Stone on the ark

So I go and get swept away by semi-standard employment for three days. . .and the FreeDarko tennis contingent threatens a bloody coup? Clearly, I have only the slightest sense of what stirs beneath the rafters of this house.

Under ordinary circumstances, I would've gotten to Dave Zirin's screed against USA Basketball the day it dropped. Several members of the inner circle had already voiced their objections to the screwy miltarization of our idols, and Zirin does a fantastic job of showing how far-reaching, sinister, and contemptible it is. Going to Etan Thomas may be a bit extreme (and reflexive), since not all athletes are dreadloked radicals. But you don't have to be Etan Thomas to feel that war and basketball aren't natural bedfellows, or to suspect that this version of national pride might not be what makes it an honor to rep USA. If nothing else, the piece insinuates that these players are pawns of Colangelo, moved by affecting, first-person testimonials to uncritically embrace jingoism.

My problem with this position is that it seems to deny the Olympians any free will whatsoever. Colangelo and Coach K may have satanic motivations for the program's image, but couldn't the players have their own take on what it all means? When Wade popped the post-dunk salute, Silverbird couldn't understand my lack of outrage. I didn't really either, and probably said further horrible things about Wade and/or America in an attempt to jolt myself into normalcy. Now, though, I'm willing to admit that I have no idea what made Wade do what he did. Thomas finds it outrageous that soldiers' stories wouldn't spark dissent in the ranks; I can imagine a slightly different man feeling a need to pay tribute to the nobility of the armed forces. The conversation on Iraq is accessible to all and polarized to few, meaning that even NBA stars have every right to (and are perfectly capable of) work through their own opinions. That they happened to opt for the human interest-y side in that situation is only a shortcoming if you believe that sympathy is a myopic ruse.

I've half-joked that Jermaine O'Neal was left off the team because of his outspokenness. It's a little unfair to get into who could, would or should be that voice on the current roster, since none of them seem disposed to that kind of broad critical thinking. All wear some version of the game's inescapable socio-political halo, but they do so anecdotally. My guess is that most of Team USA couldn't help but be inspired by the featured speakers, and would've been equalled engaged by Danielle "D-Smooth" Green, the former Notre Dame guard crippled in a Baghdad grenade attack. It's also not entirely inconceivable that many of them have friends or family fighting overseas, which makes it that much harder to dismiss or discount their attitudes about anything Iraq-related.

Maybe the NBA should be a league of non-stop left-winging, but it's no more that than it is a league of ceaseless African-American advocacy. While I may have gotten dense with excitement when so many players united for Katrina, it was ridiculous of me to assume that this marked a new era of Association activism. If we want to be honest about the meaning of NBA players—and indeed all athletes—we've got to accept their remarkably ordinary imperfection and inconsistency. They may be in a position to gleam as statesmen, but to judge everything they do in those terms does a disservice to the organic clout they are capable of wielding.


At 8/23/2006 10:48 PM, Anonymous ml said...

funny thing is that this story is framed in terms of unification of the team and says nothing of the fact that this team were earmarked to be ambassadors of goodwill to the sporting world, no petulance/showboating as in the past etc.. to then use military symbolism in celebration is a bit grating for those of us in the rest of the world!

At 8/23/2006 10:57 PM, Anonymous NW Narcissist said...

It's strange but I think not unique to the US that athletes are asked not to have opinions on any matters political--it will be interesting to see if Thomas manages to stay in the league, honestly. O'Neal is safer, by virtue of endorsement deals. Rasheed is not far off--athletes, especially basketball players, are pawns of a machine (the machine?). It's really no wonder that a player like Wade, who, I think, is ultimately not FD because he is jocking for acclaim, not for beauty and not for winning itself, would so readily wrap lips around the member of this notion that as ambassadors of the nation, team USA are ambassadors of homogeneity, of non-dissent. It's all as shameful as it is unsurprising.

wv - qzipyx - questioning Z-Bo in hieroglyphics.

At 8/23/2006 11:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The saluting after dunks or lay ups is rather annoying. Is Jaromir Jagr one of the assistant coaches or something?

At 8/23/2006 11:57 PM, Blogger "rem" said...

unabashed two facedness harken the era of the caped crusader

nice call

At 8/24/2006 1:29 AM, Blogger T. said...

obviously there's two parts that point to the reasoning why - and I think there's a relationship there.

