Self-absorbed and silent

You'd think that a few thousand wealthy 20-somethings would have opinions on the looming war. Not in professional sports, though.

Published February 28, 2003 11:21PM (EST)

Sports is entertainment, but sports celebrities are a different breed from their showbiz cousins. Case in point: Movie and TV stars are nearly ubiquitous in the debate over a coming war with Iraq. Just this week Janeane Garofalo, Mike Farrell and Susan Sarandon shared their views with America on the Sunday talk shows.

Meanwhile, a Division III women's basketball player in suburban New York has made national news just by expressing an opinion. Part of the news was how Toni Smith expresses herself -- by turning away from the American flag during the national anthem -- and how people have responded, by filling gyms for her games and chanting "Leave our country!" at her, for example. But the shocking thing, the real story here, is that an athlete, somewhere in America, has spoken out about politics, however innocuously.

"For some time now, the inequalities that are embedded into the American system have bothered me," read a statement last week by Smith, senior guard-forward and team captain for the Manhattanville College Valiants. "As they are becoming progressively worse and it is clear that the government's priorities are not on bettering the quality of life for all of its people, but rather on expanding its own power, I cannot, in good conscience, salute the flag."

Pretty standard-issue stuff for a liberal arts major at a liberal arts college. There might not be a dorm floor in America without at least one student who might have said it. But Smith, whose bio page on the team Web site reveals her favorite movie is the none too radical "Days of Thunder," is a cause célèbre. She's all over the national press and the cable yammer fests.

Why all the fuss? Because she's a jock. Athletes don't talk about things like this, even way down at Division III.

We all know what Martin Sheen and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kim Basinger and Richard Gere and Barbra Streisand and a squad of other stars think about various political issues, and whether Fred Durst is in agreeance with them, but from athletes the silence is deafening. Dallas Mavericks guard Steve Nash wore a generic antiwar T-shirt -- "No War. Shoot for Peace" -- to media day at the NBA All-Star Game and tongues are still wagging. That was three weeks ago.

Remember that awards show a decade or so ago when Michael Stipe of R.E.M. wore a different T-shirt with a political slogan on it every time the band collected an award? He probably made more political statements that night than all of the professional athletes in America have made since.

Why is that? It's not the money. Sure, the top few guys don't want to scare off any potential endorsement clients by stirring up controversy, but how many athletes does that apply to? Golfers, tennis players and race-car drivers have to please corporate sponsors who don't want any waves made, but there are about 3,500 guys on rosters in the NFL, NBA, NHL and the major leagues, all of them making what you and I would consider huge money, and they're going to keep making it as long as they can play, regardless of any political pronouncements. John Rocker, who made outrageously offensive comments about foreigners and gays a few years ago, is struggling to stay in the big leagues these days not because he's a bigot but because he can't throw strikes.

Not many of those guys stand to make much extra from endorsements, either. Think of your local teams. How many players are there who have a chance to do anything beyond the odd local car-dealership spot for a few thousand bucks or maybe a year's lease on an Escalade that they can afford anyway? Eyeballing some random rosters, I'd say 10 percent would be a high estimate, but let's be shoot-the-moon generous and say it's 30 percent.

That still leaves almost 2,500 people who are mostly in their 20s. When I was in my 20s I had nothing but opinions, and rarely did one go unexpressed. And I didn't have people shoving microphones and tape recorders in my face asking me what I thought of things, which I would think gives a person the idea that folks want to know what he or she has to say -- about anything.

And anyway I don't buy that making political statements, short of Rocker-like pronouncements, is bad for business. You might scare off a corporate client or two, but you'll also separate yourself from the pack. Never mind that the only Manhattanville College Valiant you've ever heard of or ever will is Toni Smith. Consider that Charles Barkley hasn't exactly made himself unmarketable by shooting off his mouth, sometimes politically.

Quite the opposite. He's marketable precisely because he's a real person, a guy we've gotten to know over the years, not just another drone in a jersey. Maybe he's not the first guy you call when you're looking to pitch a soft drink. (He'd be high on my speed-dial, but perhaps that's why I don't sell soft drinks.) He is on the short list, though, if you've got an idea for a sports-related TV show. There's a little money in TV, I hear.

