John Tortorella, head coach of both the Columbus Blue Jackets and Team USA in the upcoming World Cup of Hockey, is a fairly outspoken guy. Who in the NHL coaching fraternity, for example, can boast to having paid a $30,000 fine for insinuating that the Winter Classic was fixed for television?
But while this coach doth protest too much, he doesn’t believe NHL players – or professional athletes, apparently – should use the national anthem to file their own protests, as San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick did recently when he sat during its playing, later saying that he’s not “going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
His actions sparked a national debate about the way minorities are treated by law enforcement as well as the sanctity of the national anthem, and inspired other athletes like soccer star Megan Rapinoe to do the same.
But if a player on John Tortorella’s team dared join in a protest like that? The coach laid it out for Linda Cohn of ESPN:
“If any of my players sit on the bench for the national anthem, they will sit there the rest of the game.”
(Memo to those players: Hey, it might cost you a regular-season game, but your jersey sales are going to be sick.)
Tortorella didn’t offer the same sentiment when USA Today’s Kevin Allen did a spin on the Kaepernick story and the NHL earlier this week, but Team USA’s Brian Burke appeared to share his approach. From USA Today:
Calgary Flames President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke who is a senior advisor for Team USA said he respects athletes’ right to “express opinions, vote, attend political rallies and make political contributions. “But I don’t believe the field of competition is a place to make political statements,” Burke said.
Setting aside the fact that John Tortorella would healthy-scratch a player for lacing his skates differently than John Tortorella does, this is just a staggeringly foolish thing for an NHL coach to say, let alone one who also coaches the U.S. national team.
John Tortorella is getting paid to win hockey games. At least, in theory. The idea that his personal politics, no matter the issue, would determine which players would compete in a game to help him achieve that aim is, frankly, dereliction of duty. And we would pay big, huge money to listen to that conversation between Tortorella and his 50-year-old general manager in Columbus – a native of Tampere, Finland – as the coach explains that star defenseman Seth Jones was scratched because he didn’t stand for a few minutes of pregame propaganda, and because the player’s personal politics aren’t as important as his white, privileged coach’s.
(And if you’re going to somehow argue the playing of the anthem before a sporting event isn’t propaganda, then you’re ignorant of its history at these sporting events.)
And yeah, we brought up Seth Jones, because there have been a few stories written about the Colin Kaepernick situation and how it tangentially and theoretically could impact a sport where five percent of the players are black. Among the NHL people whose opinions have been collected for this trend story: John Tortorella, Brian Burke, David Backes, Jack Johnson and Cory Schneider. Oh, and NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, who told Aaron Portzline that the League doesn’t have an anthem policy and those protests would be handled on a “case by case basis.”
But not Seth Jones or Dustin Byfuglien or J.T. Brown or Emerson Etem or Kyle Okposo or any African-American player. Not P.K. Subban or Anthony Duclair or Jarome Iginla or Evander Kane or Wayne Simmonds or any black Canadian player who earns a salary in an American city.
This isn’t to say someone as insightful as Backes or Schneider shouldn’t offer an opinion and join the dialogue on this issue, because that’s not the point. Nor is this to say that Tortorella, despite his draconian prohibition of self-expression, shouldn’t offer his either. Again, not the point.
Due respect to them, but it isn’t about them.
What Kaepernick said:
“This stand wasn’t for me. This stand wasn’t because I feel like I’m being put down in any kind of way. This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard, and affect change. So I’m in the position where I can do that, and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.”
It’s wonderful that we now know that the coach tasked with representing American ideals and values on the world stage would seek to punish those speaking on behalf of the voiceless. But it would be more productive, and impactful, to know what black and minority NHL players are thinking about the Kaepernick protest; and now, thanks to his ever-running mouth, John Tortorella’s on-the-record punishment for anyone that joins it.
Way to bring hockey into the debate, Johnny.