1. Coach K is an ex-West Point player and coach.

2. The heavy, but not-so-controversial (okay, it's controversial in Korea and Japan - but not so much that the denziens of Team USA would've heard of it - excluding maybe Shane Battier) US Military presence in Korea and Japan makes for easy goodwill stops AND for Coach K to instill some national pride in the team.

While I revel in my obstensibly liberal sensibilities and my Berkeley education - the military thing doesn't annoy me, anymore than Kathy Griffin going to Iraq to entertain the troops. I don't think it should be seen as an endorsement of our presence in various overseas deployments, more as a "hey, well, if they're already over here, let's show them they're important to us"

Maybe I'm naive. And maybe I have issues with way too many pronouns, but I don't feel like going back to assign proper identification to that previous sentence.

At 8/24/2006 9:11 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

sigh. . . if only there were such thing as a shady trans-national military deployment of style

wv: cfoxc=a stereotype calling to your attention a nearby dime

At 8/24/2006 9:14 AM, Blogger c-los said...

I stopped reading that Zirin article as soon as I read Etan's name....he needs to start working on his game instead of his poetry and his political views...dude missed 4 games last year because of the flu...that shows you what hes made of

At 8/24/2006 9:54 AM, Anonymous J.E. Skeets said...

Completely off-topic: J.R. Smith. 1 pm today. "Chatting".

[Salutes you all]

At 8/24/2006 12:35 PM, Anonymous Mr. Six said...

As long as the Specter of Chuck has been invoked, let's just concede that no one on this team--at least not in their present incarnation--is gong to quip about spearchucking Angolans. Which means they're even less likely to discuss the political dementia of Boss Colangelo and his sidekick Coach K, the questionable invocation of the American military as part of an event intended in part to improve international relations, or the overarching questions of the neoconservative imperial agenda.

I've worked hard not to expect so much from professional athletes, but I also have to admit that it would be nice if at least one person on the team had something to say publicly about these issues.

At 8/24/2006 12:45 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

six--my point is: just because they aren't explicitly saying anything, much less anything consistent or "correct," doesn't mean they don't mean anything.

it's not about not expecting anything of athletes as socio-political signifiers--it's about understanding that there is something there and reading it for what it is. the importance of athletes is kind of a tautology, which makes their "position" more complex, not less existent.


At 8/24/2006 1:44 PM, Anonymous Mr. Six said...

Hmm, perhaps my own at-work comments were a little abbreviated.

I would, without hesitation, concede that the players are entitled to diversity of view on and interest in this and any other issue; that their reactions are their own, and to paint them as pawns is unfair and stupid; and absolutely, that their humanity must be taken into account--inconsistency, hesitancy, and mistake and not only acceptable, but required. I also appreciate your point that many of them probably have friends and family members serving.

But its the use and non-use of that organic clout that concerns me. Aren't we really talking about whether the power that accrues to athletes through money and visibility ever actually comes to something? Not every expression of socio-political view point has to be directly expressed; members of Team USA may be saying everything they mean through their actions, and the wider basketball audience is picking up on those messages whether or not they're spending any mental energy on interpretation. Similarly, KG would be paying for a house a month in Louisiana, LBJ would be helping out in Akron, and Zo would be doing everything he does whether or not there was ever any media attention on it. But those aren't the only pathways to expression either.

It's the silence that bothers me. Until now, there seem to have been at least a few top-tier pro athletes in each generation who took the path of open discussion of the socio-political. And their organic clout grew as a result of its use, even when what they said lacked nuance or was just plain wrong. They discovered that, in some cases, power grows not through hoarding it but through exercising it. The post-MJ athlete seems so focused on building his individual brand, that I wonder whether the politically and socially vocal athlete is extinct. If so, I consider that a loss. My only hope at this point is that at least one of them will figure out how to make direct advocacy of socio-political views a part of his brand--a next stage evolution AI.

At 8/24/2006 1:48 PM, Anonymous ZMarker said...

Sorry to backtrack from the players views on American military involvement and/or imperialistic desires, I feel the need to stand up for Wade just a little bit. Narcissist, jocking for acclaim? You make him out to be the basketball A-Rod, which although he is definitively not-FD, he's no A-Rod either.

At 8/24/2006 1:51 PM, Blogger T. said...

