When I found out Bobby Orr supported Donald Trump, I was pretty devastated. Although an ardent Montreal Canadiens fan raised me, I still knew that No. 4 was a legend. His contributions to hockey and his style of play made him someone I knew even though his career was over shortly after I was born.
But learning how much his post-career political preferences differed from my own was jarring. I don't expect every athlete I admire to share my views on social issues. Case in point: Martina Navratilova. So, I'm not unfamiliar with having to be bitterly disappointed with knowing the views of some athletes who parlay their success from their sports careers into public service messaging to their large audiences.
But should we care about what former athletes are up to in their post-athletic careers?
Last week, Toronto Star reporter Alex Boyd wrote a story about figure skater Jamie Salé, and was criticized by a physician for amplifying Salé's views on vaccines.
Canada's former figure-skating sweetheart, who along with former husband David Pelletier won an Olympic gold and a world championship in the early 2000s, has now become famous for her polarizing anti-vaccine stance. (Her second husband, from whom she is separated, is former NHL player Craig Simpson, who often has to make the distinction on social media that Salé's views are her own.)
Her Twitter account offers information about how "freedom" has been under attack since the COVID-19 pandemic. Salé and former NHL player Theo Fleury both front an organization called Canadians for Truth. According to its website, it was founded by Canadians seeking to unify people who are deeply committed to "truth, freedom and justice" and have "shared values." Those values include vehemently rejecting calls for vaccines because those protocols violate personal freedoms, or as Salé has done, arguing that putting masks on children is tantamount to "child abuse."
As part of his service to humanity, Fleury has appeared on Fox News — yes, the global bastion of truth-telling and excellent journalism (*read with dripping sarcasm*) — to inform Americans about the revolution occurring in Canada, a.k.a. last year's truck convoy.
Freedom of expression is important
At the outset, it would seem as if these sports figures are using their public personas and trust to disseminate information that has upset a lot of folks, and that many experts easily challenge.
Salé has done interviews with far-right Rebel News to argue against what she thinks is censorship. Freedom of expression is important to many Canadians and one could argue that Fleury and Salé are simply using the freedoms that are entrenched in our Charter.
So the criticism directed toward Boyd for her story on Salé is, in my view, misguided. I believe Boyd was not only doing her job, but she was also offering Canadians more information. With that information comes power. I would be more upset if an athlete I adored was taking an arguably dangerous position and I knew nothing of it and kept them on a pedestal. I found Boyd's piece to be informative and helpful.
Furthermore, reporting is exactly what reporters do. Boyd's story is how a celebrated and adored Canadian athlete whose Prairie charm and delightful smile captured the nations' attention became so public and adamant about a virus that has killed more than 37,000 Canadians since 2020 and affected the health of millions of others. And almost a year after the truck convoy blockaded the U.S.-Canada border in Windsor, the inconvenience and disruption are what is remembered.
While there were many heated exchanges on social media regarding this story, award-winning journalist Michelle Shephard tweeted out the story and said that Boyd brought context and insight. She added, "Always better to understand than ignore IMO, no?"
Boyd took to Twitter to clarify a few things and offer a perspective from a journalistic lens.
I agree with Shephard on this and appreciate Boyd's candour — not only because I believe in journalism but because role models also shape and shift. They're human and not static beings.
Sports figures are a large part of Canadian pop culture and we adore them. Being apprised of their on-goings after they have retired is not harmful but helpful, particularly when their politics are part of who they are.
We are far beyond a time to say "sports shouldn't be political," particularly if the (former) athletes are bellowing their own politics into the world so boldly. I appreciate the reporting. Perhaps it does crush our ideal version of a favourite athlete, but that is part of the world.
If we want idealism in sports, then we should all be devout Jean Béliveau fans, or just be enamoured with those who are excruciatingly private like Sidney Crosby, who my Penguins-loving-fan bestie Renee believes is very intentional about his quiet maneuvring.
Perhaps we might never truly know what active athletes believe until they retire and then get ambushed with opinions or perspectives. But can we afford to be naive about athletes when we love them? We have the right to know about them in a way that is nuanced and relevant. Particularly when their behaviour is no longer sweetheart-worthy.
Perhaps we should aim to never meet our heroes but always report on them.