Tim Thomas refused to attend the White House this past weekend when the rest of the Boston Bruins were getting honored for their 2011 Stanley Cup championship.
And with that, I breathed a deep, appreciative sigh of relief.
Why? Not because of Thomas' politics—I am not a Republican or a Democrat, and I didn't even know the particulars of Thomas' contention.
Instead, I was relieved that in this world of the Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and LeBron James corporate athletes who don't say anything political in fear of losing a big-time contract, that someone said something.
If you need a history lesson of athletes behaving "politically," it can be summed up in eight words: "Damned if you do, damned if you don't."
Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to be conscripted into the US military and Vietnam War. John Carlos and Tommie Smith were vilified for their black power salute at the 1968 Olympics. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was suspended for refusing to stand for the national anthem.
Forget that public opinion on the Vietnam War would sway years later. Forget that Carlos and Smith were fighting for human rights. In other words, forget that they were right. They were vilified.
Damned if you do.
Michael Jordan was criticized for ushering in the era of the "corporate athlete." When African-American North Carolina mayoral candidate Harvey Gantt asked Jordan for an endorsement in 1990, Jordan famously declined, stating: "Republicans buy sneakers too."
Jordan put his Nike sales on a pedestal while refusing to take a political stand. What kind of stand? I suppose we are to forget that Gantt's opponent, Jesse Helms, was known as someone who stood in opposition to gay rights, disability rights, feminism, affirmative action, civil rights and HIV/AIDS funding.
Now, we have athletes who behave more like robots. Woods never said anything political and very few from the NBA or NFL make a political comment. For staying silent, athletes are criticized for not having souls.
"Everything today is driven by money; particularly in sports, where athletes think they’re making a sacrifice if they can’t wear clothes with their favorite logos on them at an Olympic awards ceremony," Ali biographer Thomas Hauser wrote in his book Muhammad Ali: The Life and Times. "I mean, how do you explain to a twelve-year-old that Muhammad Ali, based on an act of principle, risked going to jail and sacrificed the heavyweight championship of the world?"
Damned if you don't.
One exception to today's modern athlete that needs to be mentioned before we go on is Pat Tillman.
Tillman gave up a multi-million dollar contract to fight for something he believed in. His reward? He died and became a poster child for a war that he did not fully believe in.
You most likely know the name Pat Tillman. You most likely know that he was a victim of friendly fire, and maybe even know that there was a cover-up over this fact.
Did you know that he was against the war? Did you know that he commented that the training base he was at "f***ing sucked"? Did you know that he never wanted to be a celebrity? (Please read Jon Krakauer's book Where Men Win Glory.)
That seemed to be the state of the political athlete in the 21st century. Keep your mouth shut, or else. For the most part, athletes listened. That's why it is so refreshing to witness any sort of political dissent, regardless of political association.
Many will argue that Thomas' actions were disrespectful to the team. In reality, it is the media that made this situation disrespectful.
No one watches these meetings between teams and Presidents. They're not broadcast live with the world watching and they're not sacrosanct.
How do you get invited to these events? It isn't random. You go by winning the championship in your sport. That is what people watch. If Thomas, while accepting the Conn Smythe Trophy immediately after the Stanley Cup, said something along the lines of, "'I do not approve of the job Washington is doing," then that would be a distraction and selfish.
He didn't though. Thomas did not grab a megaphone and say "listen to my political beliefs." He simply refused to go because he wanted to protest against the current state of the federal government. How is that a distraction to his team? It is the media that spun it out of control.
One could argue that Thomas should have known that the media would spin it out of control. So now what? We have to act out of fear based on how the media will react? It's pathetic that the media is so predictable in their actions, but that shouldn't be a reason for people's behaviors. "Don't stand up for what you believe in because the media isn't going to like it."
This argument ultimately seems to revert back to "an athlete is an athlete." By this logic, athletes should be happy they are getting paid their exorbitant amounts and should keep their mouths shut.
You don't give up your rights when you sign on with a professional sports organization. The same way you don't when you become a teacher, doctor, nurse, IT specialist, programmer, manager, store clerk, janitor, businessman or priest. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and should be free of repercussions for expressing said opinion. That is the definition of democracy.
America as we know it was built on political dissent—and it will continue to be this way. Anyone who argues differently has succumbed to living in some sort of Orwellian-nightmare and has given up all of his civil liberties.