As an addition to all of this "building one's own brand" - I'll just note something that I have been disappointed in.

As anyone who follows the NBA knows, Deke has built the first hospital to be built in Kinshasa in 40 years in honor of his mother - donating $15 million of his own money, and getting money from the player's association and the league and the owners.

One group that has NOT ponyed up (aside from a small group including Yao, TMac, 'Zo, Juwan and Fatrick Ewing) has been the players.

As to the discussion at hand - regarding the politicization of Team USA - I wonder if the Commish might bring his inflence in. He's one of the largest individual donors to the Democrats - and one would presume stands on the left side of the aisle.

At 8/24/2006 1:56 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

one thing i've always admired about the players is that they pick their own causes and then give liberally. deke's hospital is his pet project, and obviously something whose importance has been impressed upon some of his teammates. but while you probably understand this situation a lot better than i do, i think that it's the personal nature of nba charity that makes it convincing. that the only players donating to the hospital are those with personal ties to mutombo makes perfect sense to me.

there's more than enough individual investment in hardship to go around.

At 8/24/2006 3:18 PM, Anonymous NW Narcissist said...

It occurs to me that athletes are probably no more or less vocal or active in political causes than the rest of the population. I think it's fair to call them pawns, whatever their personal feelings/actions about this or that subject. The NBA is pimping a version of America, and even though the players cash in, they get cashed in on much more.

I know that in the circles I travel in no one bothers to decry the war - it goes without saying, and speaking up is so hopelessly ineffecitve it almost seems worse than stony, hateful silence. Perhaps the players are no different.

At 8/24/2006 3:49 PM, Blogger SunsGossip said...

From a Suns.com interview with Mike D'Antoni:

What was it like to put on fatigues?

D'Antoni: That will really send a fear through our defenses. (laughs) That’s kind of scary.

At 8/24/2006 3:57 PM, Anonymous Pichi Campana Aguanta said...

I think the compelling part of the story is the extreme rightedness of Colangelo.

As far as my take on the matter, I find jingoism and misplaced patriotism as distasteful as the next guy with any kind of extra-US worldview. But in this case, I really don't think the principles of teamwork, unselfishness, hard work, etc are wrong to instill. The act of bringing in soldiers (or anyone, for that matter) with a compelling story to motivate people to think beyond their own personal concerns and see things from a new perspective is something I think more people should be exposed to.

When I was in Vegas for the PR game, the airmen and soldiers were in the building a couple hours before the game and were going crazy, they were so excited to be there. And the players went out of their way to talk to them and take pictures. And I don't know why I forgot to mention it until now, but most of the soldiers were making a parade over to Jermaine O'Neal and he spent most of his time before the game posing for pictures with people in uniform.

So I came away with the impression that this USA team is more about unselfishness and camaraderie rather than AmericaRocksEverybodyElseSucks!!!!1!1!. I mean, I don't agree with the war, and obviously the Bush Administration is beyond incompetent, but I have no problem with the players embracing teamwork and working hard to put on a good show.

And what Mr. Six said - well put.

wv: zgayrgaf = Zydrunas and the Gay Rights Gaffe

At 8/24/2006 4:19 PM, Blogger T. said...

Shoals - it's just something I've gathered from the various interviews Deke has given recently about his hospital. I know that he's made personal pleas to every single player he's met/knows/etc.

Let me see if I can find a quote:

Initially, Mutombo encountered numerous "bumps in the road," even from his NBA brethren. Ground was broken in 2001, but construction didn't start until 2004 because donations came in at a slower pace than he anticipated, especially from other NBA players.

"My expectations were a little bit higher," he says. "I was looking at it to be done through the NBA. It might have been a mistake on my part by feeling that way. It was not an obligation or a duty ... to commit to my cause. But the guys have given me a lot of money."

The players have donated roughly $500,000, and the players union another half million. Owners have contributed $700,000. Mutombo would not say how much the league, as an institution, has given.

At 8/26/2006 4:08 PM, Anonymous meatballz said...

Whatever militaristic ideas and customs Colangelo brings to the team, they will always be appropriated individually, by the players, regardless of the players' level of political activation. IOW, does Dwayne Wade saluting after every lay-up mean the same as a private saluting a lieutenant in the Army? The former is deference to authority while the latter something more celebratory and individualistic. With different contexts come different meanings, even if the gestures are the same.

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