One year ago, Toni Smith was just another Division III athlete grinding through her senior year as Captain of the Women’s basketball team at Manhattanville College. Yet her decision to protest on the court at the start of the US War vs. Iraq and turn her back on the American Flag during the national anthem, sparked debate throughout the sports and political world. Today Toni Smith is living in New York City, working for a young people’s mentoring program called New York Youth at Risk (www.nyyouthatrisk.org). One year later Toni Smith speaks to DAVE ZIRIN, News Editor of the Prince George’s Post, looking back on the events of the last year.
DAVE ZIRIN: It’s been almost a year since you took your demonstration to the court. When did you first see the need to make a stand and why did you feel it was so important to take the actions that you did?
Toni Smith: I’m from a mixed racial and ethnic background. My mom is Jewish, and my dad is Black, white and Cherokee. I was learning about the prison industrial complex and the wars against Native Americans. It made me very angry but I never paid attention to how this history played out on the [basketball] court. I never thought about the National Anthem because I went to alternative schools. I never had to say the pledge. I never had to stand and salute anything before class. On the court I would just stand and let the time go by. So last year I was talking with my boyfriend. His family’s very politically active also. They don’t ever stand for the National Anthem, and they’re very clear on their position. We were talking about all the policies we dislike, and he said “why do you stand for the anthem at your games?” And I said, “Well I never really thought about it. I’m the captain of the team, and I have to be a team leader and a good role model.” He said “but that has nothing to do with who you are. This is not what you believe in. You just told me how much you dislike this flag and what it stands for.” He’s part Black and part Cherokee also and he said to me “This flag represents the slaughter of our ancestors”, and I said ‘you’re absolutely right.’ We had a game a few days later, and as we stood up to sing the National Anthem I said no.
DZ: When was this?
TS: This was probably the first week in December . It was at NYU. I thought, “No, this is not more important than my beliefs. This [ritual] has nothing to do with who I am.” I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t really think of it as something that should be made public. It went unnoticed even by my teammates and family. Then one day the president of the school came up to me and said “if anyone gives you any trouble, send them to me.” I said “alright, but it’s not an issue.” And then he told me that there was this huge uproar that there were several parents of the team who were furious and were threatening to go to the NCAA.
DZ: How did the uproar then unfold?
TS: A few of the parents went to the president of the school. The next thing that happened was one of my teammates called my dorm room and said, “you have to look on instant messenger. You have to see what our team mates are writing about you.” There was this back and forth I.M. battle saying, “I can’t believe Toni’s doing this, what kind of a team captain is she?” All of this was done behind my back. No one asked me why, no one confronted me about it. The next day in the locker room I confronted the girl who began the I.M. discussion and that turned into an explosion within the team.
DZ: Every news story said that you were protesting the war on Iraq in particular. Was that in fact the case?
TS: Iraq was the icing on the cake. The war took me from angry at the general direction of the US to “are you kidding!?!” But it wasn’t just the war. It was everything before that. It was everything that the flag is built on, every thing that is continuing to happen and things that haven’t even happened yet.
DZ: Why do you think your actions touched such a nerve?
TS: The debate around the war, no question. We were playing a game at St. Joseph’s. Their assistant coach had just been sent over to serve. They were angry. Nothing really came about it at that game, but the next team we were scheduled to play was the Merchant Marine Academy. People at St. Joseph’s called and warned them about me. In addition to that a news reporter got a hold of it. The Merchant Marine Academy was the worst team in the league. They’ were something like 0 and 25. They don’t have any fans, and let me tell you, this gym was packed. You can’t even imagine what it was like. They had cadets lined up on the sidelines, each with their own flag that was about seven feet tall. Every single person in the stand was in uniform, with their own flag. They were shouting things at me – obscenities, curses, you name it. It was unbelievable. It was so bad that even the teammates who hated what I was doing had to put themselves in my place and defend my position. It came down to “you’re not going to disrespect my team.” That news reporter captured how angry everyone was at that game, and at the next game the AP was there and the story took off.
DZ: Out of teammates, coaches, administration, school president, who was supportive and who wasn’t?
TS: Half of my teammates were completely against me. Completely against everything I was doing. There were four girls who were very against me and tried to make my life a living hell. The one who started the instant messenger drama sent a petition around the school, saying, “Sign this to demand that Toni Smith return all her financial aid, because she is disrespecting our school.” What’s the point in that? We were teammates in the middle of the season, one of the best seasons our school has ever had, and it just didn’t make any sense. They talked to reporters when we were asked not to by the coach and by the president. When I finally decided to talk to the press it was because my teammates were speaking out without permission. It got to the point where either they’re going to have lies out there or I speak up.
