Team USA coach John Tortorella has been in the spotlight this week for his comments regarding what he would do if one of his players sat during the playing of the national anthem.
As a refresher, Tortorella told Linda Cohn of ESPN that if any of his players sat during the national anthem, they would sit for the rest of the game. Tortorella also did not back down from similar questions the next day, essentially doubling down on the sentiment.
This, of course, was in relation to a question about how Tortorella would handle a situation similar to that of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sitting during the national anthem ahead of multiple NFL preseason games in protest.
Tortorella clarified Wednesday that he was not trying to criticize Kaepernick with his anthem comments and that he believes in protests, but he maintains his opinion that during the anthem is not a time for political statements. He has also cited his deep respect for the military, especially with his son currently deployed with the Army Rangers, as a big reason for his feelings on this topic.
Since Tortorella's comments went viral, he has been a widely-discussed subject on a lot of the debate shows and sports talk radio. As Tortorella poured a little gasoline on the simmering debate over Kaepernick's protest, he also took the debate in a new direction.
As a head coach, both for Team USA at the upcoming World Cup of Hockey and with the Columbus Blue Jackets in the NHL, he has the power to sit players for any reason. Taking away playing time is one of his most powerful tools of leverage in getting players to perform and do what he wants them to do. His position on the anthem puts the spotlight on what people with similar powers can or should do in similar situations. That opens a whole other Pandora's box of discussing the suppression of freedom of speech and expression. It also opens the line of debate into whether or not an employer or superior can or should make rules like Tortorella's.
As the arguments rage on, some NHL players past and present have offered their takes on Tortorella.
J.T. Brown of the Tampa Bay Lightning has been one of the few to publicly criticize the Team USA and Columbus Blue Jackets coach at this point. He also wanted to bring the conversation back to the core of Kaepernick's motivation for sitting as well by throwing out this hypothetical.
Wouldn't benching a black man for taking a stance only further prove Kap's point of oppression? But hey 🐸☕️ https://t.co/p6aUjXYlq4— Jt brownov (@JTBrown23) September 7, 2016
Brown added more context to his tweet in a statement sent to the Tampa Bay Times:
"I'd like to make it clear that I have no ill will towards John Tortorella. I do not know him. I responded to a story on Twitter with my opinion and that was how I saw it. He sees the situation through his reality and I see it through mine, as a black athlete in the NHL. I know I'm not on the United States World Cup roster, but I have had a chance to represent my country on other occasions. My tweet was a hypothetical. What if I took a stance to promote awareness for one of the many injustices still occurring in our country and was punished despite there being no rule or law against it? My tweet was a response to that question.
"I could have been quiet and just kept my opinion to myself, but I don't want young minorities who love the game of hockey to think that what's going on in America today is going unnoticed by the hockey community. I love America and thank the military for protecting our freedoms, as well as law enforcement for protecting and serving our communities, but that doesn't mean I can't acknowledge that there is still racism today. I am glad my tweet provoked a discussion, because we need to start having a conversation about racism if we want to work towards a better America.
"While I don't plan on sitting during the national anthem, I will look for more opportunities to positively impact my community and bring awareness to racial issues."
It's always a good thing to hear both sides of the debate and Brown raised some important points, especially when expressing his motivation for taking his thoughts public. He also shows that there are a lot of layers to this discussion beyond the perceived disrespect of the national anthem.
One of Tortorella's own players was also asked to speak on the issue as well.
Seth Jones, who will play for Team North America at the World Cup and plays under Tortorella as a member of the Blue Jackets, said he had no problem with his NHL coach's stance.
"That's [Tortorella's] way of doing it, and obviously they're comparing it to the whole Colin Kaepernick thing, but he's got a right to believe whatever he wants," Jones said of Tortorella in an interview with Sportsnet's Fan 590 in Toronto Wednesday.
"I have no problem. You're not going to see anything from any of us with Torts, so I have no problem with that."
Former NHL player Patrick O'Sullivan, who played for the U.S. at various World Championship events, expressed strong opinions supporting Tortorella's stance as well.
1st amendment is great it protects you from the government but in pro sports coaches make the rules. Paid to make rules that players follow.— Patrick O'Sullivan (@realPOSULLIVAN) September 7, 2016
There also may be a lot of players that would probably rather ignore the topic all together. Hockey players and coaches, sometimes to a fault, don't like rocking the boat too much. Tortorella is one of the frequent exceptions as sometimes it seems he lives for rocking the boat. Brown speaking out as a player is a bit more surprising, but a welcome additional voice to an important conversation.
Both Tortorella and Brown are sticking their necks out in different ways. They know they're going to have people who agree with them and probably a lot more who are willing to disagree loudly. They have their beliefs and feelings on what are extremely emotional topics, and took them public. It's not an easy thing to do.
The only way to drive the discussion forward is by continuing to talk about the issues that arise, giving both sides a voice and, perhaps more importantly, by listening to each other. It seems difficult to do that anymore, but we shouldn't stop trying.