Sunday, March 9, 2003

Sports, politics a combustible mix

The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

For two weeks in February, a 21-year-old Division III basketball player captivated America. Toni Smith played for a little-known school in a lesser-known conference, but by refusing to face the flag during the pregame national anthem, she gridlocked the nation's sports conversation.

People who never heard of Manhattanville College targeted Smith on talk-radio shows and Weblogs. Columnists, coaches and celebrities - at least twice Smith's age and three times as famous - supported and denounced her.

At Manhattanville, the same sentiment was echoed over and over again: We never thought this would get so big.

Neither did Marco Lokar, the Italian basketball player at Seton Hall who refused to put an American flag patch on his uniform in 1991 during the Gulf War. Nor did Mel Hamilton, a member of the University of Wyoming's Black 14, football players who wanted to wear black armbands to protest an upcoming game with all-white Brigham Young University in 1969. Nor did Paul Hoffman, the coxswain of the 1968 Harvard crew, who almost lost his right to compete at the Mexico City Olympics for allegedly aiding John Carlos and Tommie Smith's black-power salute on the podium.

Like Smith, these athletes suffered unforeseen consequences, including the brief but intense glare of the national spotlight.

The mix of athletics and politics is combustible in America, especially when the politics in question are outside the traditional mainstream. For the last century, athletics has been seen as a bastion of hard work, discipline, sacrifice and submission to authority - "All those things that made America a great country," said David Zang, director of Sports Studies at Towson University in Baltimore and the author of Sportswars: Athletes in the age of Aquarius.

"The American public never lost its hope that sports are, as Spiro Agnew called them, 'the glue holding the country together,' " Zang said. "I think people still sort of hope that athletes will represent our patriotism and our allegiance, and it's unsettling to see people questioning it in that venue."

When the public became aware of Lokar's refusal to wear the flag on his uniform - he said he was morally opposed to any war - they jeered him at every opportunity. Ultimately, threatening phone calls to Lokar and his pregnant wife made them decide to return to Italy before the season ended.

Like Smith, Lokar inspired a national debate that burned hotly, then went out. His name appeared in 64 newspaper stories before his flag protest, 141 stories after.

Lokar was a minor celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic. Now, he said, people vaguely recognize his name. The personal effect is more poignant:

"I wanted to stay there, in America," said Lokar, now 32, from his hometown in Trieste, where he teaches American history to undergraduates. "I never came back to America. I am a historian of American history who doesn't go to America. I would love to, but it must be some psychological reason that stops me."

The emotional consequences of protest stayed with Hamilton, as well. He and the rest of the "fourteeners" were kicked off the team when they declared their intention to protest, and even the governor was unable to forge a last-minute compromise. In January, Hamilton, now 56, recently returned to the University of Wyoming campus for the dedication of a sculpture commemorating the protest of the Black 14.

It took too long, Hamilton said, and though he lives in Casper, Wyo., he has a hard time cheering for the Cowboys.

"They haven't had too many winning teams since those days," he said. "Part of me says, 'What kind of bums are ya?' And part of me doesn't care, because they ruined what we had. Part of me longs for the days of winning, and part of me feels they committed such sin, they should never win again."

Hamilton, the Black 14 and the rest of the athletes who protested in the '60s and '70s are now celebrated as a part of the civil rights movement. At the time, though, it wasn't clear that political athletes would have any place in history.

"We knew the issues of how black athletes were being treated was a civil rights problem, and it was going to continue," said Paul Hoffman of the 1968 Olympic protest he and other members of the Harvard crew team supported. "I don't know if anyone knew how it was going to play itself out in terms of what would happen later."

Hoffman and some of his crew were vocal ambassadors of the Olympic Project for Human Rights while in Mexico. When Australian Peter Thompson, who won the silver medal in the 200-meter race, asked Hoffman for an OPHR button to wear on the medal stand, Hoffman gave it to him. Hoffman was summoned to a hearing in front of the U.S. Olympic Committee, accused of conspiring to aid Carlos and Smith's demonstration. Hoffman was cleared to compete at 11 o'clock the night before the race.

"I think the guys in my crew felt you couldn't separate your involvement with the great issues of American life from your athletic life," Hoffman said. "I think the professionalization and the specialization and the isolation of athletes today was not thought desirable or even possible 40 years ago."

Hamilton and Hoffman are recognized as a small part of a major political movement; Lokar remains a singular voice. All have faded into relative obscurity, while images of more famous athletes' protests, like Tommie Smith's salute on the podium or Muhammad Ali's congressional testimony, remain.

History will be the judge, said Jim Bouton, anti-establishment baseball player and author. When his memoir criticizing life in the major leagues was first published in 1970, he was called a traitor. Now Ball Four is considered one of America's best - and most important - sports books.

"I'm always sympathetic to people who are willing to take a controversial stand, no matter how unpopular it is," Bouton said. "It's important to exercise the free speech muscle, otherwise it atrophies."

With respect to Toni Smith, he added: "Young kids (in the '60s) were smarter than Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. How about that? Smarter than all those guys. So who knows how smart this little girl is going to look down the road?"

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Sports, politics a combustible mix

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