T-shirts are like opinions: everyone thinks theirs is the best until they bring them out into the sunlight to be judged by everyone else. Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov probably thought so when
he wore a shirt in Denver this weekend featuring Russian president Vladimir Putin and the phrase “Crimea Is Ours” on it. Almost immediately, Varlamov pulled the picture off his Instagram account, because people were laying into him for condoning
a contentious political development that’s far from settled. But he really has nobody to blame for himself for whatever blowback has come (and will come) his way. Consider this paragraph the standard disclaimer for all you staunch libertarians out there currently typing up an impassioned “hey pal, he’s got the right to wear whatever shirt he wants!” email, comment or tweet on your word processing machine. Nobody’s suggesting Varlamov doesn’t have the right to send whatever message he pleases – and that goes for whether he’s wearing that message on his chest or if he followed the lead of people renting airplanes
to fly banners over football stadiums this past weekend. We live in a free and open society and people are welcome to express opinions they believe in. But, just as Tim Thomas
found out a couple of years ago, making public statements on controversial issues carries with it a responsibility to defend your stance and to be judged by people in return.
As a public figure, you can’t just throw something into an important debate and run away from it once people ask you to back up your words. That’s something Thomas never got the hang of. He was fearless when it came to
posting messages on social media, but when reporters challenged him on those messages, he refused to elaborate; in some instances,
he ended press conferences as soon as a media member simply raised a question. At first glance, it’s hard to understand athletes perplexed or frustrated by the public holding them to account for speaking out. But scratch the surface, and you see they’ve never really been challenged on much throughout their formative years. Indeed, the only things that are usually asked of them is (a) to be in top shape; and (b) to give it their all on the playing surface. Consequently, when they send out something to the public they believe to be a pearl of wisdom and someone replies they’d prefer if the pearl was reinserted into the oyster and flung back in the ocean, it’s understandable a player would scratch his head in befuddlement. But that doesn't mean they're in the right to pull the chute and clam up when they're called on to justify their perspective. This is where I think the PR training athletes receive fails them on a fundamental basis. Too often, players are taught not to say anything at all, when what they should be taught is to make sure what they say can be followed up on if someone asked them to. It's entirely likely more detailed explanations aren't going to convince everyone to take a player's side on each and every issue, but having no reply at all for those who disagree with them doesn't do the athlete or the issue they're passionate about any good at all. It’s called "the courage of your convictions” for a reason. So Semyon, if you want to be supportive of the leader of your homeland and his foreign policy decisions, go nuts. But don’t insert yourself into the conversation and sprint off at the first sign of disagreement. We should be encouraging of athletes who choose to participate in important debates and discussions, but we also have to let them know they can’t just dip their toes in the water, then shriek, feign innocence and go
full-ostrich when confronted with the power of the ensuing waves.