We All Have Questions
This is a very important question that I think warranted discussion. However, first some news: FreeDarko's Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History now has a cover! Also, please be reading my Playoff Talking Points. Now, me and Eric Freeman look into Steve Nash and the sin of omission, or projection, or that which cannot be named.
Bethlehem Shoals: In the interest of full disclosure and total, awkward honesty, this email exchange is an attempt to recreate a phone conversation from the afternoon of Thursday, April 22, 2010. I telephoned Eric Freeman, outraged that Steve Nash—generally seen as one of the more politically active, or at least aware, Phoenix Suns—wasn't speaking out against the anti-brown person malarky being considered by the state of Arizona. Actually, I was outraged that no one was crying for him to speak out. Remember when LeBron James not taking a stand against Darfur made national news? Now, a player with a reputation for activism had nothing to say about a serious issue in his own state.
Eric Freeman: Maybe Nash just isn't as big or controversial an activist as we thought. If you look at his charitable contributions, they all involve your standard fare: green initiatives (the charity so uncontroversial that both NBC and the NBA devote an entire week to it), children's funds (which is essentially apolitical now), etc. Those are all worthwhile causes, of course, but not on the same level as a birtherist bill in his state of employment. I think he gets this attention as an activist simply because he looks like one: floppy hair, white, wears vaguely trendy clothing. He's easier to sell as a politically involved player because it requires less convincing on the part of the league -- they can trot him out there without much explanation. He's a useful presence for the causes the league wants to promote.
BS: Okay, after remembering the web research I did yesterday, I have to agree. Although he was against the war before it was considered okay, which has to count for something. I'm tempted to say that Amar'e, with his ongoing work in Sierra Leone, might be doing more—though then we get into the difference between service, activism, and how much either one is ever strictly "political". This still hasn't answered my question, though: If Nash has this identity projected onto him, and it contributes to his popularity (or at least his image), why doesn't it come into play here? It's almost like he gets the benefit of being viewed this way without being held accountable. Whereas when LeBron James and Kobe go to China, they're expected to become political. Nash gets a pass here . . . because he already is?
For the record, Steve Nash spoke out against Darfur in the spring of 2007; Ira Newble's petition was around the same time. Kobe and LeBron lent their names to the cause in spring 2008, then were mum during the Olympics. Not to editorialize, but Nash is the most popular athlete in Arizona. If ever there were a time when his voice really mattered like no other, and thus would really be taking a stand, this is it. But again, is that what athletes are obliged to do?
EF: The difference here, I think, is that speaking out would be a direct response to many of his fans. Granted, I'm sure a large number of Mavs fans were pro-war in 2003, but that's a broader argument not specific to the state in which he played. This issue is about Arizona, and he's the most popular basketball figure in the state. It'd be a break not just with a popular political position, but the legislature of the state he represents around the rest of the country.
BS: So athletes are expected to use their influence for good . . . except when it hits too close to home and could potentially alienate some of their fans? I'm not sure how that's so different from my argument that we shouldn't expect LeBron to be responsible for a chain of international affairs that leads from Oregon to Darfur. Not because he's incapable of it, but because at some point, there are limits to responsibility. Except here, the limit would be. . . when it really involves a serious confrontation with the people who look up to you? It's almost like Steve Nash has done enough to be given this pass (which to some degree, makes sense to me), but other athletes who don't do anything can have expectations thrown at them willy-nilly.
EF: But how often are athletes asked to take controversial stands? Even in the case of LeBron and Darfur, there wasn't significant uproar about his decision not to take a stand -- it's not as if liberal activists would turn down his involvement in any number of less controversial issues. It's almost as if the public wants action, but not necessarily anything that could undermine their status as basketball players. It sounds great to have another Muhammad Ali, but what if political circumstances hadn't allowed him to return to boxing? Is that a tradeoff we're willing to risk?
BS: It was too a big story. I think the first one—his refusal to sign Ira Newble's petition—may have been bigger than the Olympics silence. To be fair, the latter was a gag order imposed by Colangelo, so that would have required a higher order of un-American defiance. But that first time around, it was in the Wall Street Journal and stuff. Brought up the whole "no better than Jordan" conversation. He eventually did end up addressing it, along with Kobe and several others, and there was no fallout. Not during the Olympics, or in China afterward, but again, maybe those fall under the "asking too much" rubric. LeBron is really obligated to defy the Chinese government while he's on a publicity tour there?
Maybe it's a question of good politics, in the most cynical sense. There's idealism, and then there's realism. We should always assume that athletes are hampered by some degree of realism. The question is, in Nash's case, can we push that so far that he's totally let off the hook? You're right, he would be directly challenging his fans. Not just staking out a position in some vague geo-political system of affairs. That would be like LeBron protesting Darfur during the Olympics—it would go right up against what American told him to do. He would be defining America for himself. That's what Nash would be doing in this case.
Except, and maybe this is key, dude's Canadian. Oooops!