Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Distractions

So a couple of weeks ago, the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins were invited to the White House, so that President Obama could officially congratulate them on their ice hockey victory over the Vancouver Canucks last June, and also so the team could present the President with a Bruins jersey with his name on the back. Flash bulb, flash bulb, handshake, flash bulb, athletes in suits and ties, flash bulb, speech, flash bulb. A fluffy and fun tradition.

Goaltender Tim Thomas opted not to attend. Pressed to explain his decision, he denied that it had anything to do with politics – his, or the President’s, or anyone else’s. Multitudes of observers have begged to differ, but they were not inside Mr. Thomas’ head and so could only surmise about the subject. Attendance at the event was not mandatory, so no team rules or policies have been violated.

Some members of the media noted that Mr. Thomas’ politics were demonstrably right-of-center, and supposed that indeed, Mr. Thomas’ views might have had more to do with his absence from the White House visit than he was letting on.

Given my own views (demonstrably left-of-center), I had occasion to wonder: if my team had won something large and had been subsequently invited to be honored at the White House during the years of the Bush administration, would I have gone? Heck yeah, I’d have gone. Partly because during my eighth grade class trip to Washington, DC, I got into just about every building in town except the White House; so, a chance to make amends. Also, …it’s the White House! An important building in American history. My grade-school social studies teachers might have looked at me funny – “and you didn’t go?” Also, whoever is the President at the moment is (as Molly Ivins used to put it) “the current occupant” of the Oval Office. As a mentor of mine once said, “It’s not you, it’s the position.” It’s not Mr. Bush or Mr. Obama; it’s the Presidency. It’s a big deal.

(During my freshman year in college, my college band was invited to participate in Ronald Reagan’s second Inaugural. I went to school in Massachusetts, which does not exactly sport a reputation as a bastion of Republicanism. Some band members probably had voted for Walter Mondale instead. But it was the Inauguration, for heaven’s sake, and a pretty big honor for the band. We all went.)

This morning, I watched a local sports roundup show that revealed unto me an extension of this story: that Mr. Thomas’ politics have been on display to the world via his Facebook page since he joined, this past fall. And of course, members of the media weighed in on what this might mean to Mr. Thomas’ team, which lately has lost four of their last six games, scoring just ten goals in that stretch – and sporting a markedly increased goals-against average, which is a bigger deal to observers of goaltending. So, the question has been raised:

Are Tim Thomas’ political commentaries a distraction to his team?

During that broadcast, Bruins television play-by-play announcer Jack Edwards said that he believed that those comments were indeed a distraction to the team. He said so firmly and unequivocally. If you know Jack Edwards, you know that “firmly and unequivocally” is an accurate descriptor for just about anything he says; but I was struck by his (unequivocality?) within the context of most of the rest of the sports media articles I’ve read about this subject.

Many online columnists and radio personalities have opined that of course Mr. Thomas’ political commentaries are not a distraction to the team; the team is comprised of hockey professionals who will likely not be turned into hockey amateurs merely by their goaltender’s online postings. In one way, I find this an odd thing for some members of the Boston sports media to insist: if you listen to sports-talk-radio hereabouts long enough, you’ll find a lot of sports-talk-radio guys who agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Thomas’ politics. It can be a pretty right-wing place, consider we’re supposed to be talking sports here…! In another way, though, I find this a sensible notion: Mr. Thomas’ teammates probably already know his politics, because he’s been on the team for awhile, and as you may be aware, sports teammates do occasionally talk to each other off the field, court, or ice. I remember knowing people in my college band whose politics I did not agree with; but during halftime shows, I elected to remain in my assigned field-drill location even though it placed me (a liberal person) next to her or him (a conservative person). I don’t even know whether Mr. Thomas is the only conservative Republican on the Bruins’ roster. He may not be.

 

Curiously, the questions that have occurred to me since I heard Jack Edwards’ commentary have had less to do with politics than with issues of public expression.

We can extrapolate from the text of the First Amendment that we’re all allowed to express ourselves freely. The way my journalism professors interpreted this and expounded on it, Americans should be allowed to say or print what we like, as long as it doesn’t libel or slander others. If we care about civility in public discourse, other more lofty standards come into play, such as the unnecessary injury of others’ feelings, but some might see that concern as overly solicitous.

I am a Facebook person. I frequently post thoughts and opinions as Facebook statuses, much like Mr. Thomas has done. I am also a member of a couple of teams (teaching faculty, church staff). As it happens, I am not “Facebook-friends” with very many people from either community, which is an individual choice of mine; so a more limited number of my teammates have the opportunity to read my rants and raves on that platform, whether they are political or not (and often they are).

On the whole, my Facebook friends (mostly people with whom I attended junior high, high school, or college, or members of college bands I’ve worked with who have long since graduated) do understand what a serious AND silly person I can be.

But if I were Facebook-linked with a lot of my teaching teammates, I might be more cautious about what I post. (I very rarely post about my public-school teaching experiences on Facebook anyway, in case you were curious.) If I were connected with any of my current public-school students – which I am not, at all – I would absolutely be much more cautious, since as a teacher I have to “set the example”, and “a teacher is always on stage”. And I recognize that how I comport myself (live or online) can have an effect on my ability to develop or maintain a positive, productive, trustworthy environment in which to make church music. Some of my colleagues have created separate Facebook profiles for their personal selves and their more professional lives, the better to keep their interactions and their expressions directed toward the appropriate audiences.

