Organizing the Jocks for Justice
IIt started out like your typical pro football player puff piece. But then, tucked away drowsily in the last paragraph, Baltimore Ravens defensive lineman Adalius Thomas, emerged with something to say. As Sports Illustrated’s Peter King wrote,
"[Thomas] is politically alert, and not afraid to express his views, which makes him a rarity in the NFL. ‘What’s the Iraq war all about?’ he said, his voice rising. ‘If it’s about oil, just say that. Don’t give us this Weapons of Mass Destruction crap when all you find is three firecrackers.’
‘You get a little fired up about that,’ he was told.
‘We all have brains,’ he said. ‘We should use them.’"
The message was clear: Whether you’re an offensive tackle, a trash talking quarterback, or Dick Cheney: don’t mess with Big Adalius.
Thomas is only the latest in a stellar cast of pro players chafing against silence, and sounding off against the war and occupation of Iraq. Steve Nash, Etan Thomas, Josh Howard, Adam Morrison, Carlos Delgado, Martina Navratilova, Adonal Foyle, and even Ultimate Fighting Champion Jeff Monson, among others, have all raised their voice. They are also just the beginning. Stories circulate of teammates and coaches who share their views but don’t want to go public. Even some referees whisper covert statements of support.
Three years ago, The Nation Magazine writers Peter Dreier & Kelly Candaele asked the question "Where are the Jocks for Justice?" My experience in the Sportsworld is that the "Jocks for Justice" are both everywhere and nowhere. Progressive athletes strain to be heard, but they act as individuals and the media responds with a smothering silence. This does not have to be.
Pro athletes hold claim to a unique and underutilized bully pulpit. Two middle fingers from Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick have sent sports radio and television into a tizzy. Chicago Bulls center Ben Wallace wants to wear a red headband in defiance of team rules and a raucous debate explodes about something last popularized by Olivia Newton-John. The furor over Barry Bonds’ place in history has led to a more honest discussion about racism than anything we get in the mainstream press. Anti-war athletes could use this platform if they just stopped operating, in isolation from one another. If the people I cited called a joint press conference to announce a new organization: Athletes United Against War or – what the hell – Jocks for Justice, it would electrify the cultural landscape. Think I’m exaggerating? Consider the case of Toni Smith. In 2003, the Division III Manhattanville women’s hoops captain decided that she was going to turn her back to the flag during the National Anthem to protest not only the war abroad but "the injustices and inequities at home." Yipping Heads lined up to debate whether Toni had the "right" to express her views. Everyone from ESPN to 20/20 to 60 Minutes wanted a piece of her story.
Remember, this is Division III women’s basketball. Crowds usually rival a well-attended K-Fed concert. If Toni Smith from Manhattanville could, for a brief moment, polarize the Sportsworld imagine what Steve Nash, backed by an organization, could do?
And yet it hasn’t happened and it’s worth asking why. Of the players I have spoken with, two main reasons emerge. The first is pessimism. Like most people in this country, pro athletes don’t believe that they have any power to determine the course of this war. The thought is that the media might give them some coverage, but in the end, nothing would change and they would just earn ESPN radio’s "Just Shut Up Award" for their trouble. One said to me, "The quickest way to win that Just Shut Up award is to have something to say."
The other roadblock is straight-up fear: fear that taking an unpopular stand would mean a quick ticket out of the SportsWorld along with its attendant privileges. All NBA players know the cautionary tales of Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul Rauf. They took stands against US foreign policy and found themselves drummed out of the league like they were the Bush twins in Buenos Aires. Most athletes came up poor and it is not a life anyone wants to revisit.
As Jim Brown said in a recent interview with Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson, "The Civil Rights movement is over. Individuals can buy homes wherever they want, travel first class wherever they want, eat wherever they want. All of these things now are part of the everyday lives of players. But the discrimination and racism in the world now is very subtle. It’s poor people that are really suffering from a lack of inclusion. Poor people live in a part of town that most players don’t go into, and those people aren’t an issue as far as the league is concerned. Basically, the players have become part of the elite part of society. And I mean regardless of their color or anything like that. They are part of the elite part of our society because of money and status. So there’s not discrimination based on black and white; it’s more of a discrimination based on the rich and the poor."
The fear is real but can be conquered by letting the silent players know they are not alone. Even two anti-war athletes sitting together in a room would be a start. Imagine the possibilities. They could issue a statement about their right to speak out and not just "shut up and play." They could perform simple tasks like wearing black ribbons on the court or field in honor of those on both sides who have died. They could host a charity game for peace organizations.
Yes, there would be risk. But returning soldiers have courted risk by starting Iraqi Veterans Against the War. Cindy Sheehan courted risk by camping out in front of Bush’s Crawford compound. Muslims in DC recently courted tremendous risk by organizing a "pray-in" at Reagan National Airport. It’s the risk that makes the action worth a damn. They might lose an endorsement or two, but they would gain a chance to make some history. Consider this a challenge. It’s time for Athletes Against War to take root. We have the players. We have the sentiment of the public. All we need is for our lost tribe of Athletic Rebels to locate one another. If Big Adalius stands among them, they shouldn’t be too hard to find.