He didn’t mean to do it, but when John Tortorella made his comments about the Colin Kaepernick national anthem issue, the Columbus Blue Jackets coach put defenseman Seth Jones in a no-win situation.
Tortorella hasn’t mentioned race at all in his statements, but since Kaepernick’s protest stems from the anti-black racism he sees as a visible minority in America, it didn’t take long for the media to connect the dots and get Jones – who identifies as bi-racial, for the record – on the radio for his thoughts. Jones said he had no problem with Tortorella’s words, but what was he supposed to say? He disagreed with a coach who has a history of flying off the handle and is clearly very passionate about the national anthem? Yeah, right. Hockey players keep their heads down enough when it comes to politics, but it is doubly hard when that player is a visible minority.
Since I’m yet another white dude weighing in on things, I asked a black player off the record what he thought of the controversy. He noted that younger black players don’t want to make waves in the media because they’ll be seen as ungrateful – after all, isn’t it every young player’s dream to be in the NHL? And there is a real worry that speaking out would get them blackballed around the league.
One player who has spoken out is Tampa Bay’s J.T. Brown. The Lightning right winger questioned Tortorella’s logic on Twitterand immediately sparked a conversation on the matter.
Brown then had to go on the defensive, explaining himself in an article by Tampa Bay Times reporter Joe Smith. “I love America and thank the military for protecting our freedoms, as well as law enforcement for protecting and serving our communities,” Brown said. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t acknowledge that there is still racism today. I am glad my tweet provoked a discussion, because we need to start having a conversation about racism if we want to work towards a better America.”
Politics and hockey don’t come together very often, mainly because the culture of the game is very team-first. Tim Thomas took a lot of heat when he declined to join his Stanley Cup-winning Bruins at the White House because he didn’t agree with President Barack Obama’s politics, but it’s hard to come up with many other examples. Perhaps another reason is because the NHL is predominantly white and that privilege can serve as a pretty good fog against activism.
And I’d like to call out Tortorella for being a goon, but having talked to players who used to skate for him, that just doesn’t fit. In the dressing room he’s a tough coach to play for and he tries to break players down to see what they are like at their weakest, but he does it to get the guys ready. If you buy in and work hard, he rewards you. Away from the rink, he’s apparently a really nice guy. He’s old-school and very patriotic (no kidding), but otherwise very warm.
I believe Tortorella was thinking about what the anthem and the flag mean to him when he made his statements. It’s a respect issue for the coach, not a race issue. Because he’ll never get pulled over by the police for driving a nice car in the “wrong” neighborhood, he can live in that bubble. Hopefully the controversy he helped fuel will get him thinking of the issue in different ways. And hopefully he’ll realize, if he hasn’t already, that his comments put one of his own best players in the public’s crosshairs.