Jonathan Toews shouldn’t stay quiet just because he’s a hockey player

Toews’ comments on an issue like climate change may turn some fans off, but that doesn’t mean he should avoid making them.

There’s a phrase you’ve almost surely heard if you follow sports on any level. It’s said in comment sections, explicitly or implicitly, toward athletes, coaches, and media. It’s said on all over Twitter, Facebook, and so on.

“Stick to sports.”

There’s a predictability to whole thing. A player, reporter, or someone else involved in the sports industry decides to use their platform to discuss an issue that’s important to them. Some people openly agree and applaud the decision. Some people openly disagree with the ideas being expressed.

But others just want those in sports to give it a rest and maintain the separation between the real world and the sports world that had fragilely existed, at least on the surface, for much of the 20th century. They’d rather not have to confront such challenging topics or critical thinking in their entertainment, which for a long time never demanded that of them.

So it’s understandable that a decent amount of hockey fans had that reaction when Jonathan Toews posted on Instagram his thoughts about climate change recently. The captain has openly discussed how he believes climate change is real and caused by humans in the past, which puts him in a minority of NHL stars willing to speak out on a topic like this.

Following President Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States would leave the Paris climate agreement, Toews stepped into the fray again to voice his opinion on the topic.

“The same way that we shouldn't wait till our bodies break down completely to start doing the right things to stay healthy, let's not wait till it's too late to do something,” Toews said in his post. “I am not saying I am perfectly 'green,’ but the first step is to keep an open mind and try to learn what you don't already know.”

This was, by all accounts, a fairly tame statement from Toews. But the nature of the topic and our current environment made it inherently divisive. Here’s a hockey player — usually a quiet bunch on these topics — stepping into the spotlight instead. It begs the question of an athlete’s role in our world.

What Toews owes you, as captain of the Chicago Blackhawks, is his play on the ice. He owes you an effort to represent the team in the best way possible. What he doesn’t owe anyone is an inauthentic silence toward the world simply because ruffling feathers is bad.

There’s something special about the athlete’s ability to capture public attention in America. Say what you will about how that reflects upon American society, but these are popular celebrities with loyal fans and big platforms. People DO care what they have to say, and not because they’re incapable of thinking for themselves.

Just to give you an idea, NBC did a segment on Toews’ Instagram post Monday night:

Toews leveraging his popularity as an athlete to talk about an issue that’s important shouldn’t be criticized. And let’s be honest here, anyway — most of the people who want Toews to “stick to sports” probably have little issue with the grand nationalistic show that is “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Hawks games at the United Center.

What that hints at, though, is something that’s been in the making for years: The days of shielding yourself from the political realities of the world in the arena of sports, even hockey, are dying. Politics and sports have always had a relationship, and now that  exists in the open more than ever.

You can find platforms that’ll cater to your views, but the world where athletes are athletes and nothing more has ended. They’re now endorsers, brand ambassadors, and role models. And they’ve always been people with voices.

This isn’t the start of some rapid change to how things operate in hockey. Toews remains an exception as a player who uses social media in a way that might challenge some of his biggest fans.

But I think that’s something we should encourage of our athletes, even if we’ll occasionally be disappointed by what they have to say. Their ability to shine light on issues through their popularity is meaningful, as we saw from Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and countless others. Some might not align with your views, but that doesn’t mean they should be reduced to silence.

Toews certainly won’t be. And even if there comes a point where I disagree with what he says, I’ll refute him. But that still means he had the right to say it.