In his 72 years, Bobby Orr always gave off a vibe of unthreatening Canadiana.
He was one of those often-seen, seldom-heard-from sorts of celebrities. What he did say was fairly forgettable. Whenever you think of him as a hockey player, that’s all you think of – the things he did on a hockey rink.
I would call this a sort of miracle. Orr managed to get all the good things athletic excellence offers you (money, fame, adulation) and few of the bad (overexposure, public humiliation, an eventual unwinding into irrelevance).
Orr was loved in large part because he was not known. He was one of the few superstars who managed the trick. But streaks are meant to end.
On Friday, Orr published a letter in the New Hampshire Union Leader endorsing Donald Trump for U.S. president.
“Everyone has an opinion as our upcoming presidential election approaches, and I am no different,” Orr begins. (That’s true, except not everyone is in a position to buy a full-page ad in a newspaper to advertise that opinion.)
Orr is worth a lot of money. Of course he votes Republican. The super-rich would vote Republican if the candidate were a shovel with a moustache painted onto it.
As with all political statements made these days, it doesn’t matter what arguments Orr made. You’ve already decided whether you agree or disagree with him based on the word ‘Trump’.
The reaction to Orr’s statement was, by and large, surprise and disappointment. The only thing that surprises me any more is our collective ability to be repeatedly surprised by everything.
People had a similar reaction when golfer Jack Nicklaus came out as a pro-Trumper earlier in the week. The man waited 80 years to have a strong public opinion on anything, and this is where he plants his flag? And, once again, we’re surprised?
On one level, Orr’s and Nicklaus’s statements took some stones. Neither of them needs the hassle. This opens them up to all sorts of nastiness from the other faction.
On the other level, it is dumb beyond measure. Not because of their choice (though that is also dumb), but because two giants of their respective games felt the need to announce it. The United States is tilting sideways for a bunch of reasons. This is one of them.
If in America the loudest voice is always heard, athletes not only speak loudly, but get to do it more often and in front of more people than anyone else.
Unlike other celebrities, sportsmen aren’t under pressure to sell anything (e.g. a new show, a movie, a cookbook). Their product sells itself.
Whether you like Player X or anything he says, you will still watch his team play. In fact, not liking him may improve your odds of wanting to watch him play, in the hopes someone will elbow him in the head.
Until recently, athletes used this power sparingly. Not because they understood they were deeply underqualified to make political pronouncements, but because they couldn’t be bothered.
A very few athletes did get involved in political causes, but these rarities tended to be highly motivated and well informed, a la Bill Russell or Muhammad Ali. Often, these forays into the public square had huge personal costs. Whether you agreed with them, these pros were easy to respect because their motivation was conscience at the cost of popularity.
Leagues acted as a counterweight to incipient political movements because most politics was bad for business. It seems a long time since the NBA fined Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf US$32,000 when he sat for the national anthem. But that was only 24 years ago – nearly post-Jordan.
Punishing political acts is its own political act. The leagues ramped up this campaign after 9/11. It was no longer enough to celebrate the country. They began to cheerlead the U.S. military in the midst of a bad war, and then the government that sent them there. When that government flipped in 2008, equal-opportunity capitalists that they are, the leagues changed allegiances.
So when we talk about the new age of sports activism, it was not started by individual athletes looking to overturn the status quo. It was begun by conglomerates looking to cash in on popular feeling. Leagues did what they are good at – they monetized fandom. In this case, the 330 million potential fans of the good ol' U-S-of-A.
What we are seeing now is not a backlash, but a front lash. The players (current as well as former) haven’t rebelled at what leagues have done, but instead expanded the model.
If the NFL wants to do a flyover before the Super Bowl while Marines unfurl a flag at midfield, why wouldn’t I kneel during the anthem? You turned this space into a political stage. I’m just working within that new tradition.
This is all well and good. People are free to say and do what they please. But the obvious consequence is that soon enough everyone will feel they need to be saying and doing something, even if they have no idea what they’re talking about, or are obviously doing so out of self-interest.
I’ve met a lot of smart people in sports, but I wouldn’t say that a deep curiosity about the world around them is what typifies the cohort. Most pros are born followers. That’s why they’re so comfortable operating inside a team.
These are not the people you want leading political discussions, because they’ve never worked in the real world of which they speak. They live in a fantasy world, insulated by their wealth and standing. They are very welcome to their opinions, but you could not call it politically healthy if they are shaping the opinions of huge swaths of their fellow citizens.
As a Canadian, do you care who Wayne Gretzky votes for? Do you have any interest in knowing? Would knowing diminish your admiration for the guy? No, no and maybe. Depends on whether he votes for your choice.
You don’t see Sidney Crosby out there stumping for the Libs or Tories, and you wouldn’t want to. It’s a sign of Canada’s political health that no one cares who hockey players think should be the prime minister. It’s a lesson Orr should have taken with him when he moved south.
It does not strike me as a coincidence that while America roils, the sports constituency, top to bottom, left to right, suddenly feels a powerful need to be heard.
This is what happens when people confuse being handed a pulpit with leading a congregation.