Will athletes speak out on latest Iraq war?

By Aaron Leibowitz

The United States’ latest war in Iraq is underway, marking another phase in the never-ending “War on Terror” whose goals, more than a decade after the initial occupation, remain hazy as ever. The “new enemy” — as NBC recently put it without a hint of irony — is ISIS, an organization that U.S. military presence has played a primary role in empowering.

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This Iraq war, like the last one and the one before that, will take a lot of time and a lot of money. U.S. efforts against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are already costing between $7-10 million per day, according to the Pentagon. As White House deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken told CNN: “Look, at the end of the day, this, as the president has said, is going to have to be a sustained effort, and it’s going to take time, and it’ll probably go beyond even this administration to get to the point of defeat.”

We have always been at war with Eastasia. Or was it Eurasia? Or was it the entire Muslim world?

downloadMeanwhile, here at home, income inequality is greater than it’s been since 1928a black person is killed by police or vigilantes every 28 hoursand nearly a third of women have experienced domestic violence. But the Islamic State, if we are to take NBC’s word for it, is Public Enemy No. 1.

Will athletes take a stand — or, perhaps, a symbolic seat — in protest of this war? If they do, how will the media and the public respond? The cases of Carlos Delgado and Toni Smith might offer a clue.

Following the initial occupation of Iraq, then-Toronto Blue Jays slugger Carlos Delgado chose to sit during the nightly singing of God Bless America — in protest of both the war and of U.S. bomb-testing on the island of Vieques in his native Puerto Rico. He told the Toronto Star in 2004: “Sometimes, you’ve just got to break the mold. You’ve got to push it a little bit or else you can’t get anything done.”

Delgado added: “I think it’s the stupidest war ever. Who are you fighting against? You’re just getting ambushed now. We have more people dead now, after the war, than during the war. You’ve been looking for weapons of mass destruction. Where are they at? You’ve been looking for over a year. Can’t find them. I don’t support that. I don’t support what they do. I think it’s just stupid.”

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There was backlash, but Delgado carried on with his personal form of protest and was perhaps less harshly criticized because he played for a Canadian team. After the 2005 season, though, Delgado was traded to the New York Mets. The Mets silenced him. Club COO Jeff Wilpon told the two-time All-Star, essentially, to stay in his place. “I’ve asked him to respect what the country wants to do,” Wilpon said.

Delgado obliged, perhaps anticipating the firestorm his resistance might cause in New York.

Slightly removed from the Big Apple spotlight — about 30 miles north — another athlete was also making anti-war waves. In 2003, Division III Manhattanville women’s basketball captain Toni Smith protested the Iraq War by turning her back on the flag during the National Anthem.

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Smith heard outrage from fans, parents, teammates and media, but she stood firm. A year later, she explained her thought process.

“During World War II, when America decided that we needed to show our superiority to other countries, they implemented the National Anthem before sporting events and when they did that they put politics in the middle of sports,” Smith told Dave Zirin. “The question is not why did I choose to turn my back on the flag. It’s why do we have to do this at basketball games? If they don’t want politics in sports then they need to take the National Anthem out because that is inherently political.”

Unlike Delgado, Smith refused to back down.

“Nothing anyone ever said invalidated or made me question what I did,” Smith said. “The only thing I ever questioned was my safety and the safety of my family and friends. But the way I felt at the time was that there were many protests during the Vietnam War that outraged people. Then when circumstances came to light about how illegal the war was and how many killed and died senselessly, people said, ‘Oh, now I get it.’ I think that’s what’s happening now.”

Of course, it’s up to the public — not just athletes — to protest America’s blank check in the Middle East. But if athletes do muster the courage to speak up, the public can choose either to reject them or rush to their defense.

Many people believe athletes should be seen and not heard, and many athletes are led to believe that disrupting the status quo will cost them endorsement dollars. Sometimes, it might. But by supporting the dissenters, fans and media can send a message that athletes with a social conscience can and will be embraced.

Lest we forget the words of heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali — once despised by White America — who dodged the Vietnam draft in 1967: “I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. … I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs.”

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Today, Ali’s words would give any PR team an ulcer. The tumultuous political climate of that time feels firmly rooted in the past. But athlete activism has by no means disappeared. Among the recent examples of athletes making themselves heard: Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter attempting to unionize college athletes; the NBA’s Golden State Warriors planning, though ultimately abandoning, a protest of Clippers then-owner Donald Sterling; and, of course, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman supplying endless amounts of bravado and brilliance.

There will, without a doubt, be more. Athletes are people, too, and there comes a time when concerns about endorsement deals are trumped by demands for justice. In the coming days, months and years, some of those demands will likely take anti-Iraq War forms. When they do, fans and media should write, protest, stand and sit in solidarity with the Carlos Delgados and Toni Smiths of the world.

On the one hand, athletes should never be relied on to carry the torch for political causes. But when athletes choose to spark controversy in the name of what’s right, the public can rush to their side and add fuel to the fire.

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