Adonal Foyle’s singular life story is more fantastic than fiction. He starts at center for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, but that is perhaps the least interesting part.
Foyle grew up on the Carribean Island of Canouan–an area just 3.5 by 1.25 miles–and didn’t pick up a basketball until he was 15. During the summer of 1990, two college professors from America, Jay and Joan Mandle, were refereeing one of Adonal’s games and were blown away by his raw skills. After speaking with him, they were equally impressed with his polished intellect.
The Mandles asked Foyle to accompany them back to the United States to compete for a basketball scholarship. Foyle agreed and after playing two years of High School ball in the states was offered a free ride to all the traditional college hoops powerhouses.
Yet Foyle made the highly unorthodox decision attend Colgate, a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. This was an unheard of counterintuitive move, akin to George W. Bush dumping Dick Cheney in favor of Barbra Streisand.
But to Foyle it made perfect sense. His passions revolved around politics and social change as much as sports. The Mandles also taught at Colgate creating a warm environment for Foyle in upstate New York. Their experiences in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s made the Mandles a perfect match with Foyle and they now recognize him as their son, and Foyle refers to them as his parents.
Foyle tore up the overmatched Colgate basketball world, averaging 20.4 points, 12.7 rebounds and 5.66 blocks a game in his three-year college career. His 492 career blocks are an NCAA record. In 1997, Adonal Foyle was selected in the first round of the 1997 NBA draft by the Golden State Warriors with the 8th overall pick.
In the summer of 2001, Adonal founded the organization Democracy Matters, a non-partisan student organization that fights for campaign finance reform. With an active presence on over 30 college campuses nationwide, Democracy Matters involves hundreds of students and faculty. Through teach-ins, letter writing and petition campaigns, educational seminars, voter registration drives, Democracy Matters is trying to get big money out of politics from the bottom up (see www.democracymatters.org). Here Foyle answers questions about his influences and the role of politics in professional sports.
DZ: Was there a defining moment or issue that inspired you to become active in politics?
AF: I grew up on a tiny island, Canouan, part of the country of St Vincent and the Grenadines. On Canouan there were less than 1,000 people, no electricity, and my tiny house had no in-door toilet and a kitchen outside. I was raised by my grandmother and great-aunt who “gardened”–growing peanuts and other ground crops. I grew up working in the garden and doing many other chores all day when I was not in school. Everyone is aware of politics in St Vincent because the country is so small. Also, people on Canouan and the other small Grenadine islands think that they get ignored and shortchanged by the main island where most of the politicians are from, so we are very aware of what is going on.
DZ: What movements or individuals from history have inspired you to be politically active?
AF: The Civil Rights Movement is the most important to me. I studied it in depth in college and have read a great deal of Martin Luther King Jr.’s writings. The vision of justice for all and direct action to achieve it–especially by young people is inspiring to me. In addition to that, my American parents–the Colgate professors who brought me to the United States–were very politically involved. Both Joan and Jay Mandle were part of the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle to end the War in Vietnam. So our dinner table was always an education in itself–mostly about politics and social change.
DZ: What are your reflections of Muhammad Ali’s stand against the Vietnam war in the 1960s?
AF: Ali’s stand was a courageous one. Anyone who is a public person and speaks out–especially for an unpopular position that they believe in–is brave. I think he had every right to be public about what was on his mind. People think politics are only for elected officials–but that is one of the things that’s wrong–everyone should have their voice heard.
DZ: What do your teammates say about your political ideas? Do you engage with them?
AF: I do engage in discussing politics–and of course lots of other things too–with my teammates. Not too many athletes like to speak out about politics. They may be interested in it but I think they are cautious because they don’t want to stand out of the crowd and be controversial in that way. But in fact my teammates are very interested in the work I am doing with my organization, Democracy Matters that works with college students to get them more politically active and involved.
DZ: You said in the Nation Magazine: “This mother of all democracies is one of the most corrupt systems, where a small minority make the decisions for everybody else.” What concretely has led to draw this conclusion?
AF: My view is that democracy is harmed anywhere–including in the United States–when a small minority of people make the decisions for everyone else. In the United States it is money that speaks loudest in political campaigns. In most cases, the person who spends the most money wins, and people who have average incomes and ordinary lives–that’s most of us — are shut out of running for office. Because candidates must raise huge sums of money, they pay more attention to their big donors than to ordinary voters. And that means that important decisions about war and peace, the economy, the environment, civil rights are made by elected officials too often beholden to their funders rather than the people.
DZ: Would campaign finance reform decisively change this dynamic?
AF: Changing the way we fund campaigns would decisively change this dynamic. It would restore the equality of one-person one-vote in influencing elections and therefore our laws and social policy. If we had public funding of election campaigns as they do in Maine and Arizona, in New York City, Los Angeles and others, anyone with great ideas could run for office regardless of their wealth. Democracy Matters students are working to spread the word about the promise of public financing–a workable way to fund campaigns that deepens democracy.
DZ: You said in the Nation: “The 1960s generation was against the war, people coming home in body bags, dogs gnawing at black people’s feet. Today issues are more complicated.” But the 1960s saw mass movements against war and racism. How is it more complicated today?
AF: It is more complicated today because the issues are more complicated. To get people to think about money and politics is hard; to get them to see how it affects them every single day is hard even though it’s true. People are so cynical and turned off of politics that they have given up. Through Democracy Matters I am trying to give people the hope that they can make a difference–that’s what people in the 60s believed and it can be true again today. Civil rights activists didn’t know they would win–they did it because it was right. Young people especially have to stand up for what they believe and trust that it will make a difference–because it will.
DZ: Blue Jays first baseman Carlos Delgado recently said of the war and occupation in Iraq, “I think it’s the stupidest war ever. ” What are your feelings on the war?
AF: I have said that there was not enough information and discussion before the decision to go to war was made. I still believe that. In important decisions like this we need to be sure that our elected officials are listening to ALL of us. I don’t think that happened this time.
DZ: What do you say to people who believe that athletes have no business talking about politics; that they should just “shut up and play?”
AF: We are role models as professional basketball players whether we want to be or not. I am using my influence to get young people and others interested in politics because I believe that a democracy can only work well if everyone is involved and participates. It isn’t really much of a democracy when only a small proportion of people vote and most feel that their government isn’t interested in them and doesn’t represent them. I believe that everyone has the right and the responsibility to decide what kind of world we live in and ought to be involved in making these important decisions–including athletes.
DAVE ZIRIN can be reached at email@example.com.
His sports writing can be read at www.edgeofsports.com.