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Friday, February 28, 2003
Updated: March 3, 12:44 PM ET
An athlete with the freedom to speak

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

The question before us is if the sporting arena is the proper venue for airing social protest, whether athletes involved in sports are proper messengers of political conscience.

It depends on who you are. If you're just a jock, looking to maintain that comfortable, peculiar but undeniable societal status that goes along with being a jock, then you don't want that peculiar status threatened. If you're a fan, you come to sports not to think about "stuff like that." But if you're an actual living, breathing human being, on whom education was not wasted, you follow your conscience.

Tony Smith
Quiet protest: Toni Smith turns her back to the flag as the pregame anthem is played.

In the end, it's not important what others think of you.

It's what you think of yourself.

There are no rules about how to express this, except, one hopes, that you'd do it lawfully, peacefully and effectively.

I'd say Toni Smith has figured this out better than most.

Two million hits on a once-lonely Manhattanville College Web site in response says the Quiet War of Toni Smith has been effectively transmitted out to the world. This was not her intent, to become TV programming, to become debate material for the rest of us. She is a 21-year-old sociology major who stands facing away from the American flag during the playing of the pregame National Anthem before her collegiate games. Big deal. She did not begin doing this for notoriety. It was her quiet, private expression to herself of her own thoughts, her own ideas and moral judgments.

Things you'd want your own 21-year-old daughter to do.

What do you think?
Toni Smith has made her stand. Now tell us what you think about protests made in the sports arena by voting in our polls at SportsNation.

Her statement has been picked up, not by her, but by us, as the latest "controversy," cause celebre, political football; it makes her a pariah in some quarters, as the nation careens towards war. Reminds me in a way of 1968, a volatile year in which Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were killed, the body bags were coming back to Dover en masse as the war in Vietnam was going full tilt -- and we still held the Olympics in Mexico City anyway, late that summer.

So where else would you protest? Wherever you are.

We've all seen the pictures of Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on the medal podium in black-stockinged feet, with their fists raised in a black-gloved salute. They were saying essentially what Toni Smith is saying -- people have died, people are dying, not all of them by noble means or for noble ends, and when will it end?

It must all end.

Mustn't it?

Toni Smith
During a recent game, Vietnam vet Jerry Kiley stormed the court to confront Smith.

Well, actually, it doesn't have to, it never does, and social progress is made grudgingly, if at all, a precious inch at a time, just as the envelope of human endeavor is stretched in athletics, an inch at a time. When you are young, you want it to change all at once. It never does. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.

But what Toni Smith doesn't know, and I hope to God she never does, is that very often these protests end with the ostracizing of the protestors rather than the evils they protest. It is a testimony to Tommie Smith and John Carlos that they managed to survive being "blacklisted" from any work, a simple job, for the next 25 years, much less being tossed from the Olympic Games.

Toni Smith doesn't deserve that, nor, frankly, is she likely to have to endure it. She'll move on, and maybe she'll change and grow to accept Status Quo.

I hope to God she doesn't. I hope she always remembers.

Young people who major in sociology ask questions about historical matters like the 1968 Olympic Games, or the 1936 Olympic Games, or the 1972 Olympic Games, or the Trail of Tears, or any of a thousand atrocities, and the many wars that continue to occur. Young people who major in sociology are given pause once they learn and process the bloody history of this or any other "civilized" country.

Toni Smith
Even a part-time player at little Manhattanville College can make her voice heard.

We live, love, learn. Even if we are athletes. Imagine that. To say athletes and sports are precluded from this process is, in fact, insulting, that a Tommie or a Toni Smith are like cattle and should just give their milk and moo and shut up and not have their own feelings. We should be proud of them. What they are doing is actually an act of love.

But we're not proud of them. I shouldn't say "we," because some of us are proud of them, or at least tolerant of their opinions. That's what all those people died for; freedom, tolerance, not cloth flags.

Just Tuesday in Orlando, Florida, a fossil of a man named Pete Barr, an out-and-out bigot known for spewing invective against blacks, Jews, women and everybody else within maximum effective range, without a mention of any of them ever being American, or patriots, lost in the city's mayoral race, but by only 5,000 votes. Over 17,000 people voted for his opponent, Buddy Dyer -- but over 12,000 voted for Barr. That's Sociology 101, too.

Yes, Toni, at times it's enough to make you turn away. But we all, including Toni Smith, have the precious right to vote; and the vote is the greatest social protest -- and right -- of them all. On some issues you don't get to post a ballot. In that case, you use the only bullet that should be used on another person -- one's own conscious act of social protest.

Jerry Kiley
Kiley got booted from the gym after running onto the court.

But most of us seem to despise athletes for even thinking in the first place. So a grey-haired man named Jerry Kiley, who said he was a Vietnam veteran, ran onto the court with an American flag, ran right up to Toni Smith, seemingly as if to make her flinch, shrink away, to scream at her, to tell her she, not him, was a disgrace, to intimidate her.

Now was that admirable? Why? Who seemed cowardly? Who's the real red-blooded American in that picture, the athletic girl with a questioning mind and big heart who put her hands on her hips and stood there unafraid, or the old man running up to a young girl to try and bully her, his true intentions, his inner motivations, all covered up, wrapped inside and hidden away in an American flag? You tell me.

Toni Smith's statement was brief. To acknowledge those who have died for the country, you have to acknowledge those who died to claim it, then build it up. Agree or disagree with her method of illustration, her point is still lucid, logical, well-taken, and at the end of the day, irrefutable. Life will teach her its lessons. But she was born with the freedom to speak up. To tell her to shut up because she's "wrong," or because she's an athlete, or because this isn't the proper venue or time only increases the hypocrisy.

She's a smart girl. She knows this.

It's people like quiet Toni Smith, or quiet Tommie Smith, or quiet tennis champion Arthur Ashe, picketing outside of a South African embassy during the reign of apartheid, who give us the conscience and the respect we so often lack.

I don't feel Toni Smith isn't patriotic, or doesn't love America ... in fact ... well, my own words and talents are inadequate to explain what I sense here, so I will leave it to a better essayist than me. James Baldwin once wrote this:

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."