Athletes care about money, not issues

Lack of public stances on Iraq, Augusta is sad but expected


March 18 — It seems everyone has an opinion on the events unfolding in Iraq, either pro-war or anti-war. Everyone from the Pope to unions to city councils to students to veterans. Everyone that is except professional athletes.

WHILE ANTI-WAR PROTESTERS take to the streets, buy newspaper and television ads, and the pro-war faction pumps out its thoughts on talk radio and cable TV, while entertainers talk against or for the war, professional athletes have fallen silent except for a scant few.

The Dallas Mavericks’ Steve Nash wore an anti-war T-shirt during the NBA’s All-Star weekend. Former Arizona Cardinals football player Pat Tillman decided to leave his high-paying job with the team last year to become a Ranger in the Army and fight terrorism.

For most pro athletes, there seems to be no social consciousness. No athlete has taken the stand that Manhattan College women’s basketball player Toni Smith has. She simply turned away from the United States flag during the playing of the national anthem prior to her games at the Manhattanville College campus in Purchase, N.Y. Smith hasn’t fully explained her decision, but that hasn’t stopped right-wing radio talk show hosts and sports commentators to condemn her or say that sports and politics should never collide.

Of course, wars have been fought to ensure that people like Smith have the right to express their viewpoints. Smith does not have an athletic scholarship, but that has stopped talk show hosts from demanding that Manhattanville strip Smith of her scholarship. Kind of makes you wonder what else talk show hosts get wrong.

Nash, by the way, is a Canadian. But Smith is a 21-year-old New York City native and is a great example as to why athletes keep their mouths shut. There is too much money and too much pressure on them to voice an opinion. It’s far better to be seen as an athlete than being heard. For most pros, it’s all about making money and not taking social stands.

Pro golfers aren’t taking chances and are staying mute about the Augusta National Golf Club’s male-only membership policies. That despite the fact that the Masters tournament in April will be the scene of numerous protests. NFL players aren’t talking about league teams’ practices in hiring head coaches. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and some owners have set in motion a procedure that makes sure minority candidates are interviewed for head coaching positions. Yet, no players are taking a hard stand other than saying its too bad that so-and-so didn’t get a job.

Elite athletes worry more about selling shoes and video games. Is Tiger Woods just a golfer and a corporate spokesman, or will he take a principle stand and say there should be or should not be female members at Augusta National? So far, he hasn’t taken a stand even though he has had numerous chances.

Martha Burk, head of the National Council of Women, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, leader of the Rainbow/Push Coalition, probably will greet Woods when he gets to Augusta and ask for his support. So will the Ku Klux Klan as it supports the Augusta National stance. Will there be another Muhammad Ali or Curt Flood to protest, or will athletes remain quiet? Ali halted his boxing career and was stripped of his title, and risked prison time, after refusing military service in protest of the Vietnam War. Ali gave up more than three years of his career. Flood didn’t report to the Philadelphia Phillies after St. Louis traded him and challenged Major League Baseball’s reserve clause. Flood not only gave up his career but also left the country for awhile.

If you are expecting pro athletes to weigh in on Gulf War II, don’t hold your breath. Athletes like to compare themselves to entertainers, but that’s a bad comparison. Entertainers take stands and talk about issues. Athletes keep quiet and cash paychecks.

Evan Weiner is a commentator on the Business of Sports for Westwood One’s Metro Networks.

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