas, who sings the national anthem of Canada and/or the United States before every game, who performs tributes to the troops on a regular basis, and who hosts politicians and Prime Ministers and Presidents at their games, is not a politically neutral league. The NHL and its teams need to take these politics seriously.

Two warnings had to be issued for failure to engage in discussion in an adult, respectful manner.  Perhaps some of you think discussing issues like this is a rhetorical game where you score points and make sick burns and show off your cleverness by “winning” an internet argument.

That sort of nonsense does not advance anyone’s understanding of an issue, and is exhausting for the rest of us, as it’s intended to be, I am sure.

Comments are now closed, while everyone thinks about things instead of verbal jousting.