DZ: Did any teammates back you up?
TS: Two of my teammates always stood next to me during the National Anthem, one in front of me, one behind me, holding my hands – Melissa Solano and Dionne Walker. They were absolutely and completely supportive one hundred percent, and would have taken a bullet for me. I couldn’t hang out with anyone else on the team. Then there were four or so girls who were in between. It was “I don’t agree with your position but respect your right to do it, but I wish you weren’t doing it because it’s making life hell for the team.” I can respect that. They tried to stay neutral because we were friends. And they were torn kind of between me and what their parents thought and the season was difficult for them.
DZ: What about your coach, Shawn Lincoln?
TS: I have to give it to him. He took a lot of slack for not punishing me. I think it was very important for Manhattanville, promoting itself as a liberal arts college who promotes socially and ethically aware graduates that he was so supportive. He made it a point not to include what his personal views were, and I still don’t know what he thought, but he definitely supported my right to protest, whether he would rather I did it or not. I really commend him for that, because he didn’t have to. Not just that, but he reprimanded those players who were deliberately going against what his orders for the team [about talking to the press]. They were eventually held in check.
DZ. In the Merchant Marines story, you painted a picture of a team that was despite its differences able to pull together. Was that something that was just a one game thing?
TS: There was tension throughout the season. It got to a point towards the end where we had to agree to disagree. It took a lot more energy for them to trash me and for me to hate them than to just play together. I think our team had so much potential to be a great team and that overpowered everything else that was going on. And I think everyone realized the potential that we had to have a really great season and to break records that our school, our team has never broken, and I think that was more important. We ended up with the third best record in the history of Manhattanville. We all should take credit for that. For certain games I don’t know how we pulled it off. I don’t know how we just played together and did it, but we did. And we played very well as a team.
DZ: If someone were to come up to you and ask, “Protests were happening through the spring. Why demonstrate on the basketball court? Why you’re your stand there?” What would you say?
TS: I would say that it wasn’t really a stand. It was just, “I’m here to play basketball and I have to salute the flag? I don’t want to.” Manhattanville is a small Division III school. Our fans consisted of close friends, family, and a few girls. Not more than sixty people would be at the games. So it would not be the best place to get a message out.
DZ: What do you say to people who counter, “Sports is no place for a political acts”?
TS: I say that during World War II, when America decided that we needed to show our superiority to other countries, they implemented the National Anthem before sporting events and when they did that they put politics in the middle of sports. The question is not why did I choose to turn my back on the flag. It’s why do we have to do this at basketball games? If they don’t want politics in sports then they need to take the National Anthem out because that is inherently political.
DZ: We just passed the 35th anniversary of the Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s medal stand Olympic protests. When you were doing this, were you conscious that you were part of a tradition of sports and politics?
TS: I was aware of Muhammad Ali, and I was aware of Tommy Smith and John Carlos. But I didn’t connect myself to them. I saw one article that had my picture right next to theirs, and I was completely blown away. That was the first time I connected the two. I didn’t feel in any way like it was on the same scale. I will say that like [Smith and Carlos] the point was not to put myself forward but to get people to talk about these issues. Last year people didn’t want to acknowledge that we were going to war. They wanted to hide it. It can become really easy to not acknowledge the fact that we are killing people in other countries because it’s not here. A big issue I had with September 11th was that was the first event since Pearl Harbor where there was an attack of such magnitude on this country. And you could see this all over the place, people going “never forget, never forget 9/11.” 9/11 was terrible, but that level of destruction is every single day for other people in other countries. I think that it is unbelievably arrogant to say [in the aftermath of 9/11]”now we can do whatever we want.” It has sent the message that “we are better than you. We are superior human beings to everyone else in the world.” It’s really appalling.
DZ: Were you asked about speaking at any anti-war demonstrations?
TS: After the season, I was asked once or twice to come and speak, and I declined. I felt like if I was going to attend demonstrations, I was going to attend then as a regular person, not a person of importance. If it ever got to the point where I was speaking at a rally it would be because I had done the work, I had paid the dues, and I didn’t feel like I deserved that.
DZ: Did you ever feel physically threatened during this whole process?
