Your favorite athlete is probably a terrible person


Rachel Choi

Illustration by Rachel Choi

By Camilo Fonseca, Editor-at-large

At the end of January, the hockey world lost a man who, at the height of his career, earned the admiration of millions with his legendary playmaking on the ice.

But when Bobby Hull—the “Golden Jet,” the winner of multiple All-Star and MVP awards in the 1960s—died on Jan. 30, he was perhaps remembered most for his anti-semitic comments, and the sickening allegations of domestic abuse leveled against him by his wives and children.

For many, it took the death of one of their favorite players to realize that, beyond his prodigious talent, he was also a deeply terrible person.

It’s a horrible feeling for a sports fan to realize that their idol is also a nasty human being. But, at this point, sports fans shouldn’t be surprised. If anything, we should be used to it by now.

Hull’s death was just a few weeks removed from another scandal that roiled the hockey world. On Jan. 13, Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov made headlines when, citing his Russian Orthodox religious beliefs, he declined to take part in his team’s Pride Night, which promotes the inclusivity of the LGBTQ+ fanbase. Just a few weeks later, the entire New York Rangers team abruptly abandoned their plans to wear Pride-themed jerseys, as did the Minnesota Wild on March 7. And yesterday, the Chicago Blackhawks announced their intention to do the same.

For some fans, Pride Nights might seem like nothing important—either a triviality or a cynical cash-grab to sell more tickets. But for those in the LGBTQ+ community, who have long been marginalized and openly discriminated against, even by their beloved players and fellow fans, Pride Nights serve as an important reminder that everyone is welcome in hockey.

So when players choose to not “celebrate” Pride Night—and it’s individual players, not teams, that make those decisions—they are sending a message to LGBTQ+ fans, loud and clear: everyone is welcome, except for you.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman immediately came out with a strong statement in support of the league’s LGBTQ+ fans—a statement that, in classic Bettman fashion, hedged on toady appeals to the “individual choice” of players who might be less comfortable “embracing themselves in causes than others.”

Bettman’s weak-willed non-statement demonstrated the vacuousness of the NHL’s supposed commitment to being “open, welcoming and inclusive.” But he did get one thing right: players will always have their individual opinions, no matter how insensitive, backwards, or offensive they are.

And it’s not as if the problem is exclusive to the hockey world. Just last year, NBA fans were graced with All-Star Kyrie Irving’s repost of a “grossly antisemitic” conspiracy-laden documentary. Irving went on to take “accountability” by stating that he “respect[s] all walks of life”—an unequivocal equivocation worthy of Gary Bettman.

Red Sox fans need not look far for their own examples of problematic sports stars. Legendary pitcher Curt Schilling, who helped Boston win its first World Series in 86 years, was fired from his TV analyst job after an abhorrent social media post regarding transgender people. For good measure, Schilling also compared Muslims to Nazis and defended the Capitol insurrection.

Beyond the United States, international soccer superstars have their own brand of notoriety. Real Madrid captain Karim Benzema famously recorded a sex tape of his teammate and blackmailed him with it. Paris St. Germain’s Neymar Jr. lends his million-dollar brand to openly racist and misogynist politicians like Jair Bolsonaro—as if the rape allegations weren’t enough.

So sports fans, if you’re looking for a role model, you might want to look again. However, if you’re looking for someone capable of spewing malice, hatred, and even actual physical harm, chances are you won’t have to look too far. As much as we deify the best playmakers and puck-carriers, chances are that, aside from the prodigious talent they display every night on television, they might be terrible, no-good, very bad people.

And that realization—that even many of those athletes who stay quiet might just be keeping their nasty opinions to themselves—is what makes a select few athletes all the more special.

As much as it might be easy to condemn all our favorite athletes, to throw our hands up, turn the TV off and instinctively abandon our deeply-held admiration and respect, we should remember that there are beacons of light in the morally grim world of sports.

Last year, for example, when the Boston Bruins announced the signing of a talented prospect who was better known for the extreme, racist, and repeated bullying of a neurodivergent classmate, the players on the team took a strong (and uncharacteristic) stand against their own organization.

“The culture that we’ve built here goes against that type of behavior,” said team captain Patrice Bergeron. “We’re a team that’s built something about character, people and individuals … in this locker room, we’re all about inclusion, diversity, respect. Those are key words and core values that we have. We expect guys to wear this jersey to be high-character people with integrity and respect.”

Bergeron’s comments were remarkable for their unusual candidness—rarely do athletes openly criticize their own organizations, and rarer still do they do so for “off-the-field” reasons. This wasn’t the first time, though, that a Bruin stood up for the right thing.

In 2016, Bergeron’s teammate Brad Marchand retweeted a virulently homophobic post, with a brief-but-forceful response.

“This derogatory statement is offensive to so many people around the world,” Marchand said. “[You are] the kind of kid parents are ashamed of.”

Marchand’s comments might seem obvious to us, but in a profession where homophobia, overt and covert, runs rampant, they were also a reminder that there are athletes with a strong moral compass; ones who on some level, believe in inclusivity, morality, and basic human decency.

The issue comes down to what we expect from the athletes on our favorite teams. Are they role models that we should admire and strive to emulate, or are they merely professionals who happen to play in our city’s stadium?

As Bergeron and Marchand (to name a few) demonstrate, athletes can choose to be both. And those are the ones that we can truly look up to.