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Why the Pittsburgh Penguins should reconsider meeting Trump: Paradkar

The Penguins say they respect the institution of the Office of the President. You can’t respect an office by supporting the president who disrespects it utterly.

NFL players around the league decided to make a statement by kneeling for the U.S. national anthem on Sunday. Shree Paradkar writes that the Pittsburgh Penguins also made a statement by saying yes to a celebration at the White House with Donald Trump.

Philip Croucher / The Canadian Press

NFL players around the league decided to make a statement by kneeling for the U.S. national anthem on Sunday. Shree Paradkar writes that the Pittsburgh Penguins also made a statement by saying yes to a celebration at the White House with Donald Trump.

In times of great moral crisis, says the poet Dante, “the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality.”

That threat of heat apparently failed to melt the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins when they took a stand against racial justice on Sunday by claiming not to take any.

They accepted an invitation to the Donald Trump White House one day after the U.S. president said the NBA champion Golden State Warriors were not welcome to visit.

It’s just business as usual for the Penguins, as if it were 2016, as if they were operating in a vacuum oblivious to the rising tide of anger washing all around them.

A little over a year ago, when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to first sit, then kneel, during the national anthem to protest police brutality against Black people, his peaceful protest became a lightning rod of controversy, an act of dignity conflated with lack of patriotism, insult of the flag and of American troops.

By and by, other players faced off booing spectators and knelt, so riling the country’s president that he put aside less pressing matters such as war and natural disasters to exhort team owners to fire or suspend them. On Sunday, that unleashed a reaction that transformed one man’s gesture into a powerful symbol of solidarity reaching out to include basketball and baseball players, and singers including Stevie Wonder.

Then came this hockey team’s chance to bring the NHL into the conversation.

“We attended White House ceremonies after previous championships . . . with presidents George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama — and have accepted an invitation to attend again this year,” the Penguins said in their statement.

“Any agreement or disagreement with a president’s politics, policies or agenda can be expressed in other ways.”

What “other ways,” would the Penguins approve of? Nodding solemnly after their commissioner speaks of inclusivity?

After spending hours hoping the team had had a rethink and change of heart — and exploring my implicit bias linking Canadian presence on the team with social conscience — I gave up my rather foolish hope they might still use the opportunity to voice their discomfort with the president’s support of racist policies.

This is not a president one reasons with.

“He’s now using sports as a platform to divide us,” said a sombre LeBron James about Trump on a video he posted online.

The Penguins say they respect the institution of the Office of the President. You can’t respect an office by supporting the president who disrespects it utterly.

Trump calls the mostly Black athlete protesters, “sons of bitches” but has labelled white extremist protesters in Charlottesville, “very fine people.”

“This has nothing to do with race,” Trump told reporters Sunday about his criticism of the athletes. “I never said anything about race. This has nothing to do with race or anything else. This has to do with respect for our country and respect for our flag.”

He wants us to believe his vicious disagreement with a protest against racial injustice has nought to do with race, just like the Penguins want us to believe that theirs is a dispassionate separation of sports and politics.

They did not, as a CBC headline said, “set politics aside” to accept Trump’s invitation.

Saying no to celebration at this White House celebration makes a statement. Saying yes to a celebration at this White House also makes a statement.

Neutrality in a battle for human rights is a statement of support for the status quo that props up the powerful at the cost of the powerless.

Leaving aside the marginalized for a moment, what statement is this team making to the sprinkling of their NHL colleagues that don’t look like them — P.K. Subban, Wayne Simmonds, Joel Ward, or Evander Kane, for instance?

My colleague, Kevin McGran, wrote that “hockey has largely stayed out of the protests, partly because of citizenship. The NFL and NBA are manned mostly by Americans, while pro hockey has a large percentage of Canadians and Europeans on rosters, who may feel uncomfortable criticizing the country that is hosting them. Also, the large majority of NHL players are white.”

To those uncomfortable players: dissent is not disrespectful. Not taking a stand against racial injustice is, for it knows no borders and indeed abounds in your home countries too. Like the NFL players, like the NBA players, you, too, have a platform. You, too, have a voice.

This isn’t about the Penguins’ freedom to make their choice. Rather it’s what that choice says about them.

There come moments in public life when certain decisions are plucked out and pinned on to an arc of history.

When that happens to this moment, when the future gazes back, where does this team want to see itself placed?

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