by Dave Zirin
In the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s assassination, the sports world embraced the public eruption of patriotism. From the spontaneous cheers of 40,000 fans in Philly to amped “Military Appreciation Night” celebrations at stadiums around the country, from the chest-thumping tweets of athletes and sports writers to entire blocks on sports radio exalting in the rush of bin Laden’s dramatic demise.
Profanity, threats and the general belief that he was “stupid,” a “moron” and that he should shut his “dumb [expletive] mouth” because he is “not intelligent” came rolling in. CDR tried to hit back, tweeting:
“What I’m sayin has nothing to do with 9/11 or that guy (Bin Laden). I still feel bad for the 9/11 families but I feel EQUALLY bad for the war families. … People are telling me to get out of America now b/c I’m against MORE INNOCENT people dying everyday? B/c I’m against a 10 year WAR? Whatever happened to our freedom of speech?..What I’ve learned tonight, athletes shouldn’t have perspectives. But I don’t care. We feel certain ways about things TOO.”
Mendenhall then took it somewhere Douglas-Roberts did not, raising the exhaustively debunked conspiratorial doubts about the events of 9/11, tweeting: “I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition.” This caused Sports Illustrated senior football writer Don Banks to write a piece titled, “Mendenhall just the latest NFL player to spout utter nonsense.”
The outrage intensified to the point where Steelers President Art Rooney II, a big money bundler for President Obama, stated: “I have not spoken with Rashard so it is hard to explain or even comprehend what he meant with his recent Twitter comments. The entire Steelers’ organization is very proud of the job our military personnel have done and we can only hope this leads to our troops coming home soon.”
Whether or not you supported some or all the wars of the last decade – I think they’ve been a hellacious, unconscionable waste of human life that has served to make the world a more dangerous place – there is a bigger lesson that the guardians of Jock Culture seem to be trying to teach: By being an athlete, you have signed away your right to have an opinion beyond your choice of sneaker or sports drink.
This is something that runs very deep in the marrow of our sports culture: that athletes, particularly Black athletes should just “shut up and play.” They should feel fortunate just to have the good fortune to get paid and they have no right to say anything that might make anyone even a bit uncomfortable.
In other words, to be a political athlete in any way that doesn’t involve wrapping yourself in the flag has always been apostasy in the eyes of the guardians of Jock Culture. I would argue this is a deeply destructive line of thought that damages our society beyond the confines of sports. Athletes are role models whether we want to admit it or not. Do we really want them modeling that a lack of political thought is a virtue? Or that having the biggest contract makes you the best possible human being? Or do we want them modeling the simple idea that having something to say about the world is something to be emulated?
If you disagree with what an athlete says, say so. I don’t agree with Tim Tebow that women shouldn’t be able to have abortions because the star quarterback disapproves. I don’t agree with Rashard Mendenhall that 9/11 was any kind of inside job. But let’s argue out these issues on the merits.
Let’s stop perpetuating the idea that athletes have forfeited their right to say whatever they damn well please. To Chris Douglas-Roberts: Yes, athletes DO have a right to have perspectives, and I hope we can continue to hear what’s on your mind. But your silence only will embolden those who believe otherwise and make it that much harder for the next athlete with something to say.
Dave Zirin is the author of “What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States” (the title quoting Muhammad Ali), “A People’s History of Sports in the United States” and, most recently, “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner), and he just made the new documentary, “Not Just a Game.” He is the first sports writer for The Nation magazine, where this story first appeared, in its 150-year lifetime. Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.