Graydon Gordian is the author of 48 Minutes of Hell and a contributing writer for Hardwood Paroxysm. His HustleJunkie column runs weekly here at the Paroxysm. This week's topic is the place of politics and Team USA.
The awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode is characteristic of the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action.
Up until this point I’ve remained on the periphery of the debate raging around Team USA and what responsibility it may have to make a political statement while in China. Clearly the most urgent topic seems to be Darfur and the egregious human rights violations being committed there. Many people have drawn attention to the obvious conflicts of interest that complicate the players’ ability to exercise their conscience: Nike’s business interests in the region; the NBA’s enthusiasm for the ever expanding Chinese market; the prevailing wisdom that superstar athletes should remain apolitical. The logic of self-interest swirling around the team seems endless.
To be honest, I find myself surprisingly uninspired by the whole matter. I am not one of those people who believe politics has no place in sports. In fact, I believe the exact opposite. The court is not some vacuum where your race, class and gender disintegrate under the weight of the nobility of “sport.” These conflicts and inequalities are inescapable, and we should not proceed under the falsehood that any public sphere escapes the tumult of the political.
But there is another falsehood we should not proceed under as well: We have tricked ourselves into incorrectly believing that Team USA represents the political inheritance of Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
The media, and in turn the public, fundamentally misunderstands what gave the Mexico City protest its strength. The beauty and bravery of what Carlos and Smith did in 1968 did not derive from their celebrity. It derived from their anonymity. Neither were household names and were it not for that single gesture of resistance, neither ever would have been. They stood on those podiums not as athletes, not as celebrities, but as individuals inescapably mired in the push and pull of human relations. They were just regular civilians who sacrificed their anonymity on the altar of progress. The power of the moment sprang from its unexpectedness and its sense of abandon. From then on, they would be lionized and demonized in turn.
Consider then Team USA: Any comment they make, any gesture, will merely be a footnote in their athletic legacy. Both silence and protest are paradoxically expected, and this expectation robs either of its power. Silence is not condemned as complicity. Any protest is brushed aside as a sensible condemnation of an inexcusable crime against humanity. The sound bites have already been written, the heroic montages already compiled. ESPN merely sits hungrily awaiting the signal that let’s them know which story they should run: Were our heroes noble in their passivity, focused on the meritorious task of returning USA to dominance in the arena of international basketball? Or did they bravely stand before the world and speak out against possibly the most horrendous atrocity of this decade?
Never mind the fact that condemning Darfur is the safest political stance possible, Chinese oil interests or no Chinese oil interests. Any athlete who honestly speaks out on the matter will not suffer real financial or PR consequences. No one will be seriously criticized for speaking out against genocide.
And here again the media has shielded the reputations of the players without revealing to us its intention to do so. Our world and our nation is mired in any number of intense political debates, and yet the only one on which we choose to focus is the one in which there is a largely agreed upon right answer. Yes, we may debate the merits of intervention or diplomacy, etc…but we have already protected the players from criticism by limiting the scope of discussion to a topic that is the backbone of contemporary arguments in favor of universal moral truths.
The fact of the matter is that what Carlos and Smith did was radical. They were radicals. And it was their radicalism that gave them strength. They gave a voice to political persuasions whose potential was unsettling and whose moral validity was unsettled. In order to make an omelet you have to break some eggs. Sadly enough, no such radicalism lurks amongst the members of Team USA. If you wish to keep your eyes focused on the strait gate through which the messiah may enter, it is best you look elsewhere. If we are to experience a truly heroic political statement, it will not arrive dressed in red, white and blue. It will arrive from where we least expect it.