Delgado's protest no longer unnoticed

Carlos Delgado may soon learn what Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf discovered about having strong political or religious beliefs.

Originally Published: July 23, 2004
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

At first glance, the cases of Carlos Delgado and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf could scarcely appear less alike. Aside from being pro athletes, they have little in common. One is a baseball player from Puerto Rico, the other a now-retired basketball guard from Gulfport, Miss. One's political views were shaped mostly by his upbringing; the other's were profoundly influenced by his religious beliefs.

Carlos Delgado
Carlos Delgado says he doesn't believe in the war in Iraq.

Even the songs they protest are different. Abdul-Rauf, then of the Denver Nuggets, drew the ire of the NBA's fan base (and much of sports at large) in 1995 by refusing to stand for the national anthem. Delgado, of the Toronto Blue Jays, is in the news lately for making sure he isn't on the field when "God Bless America" is played during the seventh-inning stretch of an MLB game.

But Delgado is just now finding out what he and Abdul-Rauf have in common, and it's a powerful bond: Neither man's views were considered remotely important until, very belatedly, they were found out.

Abdul-Rauf paid a steep price for that discovery. About Delgado, we shall see.

What Americans expect of their pro athletes in general is still a subject very much open to debate. Sports fans can't seem to arrive at a consensus, for example, on whether they despise cheating or don't mind it so long as it results in a sporting spectacle. They're clearly divided on the questions of what constitutes a decent role model and how far that definition should stray from the strict athletic arena. Drug use? It's either the scourge of the leagues or the most overhyped non-issue in modern sports.

On one measure, though, American fans have demonstrated a fairly consistent mind: They're happiest when their stars are seen and not heard. They are happiest when they can enjoy the 40-point, 20-rebound performance and not have to deal with anything afterward beyond post-game platitudes.

Delgado, in his own quiet and understated way, challenges that mindset. And he may well learn what Abdul-Rauf, and others before and after him, already know about how personal politics play in the pro sports arena.

In a series of recent stories, beginning with a piece in the Toronto Star, Delgado has discussed the fact that for some time now he has made his way into the dugout, out of sight, rather than stand on the field for the playing of "God Bless America." Delgado opposes the war in Iraq, an opinion buttressed by his longstanding disagreement with the Navy's presence on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, which the Navy used as a weapons testing ground for 60 years.

"I never stay outside for 'God Bless America,' " Delgado told the Toronto newspaper. "I actually don't think people have noticed it. I don't [stand] because I don't believe it's right -- I don't believe in the war."

Sounds reasonable, at least insofar as Delgado's own politics go. Then again, Abdul-Rauf had quietly reached his conclusions about standing for the national anthem, and the world was fine with it -- until it found out.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf stands in prayer during the singing of the national anthem.

Like Delgado, Abdul-Rauf was never terribly interested in using the playing venue as a political forum. Abdul-Rauf went on for most of an NBA season without anyone clueing in to the fact that he never seemed to be around during the pregame playing of the anthem. He'd be off in the training room, or in the hallway lacing up his basketball shoes -- anywhere but standing at attention.

There was no furor, that is, until Abdul-Rauf acknowledged his ongoing truth. At that point, he became one of the more publicly vilified athletes in recent memory, a development that coincided with the beginning of his gradual slide out of the sport.

Delgado is by no means afraid of being associated with his political views; he was one of a group of people who took out full-page advertisements a few years ago in The New York Times and The Washington Post to protest the Navy's continued presence on Vieques (the military ended exercises there last year). But he has made no large-scale presentation of his feelings about "God Bless America." He simply views it as an overt political statement imposed by Bud Selig and MLB in the post-9/11 era, and he doesn't agree with it, and so he makes himself scarce -- if he can do so unobtrusively -- when the song is played. It's pretty simple stuff.

What remains to be seen is whether the sporting public will agree with the simplicity of the transaction.

As time goes by, Delgado's position may not be put to such an ongoing test; many teams now play "God Bless America" only on weekends or holidays or special-promotion nights at the ballpark, and some, including Delgado's Blue Jays, no longer play it at all.

But the view is out there now. Delgado may not have particularly wished it, but, to his credit, he didn't shy away from it. Now comes the rest of the equation, which is to say, the response.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com