Toni Smith, a senior point guard on the Manhattanville College basketball team, turned her back on the American flag for the duration of the national anthem for much of this past season.
This seemingly insignificant event, originating in the gym of a small liberal arts school in the suburbs of New York, touched off a heated debate regarding the mixture of politics and sports while at the same time drawing attention to the radically divided state of the nation.
The act was largely ignored before political tensions in the U.S seemed to reach a fevered pitch and the media caught wind of the 21-year-old sociology major’s silent protest. Since the story broke nationally, the reaction has been anything but subtle.
Perhaps tired of facing the barrage of jeers coming from the bleachers and repeated inquiries as to her motivations, Smith released a statement intended to explain her stance.
“The inequalities that are imbedded in the American system have bothered me,” she said. “As they are becoming progressively worse and it is clear that the government’s priorities are not bettering the quality of life for all of its people, but rather expanding its own power, I can no longer, in good conscience, salute the flag.”
Smith did not meet with only opposition and outrage. Supporters were vocal at some of the games and both Manhattanville College and its women’s basketball team, though they refused to publicly embrace Smith’s political opinions as their own, backed her decision to express them. Manhattanville College President Richard Berman told ESPN, “What she’s doing is courageous and difficult.” Even so, it was reported that Smith’s refusal to face the flag caused an inevitable divide in the locker room.
This begs the question: Do politics have any place in sports?
History is certainly full of famous instances when the two have collided, including Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the 1980 summer Olympics in the Soviet Union in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Muhammad Ali’s controversial refusal of induction into the army due to his Muslim beliefs.
Now, the debate continues as to whether or not the national anthem should traditionally be played at the opening of sporting events.
“It is my right as an American to stand for my beliefs the way others have done against me. Being patriotic cannot simply be an empty slogan. Patriotism can be shown in many ways, but those who choose to do so by saluting the flag should recognize that the American flag stands for individuality and freedom,” Smith concluded in her statement to the press.
Smith has exactly stated the paradox between her given intentions and her means of expressing them that many of her detractors have criticized.
Ironically, a refusal to acknowledge the flag is a rejection not just of “the inequalities that are imbedded in the American system,” but some of the liberties it grants as well – including free speech.