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President Barack Obama congratulated the Boston Bruins Monday for their 2011 Stanley Cup championship. Citing differences of opinion, Boston Globe hockey writer Fluto Shinzawa reported, Tim Thomas chose not to attend.
Good for Thomas.
Appearing at the White House, being photographed with the President and handing him an embossed Bruins jersey would make Thomas look aligned with the President. A fake alliance or not, Thomas wanted to avoid such an appearance because he sees his political relationship to the President differently. That shows both political conviction and a savvy understanding of the modern media landscape.
What would have been the alternatives? Had Thomas gone to the White House and then voiced his opposition to the President, he’d have been portrayed as hypocritical. “How can you shake hands with the President Monday and bash him Tuesday?” the media would ask. No answer Thomas could give would make him look good, so why bother giving the press the question at all? The issue still comes up by declining the invite, but at least the press can only crucify him for his opinions, not his actions.
A third alternative would have been to go, accept the President’s congratulations, then go home. Thomas would probably view that option as a wasted opportunity.
Athletes are often berated for bringing politics into sports – for expressing any personal opinions, really – but this is a natural intersection of sports and politics. Thomas saw a chance to exercise his constitutional right to free speech, and he took it. President Obama and every other politician champions this right in spirit, if not always in action (pepper spraying peaceful protesters, for example).
Additionally, even indirectly using the power of the White House to silence protest is coercion. The truest sign of a free kingdom is a person displaying that freedom even in the presence of the king. Obama is a U.S. citizen (despite whatever Donald Trump incoherently spouts), as is Thomas (one of only two on the Bruins). A president does not enjoy more freedom of speech than a hockey goalie, and Thomas shouldn’t feel intimidated just because a powerful man wants him to.
Some would argue politics shouldn’t factor into an honor for a sports accomplishment. Perhaps, but the trip to the White House is also a professional honor. By not going, Thomas essentially said his values matter more to him than his job. That’s a courageous act of self-validation.
General manager Peter Chiarelli has already said Thomas won’t be suspended for not attending. He added that “whatever his position is, it isn’t reflective of the Boston Bruins nor my own.”
That’s the correct thing to say, and the correct thing to do. Thomas has the constitutional right to speak his mind, but as an employee of the Boston Bruins, Thomas contractually must behave in a way keeping with the team’s public image. Thomas might have violated that image by skipping the trip to Washington, D.C., but instead of punishing Thomas – and possibly alienating more conservative Bruins fans – Chiarelli simply said Thomas doesn’t speak for the team. That keeps both sides happy and allows both to save face.
If only more teams could resolve issues like as maturely as the Bruins did.
Had this been a basketball or football team, where nearly everyone is American, perhaps this would be a bigger slap in the face. But can anyone really argue hockey is a quintessential American sport? Historically, most of the really great players in the league have come from elsewhere, usually Canada, Scandinavia or Russia. As a simple example, Thomas was only the second American player ever to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.
Hockey is by far the least American of the Big 4. Hockey players boast their countries of origin in a way basketball and baseball players don’t. Seven Canadian teams play in the NHL, including one that just moved out of a U.S. city where no one cared. Each player’s 24 hours with the Stanley Cup takes the trophy all over the world. “O Canada” is sung almost as often in the TD Garden as “The Star Spangled Banner.”
If a hockey player doesn’t feel like going to the White House, the symbolism of the gesture pales in comparison to the reality of hockey’s place in the U.S.
Now, if Tom Brady skipped the White House…