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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.”


When people do t hings privately that is one thing. However when they are wearing the jersey of a team or a country, what they do in effect represents that team or country. Therefore in a private organization, the owners shuold have the ability to make those decisions for them. If not they can take there services somewhere else

Anonymous Anonymous -- 10/10/2006 11:01 AM  

First thing in answer to Anonymous... well, no, they certainly can not take their services someplace else. Not, unless they're traded, before their contract expires.

Second, there is no employer anywhere (in the U.S.) who can circumvent an employee's political speech. If you don't like that, it is not the employee who should be thinking of heading for distant lands.

Third, even if the ballplayer's "owner" is allowed to make important decisions for them, that still leaves the cases of athletes in individual sports -- like boxing, golf, tennis, track, etc. Your post suggests that these athletes represent their country, (and indeed they do in international competition) and therefore the country should be allowed to make decisions for them, in a manner, I suppose, paternalistically similar to the "owner" of a team. Well, the country did make that decision, and has reaffirmed it many times through the years -- they can talk.

Anonymous Collin -- 10/10/2006 1:51 PM  

It's kinda interesting -- although I don't know exactly what it means -- that of the examples used in the post only one (Black Power salute) had anything much to do with racial issues. Of course, there are more examples, but the examples you cite are certainly the most well-known and oft-referred to. When race is a factor in the examples used, it is more often a reason to criticize the athlete for not taking a controversial stance.

And does it mean anything that golf and tennis -- international sports unbeholden to local commissions or national leagues -- would have a tougher time dinging an athlete for insufficiant patriotism? Didn't Arthur Ashe do anything ever that drew criticism?

Anonymous Collin -- 10/10/2006 2:01 PM  


Good point on Arthur Ashe; he is another athlete as known for his political and expressive stances as for his athletic prowess. As I follow this up in future work, I am trying to gather more examples of athlete speech and Ashe is a good one. I do not know what criticism Ashe did or did not receive, but it is an interesting avenue to pursue.

Your point about athletes being criticized for not taking a stand on racial issues reflects the way that times have changed. Both Ali and Smith/Carlos were speech on racial issues (remember Ali's comment about why he had no quarrel with the Viet Cong) and they were villified. Twenty years later, Jordan is criticized for not taking a stand on behalf of an African-American trying to unseat a (perceived) racist.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 10/10/2006 2:30 PM  

I've always found it amusing that media folks will criticize a minority athlete for not taking a stand on something that the media folks think is both righetous and important.

When they chastise a minority athlete in these situations, I find it amusing because it is about as patronizing as one can get. The media criticism often takes the form of: "How can this person not see the importance here; it's perfectly obviously to us?" Translation: "I guess we'll have to explain it to the big dummy...". It sort of reminds me of the description of "white man's burden" in Moby Dick.

There is also a huge element of stereotyping here. If the athlete is African-American, then he/she must absolutely be a champion for any "cause" espoused by any other African American or endorsed by other African Americans. How could it be otherwise? Yet, those same media folks will generally rail against anyone who engages in "racial profiling", but that's just what the media does much of the time.

Anonymous The Sports Curmudgeon -- 10/10/2006 4:07 PM  

I may be a minority in that I'm totally uninterested in interviews with either athletes or entertainers. If I want political commentary I'm not going to look for it from Vanna White... or Etan Thomas, Carlos Delgado, or for that matter Sean Penn or Madonna or Curt Schilling.

If I pay to watch them I'm only interested in exactly what I have paid to watch them do.

Blogger ignacio -- 10/10/2006 4:26 PM  

In Schilling's case, it was a decision to use his platform as the hero of Boston to declare his allegiance to the Texan who was running against a Massachusetts Senator. Only way it could've been worse was if they'd just beaten the Rangers.

But still...rude, not worthy of censure.

Anonymous Collin -- 10/10/2006 6:29 PM  

I think that any person may have his/her own opinion. And a person is not obliged to express it publically even if he/she is a sportsman/sportswoman. In my point of view, the right to have own opinion is not the obligation to exprees it.

Blogger Olga B. -- 10/11/2006 2:47 AM  

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