TS: The guy who walked onto the court with the flag; I actually didn’t feel threatened by him. I think we were all in too much shock- as to how he got onto the court and why he was interrupting our game to do this- to even be scared about it. It wasn’t until afterwards, when my family and a few of my friends were really outraged. ‘How could this school let him get on the campus? What if he had a weapon? You’re not safe.’ Then I got a bit concerned; but I still wasn’t scared. I got one letter in the mail that was a death threat. It said, “I’ve seen you, I’ve been close enough to touch you, I’m a disabled veteran, I’ll find you again, you won’t be able to disrespect my country anymore, I’ll make sure that it’s an end for you.” That scared me. I was a little bit frightened after that, and I was more cautious about where I went for a little while.
DZ: Did you feel like any of the coverage was skewed because of sexism?
TS: I didn’t think it at first. Someone brought it to my attention. They said, “You’re threatening. You are saying things that no one is saying right now. You’re protesting things that people are too afraid to protest, and you’re a woman.” And they said that even though Muhammad Ali and Tommie Smith and John Carlos protested and were reprimanded, they were men. That puts you in an entirely different category and people don’t know how to deal with it. That really got me thinking after that. I still don’t know what conclusions I’ve come to because of it, but I definitely feel like it is a story of its own because people don’t expect women to be bold and speak out. I think when women do then that puts you in another category, which is “you must be a lesbian, you must be mean, you’re not a lady.” It brings up hundreds of other stories. We’ve seen that happen with other female athletes; ones who don’t pose for magazines, ones who come out and say they’re lesbians. It completely discredits you as an athlete, as a person. People don’t want to hear your story after that. Even in a lot of the letters I got, it went back to my looks. It all went back to my physical appearance. : I got a lot of “you’re a rich white girl who doesn’t know anything.” I want to know where they got that information. I’m definitely not rich, I’m not all white, and the white part of me is Jewish so you’re really off on that.
DZ: It’s been a year. How has the stand you took changed your life?
TS: I definitely have grown mentally. Part of that is due to the stand I took. Part of that is just the course that the world is taking and seeing it through my own eyes without the restraints of college, without the restraints of parents. I work for an organization where we deal with teenagers I’m a lot more conscious of the development of teenagers and young people and their mindset.
DZ: What about the actual events in the world the last year? Do feel like the course of events in Iraq has validated the stand that you took?
TS: It was always validated to me, and nothing anyone ever said invalidated or made me question what I did. The only thing I ever questioned was my safety and the safety of my family and friends. But the way I felt at the time was that there were many protests during the Vietnam War that outraged people. Then when circumstances came to light about how illegal the war was and how many killed and died senselessly, people said, “Oh, now I get it.” I think that’s what’s happening now. There are stories now that have been done about me- because it’s the end of the year and people are recapping- and the tone is more supportive. There are a lot of people who were angry at the time, saying, “How dare you not support my son, he’s going off to war.” And now either their son has died or their son is still over there, and they realize that this war is bogus and. they don’t have any health insurance or have to wait on line for food. Now they say, “oh, I get it. Now I get what you were trying to say. And now my son is over there, my daughter’s over there and I can’t help when I could have helped before.” So I think a lot of what has come to light, as we knew it would- because they couldn’t keep it hidden forever. If that validates it for other people then I’m glad. They don’t have to agree with me but at least they can understand why.
DZ: Do you have any regrets?
TS: None. I’m really big on not living with regrets. There are always things in your life you’re not going to be happy with, choices you’ve made that you’re not pleased with, but every choice you make you make it for a reason and you might not know that that reason is until later, and it might hurt you at the time, but eventually it pans out and it shapes who you are as a person. Anything that I would have done differently would have altered who I am now.
DZ: Do have any last comments
TS: Yes. I was one of those kids who went to overcrowded schools with no books and we had to recycle Xerox copies. That was a choice that I made, and that my mother made, and I’ve never regretted it. When I got to college, and I told my stories of high school- how we didn’t have a gym, how we played in a junior high school across the street- they said “oh my god! I can’t believe you had to do this, I can’t believe you didn’t have this, you didn’t have books!” And then we were assigned to write ten-page research papers, and none of them knew how to do it. I was in a higher writing class than any of my friends and they were complaining, “How can I write a three page paper? What’s an introduction? How do I end it?” They didn’t know one thing from another. It is unfair that there is such unequal funding between school districts, but there is something to gain from every situation. Examine where you feel overlooked, uncounted, deemed unimportant, and use it to build yourself up. I would not trade the education I received for an education at a private school. It’s all about what you take from life, not what you feel life is or is not giving you. The script is unwritten until we write our own stories.
DAVE ZIRIN is the Editor of the Prince George’s Post in Prince George’s County Maryland. He can be reached at email@example.com.
His sports writing can be read at www.edgeofsports.com.