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Defending Torts

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The Jackets coach is making headlines again

Hockey: World Cup of Hockey-Team USA-Practice Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday, Blue Jackets and Team USA head coach John Tortorella was asked by ESPN’s Linda Cohn for his reaction to the Colin Kaepernick story and how he would handle a player of his protesting during the national anthem. His response quickly became one of the top stories of the day:

One of the best breakdowns of the Kaepernick story comes from SB Nation’s own Matt Ufford:

As Ufford says at 1:40, it’s easier to have an opinion on whether it’s appropriate to sit during the national anthem than it is to have a discussion of systemic racism in this country. My problem with this Torts story is that the media is choosing to focus on the former rather than the latter.

No one is asking Torts about racism in America. Why would they? He’s a white millionaire who works with predominantly white players. Instead, they choose to ask him only about protesting the anthem. I have a lot of respect for Linda Cohn as a journalist (and one of the few puckheads at ESPN), but I think she unfairly put Torts at the center of a shitstorm by asking him to comment.

I think Torts’ defense of the anthem and the flag is reasonable, and so I’m surprised by the backlash against it. Last week, I wrote this during an email discussion with a friend:

The flag represents different things to different people. As we've heard this weekend, for many people it represents that freedom of speech. It also represents everyone who gave their lives to defend that right, whether overseas or at home. I'm not sure Kaepernick realized that his protest would be seen as a protest against all of that.

That is exactly where Torts is coming from. His son is an Army Ranger and to Torts, the anthem and the flag represent everything that his son is for. Therefore, any protest involving those symbols is taken by him as a rejection of that.

Some, like Yahoo Sports’ Greg Wyshynski, have painted Torts’ comments as silencing dissent. Wyshynski writes:

we would pay big, huge money to listen to that conversation between Tortorella and his 50-year-old general manager in Columbus – a native of Tampere, Finland – as the coach explains that star defenseman Seth Jones was scratched because he didn’t stand for a few minutes of pregame propaganda, and because the player’s personal politics aren’t as important as his white, privileged coach’s.

This hypothetical would not be a matter of coach and player having different political views. It would be about the coach disagreeing with the method of protest rather than the message. (For the record, Seth Jones - the one African-American currently on the Blue Jackets roster - has no problem with Torts’ comments.) Any franchise would prefer to avoid any action which would offend fans or sponsors or would cause any conflict in the locker room.

Spreading the message in a less offensive way would avoid distracting from the larger issue, as has happened here. Is anyone asking Torts about racism in America? No. They’re only talking about the anthem.

Another point that gets raised is that somehow Tortorella is hypocritical by suggesting that he supports Americans’ right to free speech, but still opposes protesting the flag or anthem. Human Comment Section Stephen A. Smith went so far as to suggest that Torts’ stance was “un-American” and that he has “no right” to bench a player for protesting. Screamin’ A fundamentally misunderstands what the constitutional right to free speech entails. The First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech.” There’s nothing in there that suggests that one is immune from the consequences of exercising said free speech. Many athletes have been fined or suspended for controversial public comments. My boss would be within his rights to fire me if I said anything he found offensive, or if I did so in a method which was distracting to my coworkers and clients.

(Smith also missed part of Kaepernick’s message. If he is not participating in the anthem because he does not want to honor his country, then by that rationale he would decline to represent the US in an international event. Any player playing for pride for Team USA would not choose the anthem as a target of protest.)

Finally, I feel like much of the backlash is due to the negative view of Torts which is held by most writers and hockey fans. I admit that when he was hired, I had a similar view. The first image that came to mind was of him charging down a hallway to fight the Calgary Flames (yes, the whole team). Most people think first about his one year in Vancouver before they think of his Stanley Cup title with Tampa Bay.

When he was hired, I decided to give him a fresh start and another opportunity to make a first impression. In his year in Columbus, I have seen Torts as a very passionate but very thoughtful individual. He loves the game of hockey and he loves talking about hockey. He loves to teach the game to his players; in a game you can see him in his players’ ears after every shift, constantly giving feedback. I see a man who has mellowed significantly since his time in Vancouver. He is very open about his own efforts to change since then. He is still animated, but no longer explosive.

Still, no one in the national media is willing to move forward from that. All are eager to maintain this media-driven story about the anthem which continues to paint him in a negative light. Look at this press conference from Wednesday afternoon. In 10 minutes of video there is only 3 minutes of hockey talk:

7 minutes spent on the anthem debate! Any mention of racism in America, you know, the reason Kaepernick protested? Of course not.

I’m not usually one to say “stick to sports” but....can we get back to sports? Tortorella is not running for office. I honestly would prefer to know nothing about his political views. If he’s not talking about hockey I want to hear him talking about puppies. But mostly I want to hear him talk about hockey. He has a lot to say about hockey! He is coaching in an event that features the best players in the world. I want to know about how he’s constructing the forward lines for Team USA. I want to hear his scouting reports on the other teams.

If a sports figure wants to make a statement, report. Don’t drag a sports figure into the debate, then crucify him for expressing an honest opinion.

NOTE: The thoughts and opinions expressed in this piece are mine and mine alone and do not represent an official editorial position of The Cannon or SB Nation.

NOTE2: This is a temporary exception to the “No politics” at The Cannon. All past and future posts will remain blissfully free of political conversation. I use this site as my refuge, too. That being said, feel free to discuss this topic in the comments of this post. There is a lot to discuss here. Please keep all conversation productive and civil. I trust that this community can do so.