On August 22nd, Detroit Red Wings’ center Pavel Datsyuk created a small uproar in the hockey community. Almost always, the uproars created by Datsyuk are in response to his latest insane display of skill, but this one was decidedly less positive.
After being asked about the comments from Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva (who said foreigners should respect the laws of Russia while in Russia), Datsyuk responded, “I’m an orthodox and that says it all.” The Russian star didn’t elaborate any further, but, in the eyes of many, he had already said plenty. The Russian Orthodox church has made it clear where they stand on the issue of homosexuality — it’s viewed by the church as a portent of doom — and so for Datsyuk to align himself with the church led many to reach the conclusion that he is homophobic.
While some weren’t willing to go that far, they were quick to pass judgement on him just the same. At SB Nation, Travis Hughes suggested that “it’s time to view him in a different light.” Meanwhile, Sean Gentille of Sporting News argued that Datsyuk “deserves heat” for his stance on the laws. (It should be noted that almost every criticism I saw acknowledged Datsyuk’s right to free speech.) Yet, as with almost any quick response to an issue one is obviously passionate about, these responses toward Datsyuk are problematic.
Criticizing Datsyuk for aligning himself with an intolerant ideology is easy; it takes no real thought to do so. It’s much harder to put ourselves in Datsyuk’s shoes and consider the ramifications his answer holds both for himself and his family. Let’s reverse the scenario for a second. Let’s say you are a famous hockey player from the United States playing in Russia. Recently, the U.S. has passed laws criminalizing homosexuality and you are asked about your stance on them. Before you answer, remember, you love your home country, you don’t want to live in Russia year-round. Your family is in the U.S. and you are even more famous and well-regarded there than you are in Russia.
OK, so what’s your answer? Are you still so ready to stand up and say those laws are disgusting and that you abhor them? Let’s say you are. Well, you’re now reviled in your home country and it will be hard to return, unless you want to risk being arrested for promoting homosexual propaganda. Maybe your family — not your immediate family who are safe in Russia — but your extended family have now been arrested on trumped up charges and there’s nothing you can do about it. Some of you are saying right now, “It doesn’t matter. It’s still the right thing to do.” And I agree with you, but I’m not sure I’d have the courage to do so, were I in that position.
That’s why Datsyuk’s situation is more complicated than it seems. Simply by asking him that question, the reporter put him in a no-win situation. Even if he was against the laws and said he hated them, he’d have problems in Russia, but, if he said what he did, he’s hammered in North America as a bigot. What would you choose?
For me though, as problematic as it is for a reporter to put him in that situation and then have a slew of writers slam him for his response, there’s a bigger issue that has been brought to light, which is our desire to have our beliefs validated by athletes and celebrities. Why is it that we continuously look to athletes and celebrities as the moral harbingers of our society?
Judging from Datsyuk’s previous relationship with the media, it seems unlikely he’d volunteer his opinion on such a contentious issue without being pressed for it. So why do we feel compelled to know how he or any of the other athletes headed to Sochi feel about it? Datsyuk isn’t a moral philosopher or religious leader or even a politician running for office; his opinion or belief about the law is neither something that we should look to for guidance nor be concerned with since he has little opportunity to change the law.
It makes no sense to press athletes and celebrities for their stance on controversial issues and then be shocked and outraged when they provide an answer that we don’t find acceptable. We shouldn’t be looking at them for guidance on moral problems or civic issues in the first place.
And that’s why it’s ridiculous for writers like Hughes to suggest we need to view Datsyuk in a different light now. Datsyuk is nothing more than an incredible hockey player — one of the best of his generation. That’s all he is. He hasn’t campaigned for any public office or promised to act as a moral beacon for society. The only thing that would make me view Datsyuk in a different light would be if he won a Hart or Conn Smythe trophy on his way to winning another Stanley Cup. Then, I might view him as one of the greatest players ever and not simply of his generation. To view him in any other light other than those that shine on a hockey rink is pointless.
As we get closer to the Olympics, more hockey players will weigh in on the Russian laws. Some already have. We’ll all celebrate players like Sidney Crosby and Dan Boyle who speak out against the law. It will be easy for them, the easiest thing in the world to do, but we’ll all still celebrate them.
As much as we’ll celebrate them, we’ll scream intolerant as more Russians like Ilya Kovalchuk come out in support of the laws. They’ll be in an impossible situation, one they simply can’t win, but that won’t matter to us. What will matter is that we’ve shown we are more tolerant than they are and that we are willing to stand up against those awful, disgusting laws (which, again, they are — please don’t think I’m debating that point), even though we’ll only be standing up to those Russians from our sofas at home.
The mistake we’re making, though, isn’t to celebrate the answers given to us by athletes or celebrities that we like to hear. It isn’t to criticize the responses of those we don’t like as much, either.
The mistake is to place any value in those responses in the first place.
Charlie Crespo (@Little_Utopia) is the editor-in-chief of Little Utopia.
Previously from Charlie Crespo:
♦ Monday’s Viral Video: Don’t Forget Your Phone
♦ Dude … Cookie Monster is a Scumbag
♦ Because of Course J.R. Smith is Driving an Armored Vehicle
♦ Monday’s Viral Video: Can Someone Explain the Internet?
♦ Beertopia: Brooklyn Brewery’s Brooklyn Lager
Agreed: context is key to understanding a particular situation. I respect Datsyuk and his faith in the Russian Orthodox Church. I will continue to support him in his hockey career.