I visited Tim Thomas’ Facebook page, and noted that it is viewable by the general public. He is a public figure, after all; and he’s in a business where an online presence not only reflects awareness of that public-figure-ness, but also is just one more tool in the publicity toolbox.

In my roles as public-school music teacher and as church choir director, I am perhaps not as public a figure as Mr. Thomas is. My Facebook profile is much more private than his, and as much as possible, I try to be in control of who in the world gets subjected to my silly or snarky or incendiary ideas. From this perspective, Mr. Thomas and I are not too similar.

But, since I established this blog seventeen months ago, and especially since my well-chronicled brush with a pack of young-singing-sensation-admirers, I have had occasion to think long and hard about the question of what I write or say publicly … and who could be reading it … and to what extent the things I write could positively or negatively affect readers’ assessment of me, or my work, or whether I’m an appropriate person to be doing the particular work I’m doing.

I don’t think that when you become an athlete that you sign away your right to be an individual,” Mr. Thomas said, “and to have your own views and to be able to post them on Facebook, if you like.” It is true, however, that when you become a professional athlete, you do become a public figure, and with that status comes an added layer of scrutiny, no matter what you would like. Basketball star Charles Barkley famously declared that he did not want to be a role model. Bad news: if you’re a public figure, at least one reporter asks you a tough question, and at least one parent reads your postgame comments in the paper and decides whether you’d be a good influence on their kid.

In one sense, I’m thrilled that I’m not a public figure of Tim Thomas-grade – the media and the general public do not regularly discuss, analyze, dissect, and judge my job performance via newspapers, television and radio broadcasts, and the Internet. So I don’t have to deal with Fred from Scituate calling a talk-radio show and demanding that I take a pay cut because my beginner instrumentalists can’t play sixteenth notes yet, or that I shouldn’t be the choir director anymore if I don’t start programming more Mozart. And happily, due to union-negotiated contract stipulations, my employer can’t just put me on waivers. (At least not the last time I read the contract.)

[Although I will say that one topic for another post is … the ability of the media and the general public to pass judgment on the performance of educators even though they know just about as much about teaching as they do about professional ice hockey goaltending.]

Maybe Mr. Thomas’ teammates really don’t give a wet slap about his politics, if they even have his Facebook page bookmarked at all. Maybe the Bruins of February 2012 are not the Bruins of December 2011 because other teams have scouts that tell them how to counteract the Bruins’ current strategies; or because injuries pile up; or because every team (or band or choir), even the great ones, goes through bad patches.

When Mr. Thomas was questioned by one Boston sportswriter about his online expressions and their potential effect on his team, he curtly replied, “This is my job. Facebook is my personal life. If you guys don’t understand the difference between individual and job, there’s a problem.”

Fair enough. I would not always want my employer or my teammates to read my Facebook posts, just because they might have their suspicions that I can be pretty silly sometimes … confirmed. And keeping my personal life and my professional life separate has most often been a worthy strategy.

But I will suggest this. If your job includes being part of a team (and that team is invited to a public ceremony honoring its accomplishment), and if elements of your personal life appear to cause you to be less of a teammate than the rest of your mates (by opting not to attend that ceremony) … then, outside observers may misunderstand the difference between your job and your personal life (because even if the absence had nothing to do with your political views, outside observers have been known to put two and two together and get something that looks a lot like four) … and …

Yes, there may be a problem.

 

Postscript; or perhaps Appendix I:

On the day of the Bruins’ visit to the White House, possibly anticipating controversy over his absence from the event, Tim Thomas posted this on his Facebook page:

I believe the Federal government has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties, and Property of the People. This is being done at the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial level. This is in direct opposition to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers[‘] vision for the Federal government. Because I believe this, today I exercised my right as a Free Citizen, and did not visit the White House. This was not about politics or party, as in my opinion both parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country. This was about a choice I had to make as an INDIVIDUAL. This is the only public statement I will be making on this topic.”

Which is fine.

Until you dig a bit deeper into Mr. Thomas’ Facebook presence. He insists that his lack of interest in visiting the White House was bipartisan disappointment. When you visit his “photos” page, you find images that reflect not only a bit more partisan dissatisfaction; they reflect partisan disrespect, from the mild to the snarky to unvarnished name-calling.

(So … it appears that both Mr. Thomas and Arizona governor Jan Brewer want to shake their index fingers at the President. Say what you want about Gov. Brewer; at least she came to the meeting.)

This raises a different question than “do Mr. Thomas’ politics constitute a distraction to his team?” And never mind whether his politics are right-wing or left-wing. The question this postscript raises is, “is Mr. Thomas being honest with the general public and his fans in particular about his reasons for skipping the White House event?”

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February 11, 2012 - Posted by | blogging, celebrity, Facebook, Famous Persons, journalism, media, news, politics, radio, social media, sports, teachers, television, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. For what it is worth, I asked four Boston-area eleven-year-olds about Thomas’ decision. All of them thought Thomas should have gone to the White House, out of respect to the POTUS, if not to Obama, himself. They acknowledged he has a right to express his opinion, though, and thought his FB page was an OK idea.

    Comment by DD | February 13, 2012 | Reply


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