All the Philadelphia Flyers wanted to do was create some good vibes, sell some merchandise and get some social-media pats on the back. At least, that was the idea.
The team isn’t any good. Why not change the headline using something everyone likes? For reasons pertaining specifically to Philadelphia, Santa’s out. So you do an early winter Pride Night instead.
Everybody loves those nowadays. The crowd feels like it’s doing good, the Flyers take a moral victory lap and everybody makes money. It’s a corporate trifecta.
Ivan Provorov had another idea. The Russian defenceman refused to wear a rainbow jersey in the pregame skate. As a result, if you read social media now, the Flyers may be the athletic wing of the John Birch Society.
One thing here is undeniably true – more people have talked about the Philadelphia hockey team this past week than have done so in a long time.
Whatever you think of Provorov’s stand, this is what real protest looks like – one person doing an unpopular thing when it would be easier to go along with the crowd. You don’t have to agree with the guy to respect the bloody-mindedness.
If that’s protest, the rest is politics. Sports practises a particular sort – big on slogans, stripped of any sense of danger or threat, and, most of all, risk averse. It’s the politics of people who want to seem involved, but don’t want to argue about it.
The Flyers took their stand. Provorov took his. If we weren’t in the moment we are in, that should’ve been the end of it. Who cares what one random guy thinks? Is the goal here uniformity of opinion? What exactly is the model for that unlikely state of human affairs, 1984?
Instead, having provoked a massive debate on the matter, the powers that be rushed in to urge everyone to stop debating it. The obvious result was more, and much louder, debating.
The NHL said it would not dictate which causes its employees must support. Ten years ago, that’s common sense. Today? A wild provocation. Cue outrage.
LGBTQ sports-activist group You Can Play suggested people focus on the Flyers who did participate. Ten years ago, that’s a generous thought. Today? Traitors to the cause. Cue outrage.
Philadelphia coach John Tortorella stood behind Provorov, saying he is “always true to himself.” Ten years ago, that’s how this works. Today? That’s still how it works and always will. Cue outrage.
If Provorov were a fourth-line scrub, he might be quietly erased in the off-season. But he isn’t, so he won’t be. Cue future outrage.
What’s the lesson here? That whether you want to be involved in politics, politics wants to be involved with you.
This wasn’t about someone publishing a manifesto or being caught in the midst of some hateful rant. It’s one guy refusing to be told which clothes to wear. If you follow most of the coverage, there are only two ways to think about that.
It’s either proof that hockey is a stronghold of unreformed bigots, or the bugle call that opens a new salient in the culture war. Possibly both things at once. It depends which faction of the rebellion you belong to. Because everyone online is a rebel these days, it’s hard to keep track.
One winner in all of this is the hockey media. It gives them a chance to talk about hockey like it matters in the big scheme of things.
Another winner? The Philadelphia Flyers. They have the luxury of being all things to all people. They held Pride Night. They also employ Provorov. They hid behind the NHL’s statement, and they’re also hiding behind Tortorella’s. Theoretically, the organization supports whichever side of this you prefer best.
None of this was done on purpose, but that doesn’t make it an accident. This is a new business model, one that’s starting to branch off in unpredictable directions.
At some point in the past decade, corporations realized that their youngest consumers don’t just want things. They want things attached to ideas. There’s nothing sexy about a search engine. But a search engine that’s changing the world for the better? That sounds amazing.
Sports wants in on this action. They’re not just going to sell you hockey. They’re going to sell you hockey plus social justice. Let’s all get together and talk about issues (in an extremely prescribed way over $15 beers).
The problem with turning your business into an extension of the public commons is that the public is going to show up. When they do, they’re not always going to have the opinions you prefer. Those opinions are then going to attach themselves to you, because you hosted the party they were expressed at.
You wouldn’t try this sort of thing if you ran the local campaign office of the Communist Party. You’d know that if you told 10 staff to do anything out of the ordinary, you’d be picking 10 fights. Because those people are political by nature.
Athletes aren’t. The vast majority are unwilling activists. Their job has taught them to be that way. The easiest way to thrive through all the levels required to get to the majors is to be a cog in every machine. People who stand out get picked off.
How do you turn these temperamental sheep into unlikely wolves? You start telling them how to behave and what to believe. When they behave and believe in ways you don’t like, you allow them to be held up to public ridicule.
This insurrectionary model adds a new, exciting element to the sports experience. The common wisdom from both sides of the fight is that it’s a business bust, but I don’t think so.
As sports content expands to fill every moment of every day, it gets harder to differentiate any of it. How do you jump to the top of the news cycle? How do you draw in people unfamiliar with or just not interested in your brand?
Big signings are difficult to come by and championships are unlikely. What’s a cheap, reliable way to rev up the crowd these days? Politics. Especially politics packaged like protest. People may not agree with you, but they won’t be able to ignore you. They may yell at you, but they are at least engaging with you.
One way of looking at the Provorov incident is that it was something good-intentioned gone awry, and that everyone involved deeply regrets how it’s turned out. But the more often it happens, the less it seems like an unfortunate occurrence, and the more it looks like a business strategy.