The big stars are circumspect. "If you win a Super Bowl in Denver, you're the quarterback, who doesn't like you there?" says Jeff Sperbeck of the agency Octagon Football in Walnut Creek, Calif., who represents John Elway, Mike Vick and others. "Now, let's take an issue, if you're for or against, whatever, you fill in the blank, you have now alienated a percentage of the population."

But Sperbeck agrees that rank-and-file types, who are less likely to land endorsement deals, have less to worry about. "If you don't have anything to lose, it's easy, I think, to go ahead and come out with a statement on one side of an argument or another," he says, pointing out that most Hollywood activists don't come from the top tier of stars.

A few journeyman ballplayers and Lou Piniella, along with a bunch of retired players and managers, have lent their names to an anti-abortion-rights fund-raising campaign called Campus for Life, but that's as much a religious statement as a political one, and the group is so large that no individual is likely to be called out for it.

From individuals, though, rarely is heard a political word. Maybe it's the team-sports culture that keeps 'em quiet. Players don't want to offend their teammates with opinions the guys might not agree with, or cause controversy the team doesn't need when it's trying to concentrate on winning a championship.

I don't buy that either.

For one thing, there's no shortage of players willing to offend their teammates with nonpolitical comments. For another, look at the Dallas Mavericks since Nash's bold political T-shirt: Pending Thursday night's game they were 6-3 since the All-Star break -- they were only 7-5 in the weeks leading up to it -- and they remain solidly in first place in the Western Conference. I doubt that Nash's teammates think of him any differently since the Day of the T-Shirt than they did before it: weird little shaggy-haired Canadian who plays like hell. I'm sure the average Dallas Maverick thinks, If there's another Steve Nash somewhere, sign him up, whether he idolizes Che Guevara, Ronald Reagan or 50 Cent.

Shoot, Manhattanville College, after a 7-7 start, was going 10-2 down the stretch heading into Thursday night's conference tournament semifinal game. That run coincided almost exactly with the heating up of the Toni Smith controversy.

And look at the pantheon of past stars most admired by today's athletes, at least publicly: Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Jackie Robinson. They all spoke out about something at some point. Are old comments the only ones worthy of respect? Wouldn't the same guy who proudly wears the throwback jersey of, say, Hank Aaron, who has spoken powerfully about racism in sports, also be proud of a teammate who speaks his mind?

Simeon Rice, a star pass rusher for the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, may have offered some inadvertent insight into why athletes steer clear of politics. He was on Jim Rome's radio show a few weeks ago when Rome tossed him a softball, asking him what he thought of the selfless act of his former teammate, Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman, who left the NFL to join the Army in the wake of 9/11.

"He really wasn't that good, not really," Rice said, then went on at some length about how Tillman wasn't an NFL-quality defensive back, presumably meaning it was no big deal that he had left the league. Dumbfounded, Rome gave Rice chance after chance to talk his way out of what he'd just said. Finally, Rice conceded, "In all seriousness, I think it's admirable. Everybody can't think on that level. He's definitely on a whole other level. You've gotta give kudos to a guy like that because he did it for his own reasons. Maybe it's the 'Rambo' movies, maybe it's Sylvester Stallone, 'Rocky,' whatever compels him. Maybe it's the 9/11 tragedy. Kudos to him."

It apparently never occurred to Rice that Tillman did what he did out of a sense of duty to his country, wanting to fight those who had attacked it, deciding that his life in the NFL wasn't as meaningful as some other life might be. Must have been some movie he saw, Rice thought.

That absurd level of self-absorption, that disconnect with the rest of society so common among elite athletes, is what's most likely behind their silence on important issues. It gives me reason to think I ought to be careful what I wish for if this is the kind of thing athletes are likely to say when they do speak out.

Maybe George Michael is on to something. This week he urged a group of British pop stars who are planning to record an all-star antiwar record not to do so. Speaking with the gravitas that only having sung "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" can give a person, Michael says their total lack of substance as human beings, the empty-headed fluffiness that has made them stars, would cause the record to do more harm than good to the antiwar cause.

The political wing of the showbiz crowd can get annoying, spouting off with their often half-baked opinions, and athletes would no doubt be more of the same. Do I really care what some outfielder or linebacker thinks of the war buildup or healthcare or "the inequalities that are embedded into the American system"? Not really. But I might care more about that outfielder or that linebacker if I knew. They'd be more interesting people.

More like Toni Smith.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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