January 25, 2012

No Separation of Sports and State

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Politics and sports don’t always mix very well — from Muhammad Ali’s refusal to enlist in the draft, to U.S. boycotts of the Olympics, to players refusing to acknowledge the flag during the singing of the national anthem. Earlier this week, Tim Thomas — the Stanley Cup MVP and star goaltender of the Boston Bruins — declined to accompany his team to the White House for what has now become the traditional championship-team visit with the President. Although Thomas says that his reasons are not political, I’m not so sure. Thomas stated on his Facebook page that the reason for declining had nothing to do with “politics or party.” However, given that his statement criticizes the state of government policy in general and that he is a Tea Party supporter, his reasoning is not entirely apolitical. After all, a political statement does not necessarily have to be partisan.

Of course Thomas has every right to skip out on the festivities, sending a message through his actions. This country protects freedom to choose, especially with regard to what one chooses to say; however, that does not mean that anything anybody does has to be agreeable to everyone. I don’t agree with Thomas’ choice. It’s not because Thomas committed the sacrilegious act of individualizing himself in the context of a team moment. I don’t think the dynamics of team cohesion are as important off the playing surface as they are on it. General managers frequently trade away or lose players to free agency after championship runs, so these players are often unable to accompany their previous team to championship ceremonies the following season. Besides, it was only a silly trip to the White House.

What bothers me is what Thomas’ actions say about the nature of political discourse in this country. Everybody is entitled to have his own political opinions and to express them however he pleases. However, I believe Thomas’ actions represent political beliefs that are counterproductive. It is divisive political discourse that is not conducive to constructive resolution of political differences. It’s the type of corrosive expression like the outburst of “You lie!” from Representative Joe Wilson to President Obama during a 2009 speech to a joint session of Congress. Wilson’s actions prompted members of Congress to sit together, disregarding partisan lines at last year’s State of the Union address — a symbolic gesture meant to convey unity.

I’m not opposed to athletes expressing their political beliefs; however, I am opposed to the way Thomas chose to do it on this occasion. I’m fine with him displaying his Tea Party affiliation on his goalie mask, but I don’t agree with his choice to decline an invitation from the President — a decision which to me appears politically motivated. In fact, I would have even been fine with him showing up to the White House with a Tea Party symbol or even expressing his political beliefs to the President.

As Kevin Paul Dupont wrote in the Boston Globe, “Tim Thomas … had a chance to tell the leader of the free world what he thinks it means to be an American today.” This is the difference between Thomas and a player who refuses to acknowledge the flag. You cannot talk to the flag, but you can talk to the President. By opting not even to visit with the President, Thomas chose to engage in the type of divisive politics that is corrosive to our government’s institutions and is essentially counterproductive.

It reminds me of something my high school English teacher told me during my junior year about the difference between respecting the man and the office. It’s not that we should have a reverence for the Presidency or any other “office” for that matter, but institutions such as the presidency are symbolically important institutions in our society. Additionally, actions that tarnish the institution without a sufficiently compelling reason are bad for society. Perhaps you think that our institutions of government are so bad that they do deserve to be attacked. I hardly think that is the case. Give me a president who has sanctioned genocide or committed some comparable act, and then I’ll think discourse that attacks the institution of government is warranted. Of course, Thomas’ decision to decline an invitation to the White House wasn’t the first, and it surely won’t be the last. I do hope it is the exception though. We do not need any more polarizing and nonconstructive political expression right now.

Original Author: Brian Bencomo