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.