Leave Josh Alone

Dallas Mavericks All-Star Josh Howard has been raked over the coals of public opinion this week for daring to say what more than a few athletes think. He was caught on someone's cell phone camera saying that he doesn't stand for the national anthem because "I don't celebrate this [expletive]. I'm black." Judging by fan and media reaction, you would have thought he was barbecuing some bald eagle over a flaming pit of American flags. You would, given the peals of outrage, never know that there's been perhaps some more pressing news in the papers this week.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, to his eternal credit, has posted some of the anti-Howard emails he has received and they are the most vile, racist trash you could read outside a Klan chat room. (http://blogmaverick.com/2008/09/18/thanks-for-the-advice-on-josh/).

Many of these courageous e-bigots actually attempt to link Howard’s mini-rant to the ascension of Presidential candidate Barack Obama. Their crude threats reflect a white fear as old as the United States itself: that no matter how much blood black Americans spill for this country, their loyalties are dual and divided. It's a fear that -- in a backhanded way -- acknowledges that racism is still so prevalent in our society that loyalties of the descendents of slaves must be suspect. But instead of confronting the reality of racism, the e-bigots among us instead lash out in both frightening and filthy fashion.

Well, count me out. Count me out as someone who will pile on Josh Howard. Howard is someone who said, during his 2004 senior year at Wake Forest University, that the war in Iraq "was all about oil." He then saw his draft stock plummet to the point where he was picked after no-talents like Reece Gaines and Ndudi Ebe. I saw one scout even call Howard a risky pick saying that "Anti-war views may reflect rumored erratic behavior." Count me out as someone who thinks anti war views are erratic.

Count me out of the fraternity of sports writers who under a kabuki pantomime of liberalism will "defend Howard's right to say what he wants" and then crush him for opening his mouth. Take J.A. Adande of ESPN.com. He starts his anti-Howard piece by writing, "What makes America the best country on the planet is that you are free to stand or sit for the national anthem, to sing along or to yell in anger at the government as much as you want without getting tossed in jail for your political beliefs." What claptrap. Someone needs to send Adande a copy of the Patriot Act. Or maybe he could ask the people who attempted to exercise their Constitutional rights to “yell in anger” at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, MN, only to be subject to "pre-emptive" raids and prison. Maybe he could ask the journalists who were beaten and arrested by police for attempting to report on it.

But then Adande continues:

"Howard, the Dallas Mavericks forward coming off a year in which he publicly admitted his penchant for smoking marijuana and defiantly partied away during the NBA playoffs, has a termite-ridden soapbox."

Yes, Howard admitted that he is an NBA player who smokes weed. Stop the presses. He also celebrated his own birthday after a playoff game. Adande must think it's a slippery slope: weed, birthday parties, treason. If Howard’s soapbox is “termite-ridden” then Adande’s argument is a house of cards.

This garbage is exactly why it's so hard to get athletes to open up about what they think. Reporters are seen as there to mock any ideas they have beyond "Drink Gatorade… and play one game at a time." Count me out of this smirking and all-too-racist game of journalistic gotcha.

Count me out also as someone who thinks any critiques of the anthem are somehow off limits.

Count me instead as someone who has no clue why this is the only country in the world that feels to need to play the national anthem before sporting events. Count me as someone who believes that sports are beautiful but enforced nationalism before a captive audience is not. Count me as someone who resent the fact that we are raised to see sports and nationalism as inherently conjoined.

Count me as someone who will never criticize an athlete for pointing out their discomfort with this ritual.

I'm always sympathetic when a jock questions the permanence of the anthem. A photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists adorns my wall. I have written in defense of people like Mahmoud Abdul Rauf, drummed out of the NBA for not standing during the anthem, and Toni Smith, the former Manhattanville College basketball player who turned her back on the flag in 2003 to protest "not just the war abroad but the injustices here at home." They were right to question the assumed permanence of this exceptionally American ritual.

Fusing the anthem with sports is a practice that was started in order to build patriotic fervor during World War II. When "the good war" ended and the permanent Cold War begun, it simply never left. It is supposed to represent freedom, but, as we see with Josh Howard, it's the freedom to do little more than smile in silence.

Well, count me out.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com