Sports: My Way or No Way

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At New York Yankee home games during the seventh inning stretch, a sonorous voice on the P.A. system asks the crowd to stand — how many brave souls would dare refuse? — for the playing of Irving Berlin’s "God Bless America."

Nothing much was said publicly about standing for the song until first baseman-slugger Carlos Delgado, then of the Toronto Blue Jays, refused last year to rise from his dugout bench, declaring he wasn’t thrilled how the U.S. had treated Vieques in Puerto Rico when it used the island for bombing practice. Nor did he appreciate America’s invasion of Iraq. This rare act of defiance was unheard of. After all, after 9/11, Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig had ordered all teams to play "God Bless America," which New York Time sports columnist William Rhoden correctly called "a political statement," and which should have allowed room for alternative views to be aired.

To his credit, Delgado neither caved nor apologized. But the incident revealed why politically dissenting opinions in baseball, football or basketball are so rare. Pro sport figures can say what they wish — as is their right — but dare depart from officially if unwritten sanctioned behavior and you’re a marked man. Superstars like Delgado or Curt Schilling, the Boston Red Sox pitcher who publicly backed George Bush for President in 2004, can easily survive the criticism. Steve Nash, the Phoenix Suns’ spectacular point guard and the league’s MVP is critical of American foreign policy, but he’s a Canadian. The San Diego Padres had several players years back that belonged to the John Birch Society and they went unchallenged. The First Amendment, after all, supposedly protects athletes too. But lesser players had better watch their words.

Star players have been quoted supporting George Bush, the death penalty or New York City mayoral candidates yet spark no sports-page furor; regular displays of militarism at sporting events, such as Air Force flyovers during the Super Bowl, pass without comment. (Would the masters of this over-hyped commercial extravaganza ever permit anti-war U.S. veterans of the Iraq or Vietnam wars to march onto the field?) Most sport writers never comment about this display of militarism just as their counterparts in the news and editorial departments were reluctant to investigate what a bewildered Bush and his bellicose Vice President and neocon allies were planning for Iraq.

Challenge the good guy, patriotic image and you’re anathema. Muhammad Ali famously said "no" to his draft board and lost his title. In 1968, Timmie Smith and John Carlos, two protesting black Americans, held up their fists in protest during award ceremonies at the 1968 Olympics, for which they were ostracized and pilloried.

Sports, goes the prevailing mantra, are not the place to air political views. When Toni Smith, a Division III female college basketball player at Manhattanville College in a New York City suburb, was assailed and taunted for refusing to salute the flag in early 2003, she explained, "I can no longer, in good conscience, salute the flag. The war America will soon be entering in has reinforced my beliefs." Happily, Filip Bondy, who covers sports for the New York Daily News, defended her right to express her views. "If sports events are inappropriate forums for political statements, then what exactly is The Star Spangled Banner?" he asked. And, why, I wonder, are we — to the best of my knowledge — the only nation that always asks spectators to stand and pay homage to its flag before each major sports event?

But if athletes behave, benefits flow. During the Vietnam War, a tacit agreement — never investigated — may well have been struck between baseball, football and the government whereby players eligible for the draft — every one of them mute about that bitterly contested war — were permitted to join hard-to-secure Reserve and National Guard slots and thus saved from possible Vietnam duty. Like Washington’s legion of war hawks, all they needed were the right connections.

And there is a corollary to all this. Andrew Carroll, who edited a collection of soldiers’ letters in Behind the Lines, told the New York Times that combat vets expressed to him their apprehension that warfare "was increasingly being romanticized in the popular culture." Maybe (or maybe not) that’s OK for Hollywood, TV, and the fashion and video industries. But when our government does it, it’s appalling, particularly when it lies.

Take Pat Tillman, the ex-Arizona Cardinal football player who volunteered for Ranger service and was killed in Afghanistan. His burial ceremony became a national TV spectacle extolling patriotic sacrifice (for others, of course) and a subtle defense of the Iraq war. President Bush even paid a political visit to Sun Devil Stadium, the Cardinals’ home field, during the 2004 election campaign, ostensibly to honor Tillman. The trouble, as everyone now knows, is that Pat Tillman was killed by "friendly fire." The Pentagon finally confessed (remember the fiction they concocted about that female soldier from rural West Virginia and her "heroism"?) Its flacks had staged it all. As Dave Zirin (www. edgeofsports.com), one of the finest sportswriters, wrote at the time: Tillman, a sincere patriot, "had joined the Rangers for ideals like freedom and justice, but fought in a war for oil and empire." He added, "the final injustice was that in death, even more than in life, he was a pawn in their game."

I wrote a biography of Branch Rickey, who once ran the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was a southern Ohio religious conservative, a cold warrior and backer of the House Un-American Committee, Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy. But whatever his political leanings, he possessed the integrity and honesty to refuse to go along with those opposed to Jackie Robinson’s entry into baseball. At the time I argued (some disagreed) that while he was also shrewd enough to understand that racial integration would benefit the Dodgers economically, a more significant reason was his unshakable religious faith that we are all children of God. Denounced for daring to break the color line, he refused to back down and was the only one of sixteen baseball owners to demand that baseball change its ways.

I confess to navet. The silence of virtually all our professional athletes in our troubled era bothers me because I’m a lifelong sports fan who sees in their timid behavior a mirror of what is happening in our larger culture. I ask myself: If Hollywood celebrities can take sides and express their deeply felt political views, why not athletes and the rest of us too?

Daily, American and Iraqis are killed and wounded in a war that most Americans (or so report all polls) no longer support or even understand, yet where they (and most mass media) blink at our government’s fabrications. Most Americans prefer, in Neil Postman’s wonderfully descriptive phrase, to amuse themselves to death and thus ignore the daily tragedies occurring in a faraway place to someone else’s child or spouse.

Murray Polner [send him mail] wrote Branch Rickey: A Biography, No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran, and co-authored Disarmed and Dangerous, a dual biography of Daniel and Philip Berrigan.

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