The Persevering Perfidy of Patriotism: Puzzling?

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"The jersey that I wear has never made me who I was. It has nothing to do with what’s written on my heart. Will I be playing for Russia? Yes. But I’m absolutely 100 percent still an American. I love our country. I love what we stand for. This is an opportunity to fulfill my dream of playing in the Olympics."

~ Becky Hammon

As I read the fascinating article about the ancient Olympics and the facts that: a) the games were largely for professional athletes; b) those athletes generally competed with a win-at-all-costs mindset; and most interesting, c) those athletes often competed with the aid of (what they thought would be) performance-enhancing drugs, I found deep irony. The recent furor, such as it is, over WNBA player Becky Hammon's decision to play for Russia in Beijing, provides a useful prism through which to examine a few questions.

How Does One Define a Traitor?

Rumor has it that Team USA women's basketball coach Anne Donovan referred to Hammon as a "traitor" for deciding to play for Russia. Traitor? I frankly do not know the context of Donovan's comments, or whether or not she was serious. From the coverage I've seen, it seems that she was. The level of duplicity, and frankly, stupidity, in such a statement yields a cornucopia of material to examine more fully. First of all, let us examine the terms in play. According to Merriam-Webster On-Line:

  • traitor: one who betrays another’s trust or is false to an obligation or duty
  • patriotism: love for or devotion to one’s country

The act of playing professional basketball is an occupation, a job. In exchange for playing that sport Becky Hammon is paid a fee, a salary. Given her relative skill, she would, all things equal, be compensated at a higher level than many of her colleagues. Her only obligation is to perform at the best of her ability in exchange for that money. As far as I can tell, she's done that, and continues to do so. So no trust is being betrayed, and all obligations — rightfully conveyed — are being met. (Frankly, there is no way to judge her love or devotion to her country one way or the other.)

How Does One Define Duty?

One could argue, I guess, that Hammon is making a lot of money via a scenario that would not exist were she not in the U.S. That may be true, but the same could be said of the many international players in the NBA. Are they similarly obligated to play for the U.S. too, since they are making a king's ransom in a sport invented and housed in the U.S.? Few would argue in the affirmative. In fact, it's not even worth noting that people like Yao Ming will be playing for their native country in the Olympics. Certainly, playing in the U.S. professional leagues confers no duty. (And still, no measure of love or devotion to the statist concept of a country is relevant!)

What about the fact that Hammon was born in the U.S.? The most basic libertarian analysis would find such an argument specious on its face simply because the concept of a country-of-origin — particularly in this case — is a flawed, collectivist, statist construct. The imaginary lines on some map are irrelevant when it comes to voluntary activity. However, one does not need to embrace ostensible libertarian and/or anti-statist logic to see the lunacy of suggesting that Hammon's nation of birth somehow obligates her. One only need look at history. The argument from morality informs us.

Is Hammon One in a Row?

I guess one could argue, if they were ignorant, that Becky Hammon represents a marked change in the way athletes operate in the U.S. Not really. The briefest examination of people who have both competed for and, in some cases, won medals for the U.S. shows a plethora of people not born in the U.S. For instance just this year we have:

  • Bernard Lagat: 800, 1500, 5000 Meter Runs, born in Kenya, Africa. (Silver Medalist in Athens, Bronze Medalist in Sydney, both for Kenya.)
  • Meb Keflezighi: Marathon, born in Asmara, Eritrea; (Silver Medalist in Athens for the U.S.)
  • Said Ahmed: 1500 Meter Run, born in Somalia, Africa.

As far as I can tell, none of these people will be branded a traitor by anyone in the coming months, if ever. (There are more examples, and maybe even better ones, but I figured this smattering was enough.) The fact that Lagat actually won multiple medals, including gold medals at the World Championships, while a citizen of Kenya will not, I suspect, be raised by anyone in a negative attack on his patriotism. Nor should it be.

Not that far back, a Moroccan named Khalid Kannochi attempted, in vain, to become a naturalized U.S. citizen in time to compete in the Olympics. (He had fallen out with the Olympic committee in his native Morocco.) He failed, and the U.S. team could not take him and his world-record skills to the Olympics. I don't recall a single soul worrying about his duty or loyalties. Funny that. In fact, Kannochi was actually designated as American Athlete of the Year by Track & Field News in 2002!

Conclusion

As I briefly perused the blogesphere in preparation for this column, I noted that even some people who support Hammon's decision still refer to her as "unpatriotic" although they stop short of calling her a traitor. Here's what puzzles me. If a professional athlete plays for Chicago today, but Indianapolis next week, no one will refer to him (or her) as "unpatriotic." (Some sports fans with too much time to kill may use the term "traitor" but sports talk radio has never been known as a bastion of measured, thorough, intelligent discourse.)

If that same athlete cannot compete at the level necessary for one of the professional leagues in the U.S., he can go to Europe and compete. No one will refer to him as a traitor. If an athlete is born in a country other than the U.S. and comes here to compete, he can do so at his pleasure and if he's good enough, generate a large following both here and abroad. He is neither unpatriotic nor traitorous. In the most coarse– and rational — measure, love and devotion is not conveyed by one's occupation anyway.

And so it is with anyone who competes in the Olympic Games. They are athletes, individuals volunteering to ply their physical wares on the biggest and best stage they can find. While I celebrate these athletes, and will be watching many of them with great interest, it doesn't make a ton of sense to take a set of athletic events — originally inhabited largely by professional soldiers between wars — and turn them into a referendum on national pride. I can't say it is completely unexpected though. Hype often seems to generate more traction than truth.

Wilt Alston [send him mail] lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife and three children. When he's not training for a marathon or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a principal research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.

Wilton D. Alston Archives

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