Sports Law Blog
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Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Sport and Speech: The Athletes Speak
The expression that pervades sport falls into three categories. The most interesting, category is expression by the athletes, both on the field and off. Professional and college athletes possess a unique forum in which to express their views during and through the event itself. And, by virtue of their fame (or notoriety), their messages attract a broad audience. Unfortunately, the public seems to be of two minds when it comes to athletes speaking out.
On one hand, the public occasionally demands that athletes take a stand. Michael Jordan often was criticized for his unwillingness to speak out on political and racial issues, notably when he declined to endorse Harvey Gantt, an African-American Democrat running for United States Senate in North Carolina against Jesse Helms in 1990 (never mind that Jordan at the time lived, and presumably voted, in Illinois). The New York Times was similarly critical of Tiger Woods for failing to speak out against Augusta National’s exclusion of women several years ago. In both, the expectation was that, as high-profile and influential minority athletes, each had a special obligation to raise his voice in support of other oppressed minorities.
On the other hand, when athletes do speak out, they often present a message that proves unpopular with much of the public. The unfortunate response to that expression often is something along the lines of “Who does he think he is and why should anyone listen to him just because he can run fast or throw hard?” Or worse, the suggestion is that such expression has no place in sports because sports should be apolitical--although sports clearly are not. This was the response to Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, during the locker room celebration following the Sox 2004 World Series victory, when he gave an on-camera endorsement of President George W. Bush, shortly before that year’s presidential election. Even Jackie Robinson, someone who take a stand on behalf of racial equality, was criticized for supporting Richard Nixon.
A more visceral response has greeted the several athletes over the years that have declined to participate in pre-game and in-game patriotic rituals. In 1996, NBA star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand on the court during the pre-game Star Spangled Banner and was fined and suspended by the NBA. In 2004, Toni Smith, a senior basketball player at tiny Manhattanville College, drew public attention (and the ire of opposing fans) for turning her back on the flag during the anthem as a protest against the Iraq War. Most recently, baseball player Carlos Delgado refused to stand on the field during the in-game playing of God Bless America. Delgado, who was protesting the war and U.S. bombing exercises off the island of Vieques in his native Puerto Rico, was booed at Yankee Stadium back in 2004. He halted his protest when he went to the New York Mets in 2006. Frequently, the objection that greets such protests (especially when done by well-paid stars such as Abdul-Rauf and Delgado) takes the unhelpful and unfair form of “How dare you protest the country when you are paid so well? If you don’t like it, leave.”
One objection to team athletes taking expressive stands within the game is that their individual expression interferes with the “team concept.” Ironically, however, the harshest sanctions have fallen on the individual athletes who took the most-famous expressive stands. First is Muhammed Ali, who was stripped of the world heavyweight championship (back when that title meant something) when he declined military induction. Ali could not get sanctioned to fight by any state within the United States for several years (an action that itself raises some interesting First Amendment issue) until the Supreme Court of the United States reversed the conviction. Second are Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who gave a gloved “Black Power” salute on the medal stand at the 1968 Mexico City Games. Both were kicked out of the Olympic village and permanently suspended from Olympic competition.
An interesting question is how the public would respond to both situations today. We are, I think, more tolerant of unpopular political speech than we were forty years ago. Certainly the scope of the freedom of speech is broader than it was forty years ago, so formal sanctions are less likely against speakers.
And consider the power of hindsight. Ali is widely haled today, in part for the very willingness to take a political stand that made him unpopular 35 years ago. The same for Carlos and Smith, who were honored in the House of Representatives in 2004 for taking “a courageous stand for social justice in one of the most powerful moments in Olympic history.”