Sports, political arenas prone to overlapping

The Phoenix Suns caused quite a stir on Cinco de Mayo.
On the court, they defeated the San Antonio Spurs 110-102 to take a 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven NBA Western Conference semi-final.
The normal segue would include “Off the court” but no. Still on the court, it was what the Suns wore—and, specifically, why they wore it—that riled up folks in Arizona.
Phoenix donned jerseys with “Los Suns” emblazoned on the front in order to protest Senate Bill 1070, Arizona’s new anti-immigration law.
The uniforms normally are reserved for the league’s “Noche Latina”—one night a year where some NBA teams wear Spanish-themed jerseys to recognize the Hispanic community.
Detractors of the move howled there is no place for political statements on any professional playing surface. But rightly or wrongly, “Los Suns” are hardly the first incidence of politics entering the field of play.
One widespread example on a team level is any form of military tribute night. Numerous professional franchises trot out soldiers onto the field as part of a pre-game ceremony, and some others (mainly minor-league teams) will wear camouflage uniforms on a select night each season.
Teams never say it in so many words, but being asked to cheer on “your team” in military garb still is asking for something beyond recognizing the risk and hard work of the men and women overseas.
There aren’t statistics available for teams’ winning percentages in “military jersey” games, but there usually isn’t any more attention than usual paid to those events.
In Phoenix’s case, the Suns were able to overcome the swirling distraction and political hoopla, especially surrounding a playoff game that could turn the tide of the series.
The debate didn’t seem to impact the team as they pulled out the win.
But what really would be interesting to see is what would happen if a player strongly disagreed with the stance. What if one of the Suns came out in support of SB 1070, or if a pacifist refused to take the ice in camo?
I don’t think Suns’ point guard and former NBA MVP Steve Nash would be all too keen hitting the court in a Suns’ military uniform, as he was one of the first athletes to speak out against the Iraq war.
You’d expect that making a statement on behalf of the team probably would be an unanimous decision made by the people who are going to be the face of that message. That’s because in no other North American industry would someone go into work and be forced—potentially against their beliefs—to become spokespeople for a political cause.
Yes, nearly every team is a private enterprise and owners are free to run them however they wish. But getting too preachy could turn off fans and players alike.
More than 18,000 people attended Phoenix’s game, so it seems there are enough Suns’ supporters who either liked the stance of “Los Suns” or weren’t put off enough to boycott the game.
That said, politics can extend to the individual sports, too, although they’re not necessarily to do with how these athletes are dressed.
Was African-American boxer Jack Johnson’s 1910 victory over Jim Jeffries (a.k.a. “the great white hope”) just about the knockout?
The only nugget that anyone can take from Jesse Owens’ four gold medals and three world records at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin—when Germany was under Nazi control—is that Owens was an excellent athlete, right?
Did Jackie Robinson want to prove himself as a baseball player just to say he did?
Or did tennis player Billie Jean King play (and beat) Bobby Riggs just because she wanted to have a nice game of tennis?
The one thing, though, that’s not necessarily the case with teams like the Suns, is that Johnson, Owens, Robinson, and King must have had an unwavering belief in the statement that they were making when they stepped into the ring, or onto the track, diamond, or court.
They all had hurdles to climb, and are remembered as heroes not only for what the scoreboard said, but for the deeper meaning of what these people accomplished.
Like the four examples above, anyone with a forum to say what they think should be able to use it—as long as they’re prepared to deal with the fallout.
Players like Nash and major-league baseball player Carlos Delgado didn’t seem to take much of a hit for making their anti-war stances known. While on the other side of the spectrum, star pitcher Curt Schilling came out in strong support of George W. Bush in 2004—days after his Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years.
Props to them for saying what they think and exercising their right to free speech.
Individual athletes (or other public figures like musicians or actors) shouldn’t be forced to “Shut up and perform.” Rather, they should say what they like, acknowledging that they’re free to speak and I’m free to tune it out and even boycott.
It’s their right to speak. But when it comes down to who’s listening, those who take political cues from someone else is doing a disservice to themselves and others.
How the Phoenix Suns feel about immigration really shouldn’t affect anyone’s decision to support or oppose that cause.
If an established supporter or opponent is reaffirmed by the Suns’ stance, that’s one thing. But to see the “Los Suns” uniforms and think, “Wow, my favourite team supports this, and so I should, too,” that’s another.
Inform yourself—and then decide for yourself.
• • •
Another local hockey player will be on the ice inside when the sun is blazing outside.
Alexis Perreault will be playing for the Minnesota Jr. North Stars of the MIN/WIS ‘AAA’ Elite League this summer.
That’s in addition to the 13 players who qualified for teams in the Northland Hockey Group between the Minnesota Fighting Loons and Great Lakes Gulls.

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