Tuesday, March 4, 2003

Flag protest shows there still are students among athletes

The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

NEW YORK - This just in: St. Bonaventure has played the season with a junior college center who reportedly gained admission with a welding certificate. Never mind that the university's credibility rests in a million pieces, like microscopic shards from a shattered backboard. At least the kid is certified to grab a blowtorch and fix that rim.

Welcome to March Mindlessness, where faces should be painted to cover the shame. A former Georgia player named Tony Cole is describing Jim Harrick and Jim Harrick Jr. as his expired Visa and MasterCard, and the Harricks can only hope this time they land on the right side of exaggeration: Junior was once caught pulling a George O'Leary on his bio, and Senior was fired by UCLA for pumping up an expense report.

Too bad the good news isn't all that good. We'd love to celebrate Missouri's Ricky Clemons for giving it the ol' college try with a busted hand, if only he wasn't facing charges of using that hand to choke a woman.

Rick Pitino's redemption would be a cleaner angle if NCAA cops weren't buzzing about his Louisville center, Marvin Stone, and Stone's ties to an AAU coach. Fresno State has been hit with charges of academic fraud -- "I'm shocked," the retired Jerry Tarkanian said in true "Casablanca" form -- and even Michigan's feel-good cast of fresh players can't wish away that Chris Webber cloud.

Let's face it: The more time you spend on high institutions, the more you engage in low dialogue, which is why I already miss the fading storm around Manhattanville College's Toni Smith, a Division III ballplayer worth a few baskets a night. By turning her back on the flag during the national anthem, and by delivering a thoughtful explanation for her peaceful stand, Smith reminded everyone that colleges still produce students, and student-athletes, who can think for themselves and inspire others to examine their own allegiances and mores.

Yes, in times of national crisis, sports often best serve as a sanctuary, a welcome diversion from anxiety and fear. Should LeBron James give back the throwback jerseys? Should Nebraska pay its college football players? Does David Wells' IQ exceed his waist size? These conversation pieces are at the core of our sports bar culture, far removed from the depressing images on the evening news.

But every generation also need its Tommie and Toni Smiths, athletes who lift fan consciousness beyond the medal platforms and gym rafters. Sports is too ingrained in the American experience to merely offer the steroid-injecting sluggers, rim-rocking skywalkers and self-celebrating anchors who account for your nightly, in-your-face clips. Tommie Smith's 1968 protest in Mexico City compelled people who normally wouldn't ponder racial inequities to ponder them. Toni Smith's recent protest in suburban New York compelled fans who would've otherwise been obsessing over seedings, brackets and bubbles to ask questions they won't find answered in Dick Vitale's next book.

Why is the anthem played at sporting events? Do most fans spend the anthem wondering, "When's this game gonna start?" Does the flag represent sacrifice on the battlefield, government policy or both?

Toni Smith decided it represented Native Americans massacred, African-Americans enslaved and poor Americans oppressed. Her interpretation led to a small and silent protest, which led to large and loud debate that only validated this country's greatness at a time it needs its moral authority like never before.

Imagine if Smith were an Iraqi who rejected her flag. Saddam Hussein's son, Uday, allegedly has forced some of his country's track athletes to crawl on newly poured asphalt; others were allegedly thrown off a bridge. Their crime? Not hitting the finish line fast enough.

America fights tyrants for a reason: so our Toni Smiths can exist. I oppose Smith's methods but cherish her freedom. Just like I cherish the right of Plattsburgh State's players to stencil the number of their captain, Erica Poole, on themselves. Poole was called to active duty in the National Guard last month, pulled out of the season, and prepares now to be sent to the war zone.

Wednesday night, Plattsburgh State and Manhattanville play in separate postseason tournaments. Erica Poole will salute the flag before missing her game, and Toni Smith will ignore the flag before playing in hers. They are two small-college players making big-time adult choices, presenting a far more important March Madness discussion than which Harrick did what.

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Flag protest shows there still are students among athletes
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