If any of my players sit on the bench for the national anthem, they will sit there the rest of the game.
--John Tortorella, coach of the U.S. national team in this fall's World Cup of Hockey
John Tortorella is but one of countless people, inside and outside sports, who have weighed in on 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision to call attention to racial injustice by sitting (or more recently, taking a knee) during the pre-game playing of the national anthem. But being a hockey fan, my ears pricked up when I heard about Tortorella's stance, and being the author of a hockey novel, I immediately tried to put myself in the shoes (or rather, the skates) of Torts's players.
It's common to assume that professional athletes--at least the ones who play in the big-money men's leagues--are privileged, and that their wealth and status afford them protection that the rest of us don't enjoy. I believe that that's true in some cases, yet these athletes remain vulnerable in other ways.
This vulnerability is one of the themes in my novel Seeking the Center. While the story revolves around Agnes, a character who is locked out of professional hockey altogether because she's female (we're talking the mid-1990s, before the CWHL or NWHL), many of the characters are male professional players who love the game yet struggle to feel comfortable within the cultural confines of their locker rooms and leagues.
Claude, for example, knows that he must watch his behavior on and off the ice. He's not a top-skill kind of player and he understands that he's considered replaceable. The fact that he's not white makes his position even more tenuous, as Coach obliquely indicates. Likewise, Owen's no fan of the ugly misogyny and racism that he witnesses on the ice and in the dressing room, but he doesn't feel that he has the option to speak out against it.
These athletes are members of teams, relatively small groups of "guys" (even the ubiquitous use of the term "guys" as opposed to "men" seems to reflect something about the way they're supposed to think of themselves and each other) situated within relatively small communities (leagues) in which conformity and the financial bottom line are paramount. Positions on these teams are highly competitive and no matter how great a player's skill, his days are numbered and he is ultimately disposable.
Deciding when to stand up and say something (or when to sit down) can be a difficult calculation, and I have to acknowledge the courage of those who take action. For some interesting thoughts on the subject by professional baseball players, check out this link.