Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. Despite their gifts for strong-arming opponents and venomous rancor, the Boston Bruins are not Congress.
The Boston Bruins are a business, with an owner and a managerial power structure and employees. Goalie Tim Thomas is one such employee, a tenured and rather important one. Were this a Burger King, his face would be on the employee of the year plaque for 2011 and he'd get the parking space closest to the doors.
That established: There is absolutely "a way" for the Boston Bruins to have forced Tim Thomas to attend the team's White House celebration of its 2011 Stanley Cup championship and face time with President Barack Obama; or to "remind" him after the fact that his attendance was mandatory.
The Conn Smythe winner is being trashed for his cowardice; yet the Boston Bruins are the ones that were spineless in enabling him.
In a standard player contract in the National Hockey League, the player agrees to the following in exchange for an annual wage from his employer (via Andrew's Stars Page):
"(d) to co-operate with the Club and participate in any and all reasonable promotional activities of the Club which will in the opinion of the Club promote the welfare of the Club and to cooperate in the promotion of the League and professional hockey generally,
"(e) to conduct himself on and off the rink according to the highest standards of honesty, morality, fair play and sportsmanship, and to refrain from conduct detrimental to the best interest of the Club, the League or professional hockey generally."
There's no question that attending a White House fete for the team is (d) good for "promotion of the League and professional hockey generally, while detracting from that event due to personal politics can be seen as (e) "from conduct detrimental to the best interest of the Club, the League or professional hockey generally."
As GM Peter Chiarelli said at the White House on Monday, the Bruins could have required Thomas or any player to attend the event.
"If they don't, I can suspend him. But I'm not going to suspend Tim. Whatever his position is isn't representative of the Boston Bruins or my own. But I'm not going to suspend him," he said.
Translation: I knew about this possibility months ago. I could have laid down the law and said, "Look, not attending the White House celebration is an insult to your teammates and this franchise, and you will be suspended for conduct detrimental to the team. And before you go on Facebook to rant about the government, you'll go on our website and apologize to the rest of the guys in that room." It's not Tim Thomas and the Boston Bruins. Go speak at a Tea Party rally in the offseason."
Did taking that risk martyring Thomas? Absolutely. I would have been first in line with my pitchfork, rallying for Thomas's views not to be silenced.
So would that risk making the Bruins look like Orwellian censors who crush political dissent, but no more so than any other employer that asks their employees not to engage in public political discourse because their contract forbids it. And it happens everywhere, every day in every massive company.
Even if the risks ran too high to require Thomas to attend the event, the Bruins blew it on another front: Owning the controversy.
Literally, this is how things went down on Monday at the White House among the press corps:
"Hey, Obama just name-checked Tim Thomas an as American hockey hero!"
"Say, where's Tim Thomas on the risers?"
"Say, where's Tim Thomas at the White House?"
"The Bruins say they'll tell us where Tim Thomas is."
"[Expletive] me, he chose not to attend because of political reasons? [Expletive] me sideways, he's a Tea Partier?"
"No, seriously Cam, that's great and all, but what about your goalie snubbing Obama?"
Which is to say Thomas's absence was a complete and total surprise to nearly everyone in attendance not affiliated with the team.
The Bruins played Sunday afternoon. Had they released a statement Sunday night, they get ahead of the story. Had they released a statement last week, they get ahead of the story. Now? They actually had to wait to react to a Tim Thomas Facebook message because they didn't know what he'd say, and now have a tempest-in-a-tea-party following their goalie to Ottawa for the All-Star Game.
Why not announce Thomas' intentions prior to the visit in order to defuse the situation and take the heat out of it on Monday afternoon. Thomas is wonderful at stopping pucks in tense situations and he's one of the most humble athletes you'll ever come across.
But he's not a brilliant PR strategist and there seems to have been no notion of getting out ahead of the train wreck that steamed into the East Wing of the White House Monday afternoon. The day should have been about Obama mentioning the "Little Ball of Hate" to Brad Marchand's red-faced embarrassment. Or perhaps it should have been about Obama mistakenly referencing the baptism of Dennis Seidenberg's "son" in the Cup when it was actually his two daughters baptized in the Stanley Cup on a boat off the coast of Atlantic City this summer.
Instead, it was a day some believe was "hijacked by someone ignorantly putting themselves first ahead of their band of brothers."
Again, I find what Thomas did to be bold. I don't see it as an act of cowardice, seeing all the relationships and good will he risked.
But he declared that he was acting as a "Free Citizen," which is only partially true: He was acting as an employee of the Boston Bruins. They can say "his views certainly do not reflect those of the Jacobs family or the Bruins organization." But they enabled his actions, mishandled the story and are just as culpable for creating this controversy.
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