Shut Up and Play? Patriotism, Jock Culture and the Limits of Free Speech

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.


Yet some athletes dared to buck the trend, and in the process have learned a tough lesson about the limits of free speech in the jockocracy. Chris Douglas-Roberts, former Memphis basketball All-American and current Milwaukee Buck, responded to bin Laden’s death by listing a litany of reasons for why he wasn’t playing the Toby Keith on repeat, tweeting among other things, “It took 919,967 deaths to kill that one guy. It took 10 years & 2 Wars to kill that...guy. It cost us (USA) roughly $1,188,263,000,000 to kill that...........guy. But we winning though. Haaaa. (Sarcasm).”


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.”


Rashard Mendenhall, the pro-bowl running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, raised eyebrows even higher with his comments, writing, [“For] those of you who said you want to see Bin Laden burn in hell and piss on his ashes, I ask how would God feel about your heart?...What kind of person celebrates death? It’s amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We’ve only heard one side…”


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's 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 serve 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 to 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. If you look historically at athletes who today are admired for their courageous honesty—people like Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Jim Brown, and Bill Russell—they were all told by the sports columnists of their day that they should button their lips and just play. When Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black gloved fists, a young sportswriter for the Chicago American by the name of Brent Musberger wrote, “One gets a little tired of having the United States run down by athletes who are enjoying themselves at the expense of their country,” going on to call them, “a pair of black-skinned storm-troopers.”


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 confine 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 “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing Contact him at]

22 Reader Comments | Add a comment

Subtle slams...

Dave, I don't see where Mendenhall said 9/11 is an "inside job." It seems he just asked a question. A very brave question. And you haven't mentioned any of these "merits" - you simply dismissed his question on face value.

So you think the government lies to you? "Absolutely!"
And the media lies too..?
"Of course!"
So what happened on 9/11?
"...whatever they tell me."

A corrupt system tells you a story and you believe it? The U.S. gov't does stuff that would make Hitler blush, and you think they would tell you the truth about 9/11?

I don't know what happened on 9/11... but I do know this:

1) I've never met someone from Al-Qaeda

2) I've never met Osama bin Laden

3) The glowing box in my living room tries to sell me things

Believe in fairy tales, if you must: but that story, like the killing of Saddam, like the killing of Osama, is nowhere close to being 100% truthful.

And don't put words in the mouths of the very athletes are you trying to stand up for. It's petty.


How do we go about letting athletes like Douglas-Roberts and Mendenhall know that they have supporters among the spectating populace? Even better, what's the best way of letting the owners of these teams know that we appreciate what these athletes have to say and that we don't appreciate any attempts to silence their viewpoints? BTW I don't have a twitter or facebook account nor do I desire to get one.


It's funny how the same people who are calling Mendenhall and Douglas-Roberts "idiots" "morons" "ignorant jocks" etc. most likely have no idea about the business ties between the Bush and bin-Laden families or that OBL and his minions were recipients of arms and training from the US throughout the 80's when they were killing Russians. Or that Saddam Hussein was also a favored ally and trading partner. It's also funny how the "fawning corporate media" (to quote Ray Mcgovern) never makes these connections or comes to the conclusion that arming thugs the world over may not be in our best interest.

re: Subtle slams

One of Mendenhall's comments was, "We'll never know what really happened. I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition style."

re: re: Subtle slams...

Eric, please show me where he mentions "inside job" - if we're talking about the merits of the position that these athletes are taking: we should just do just that. RM is questioning the official story: you and Dave are assuming "inside job." Obviously, if their is a fairy tale... then you began to ask "Cui Bono" (who benefits?)

It's interesting what the mind thinks it reads - perhaps both of you know on a subconscious level that - of course - the official story is nonsense. And the course of U.S. history has shown that the official report has NEVER been accurate. In fact, I challenge anyone to offer up one completely factual assassination report written by a gov't agency. Just one.

To Bert

With respect to official reports you are setting the bar much too high. When you throw down the challenge about "complete" official reports the operative word is complete. No report of any kind will ever be complete because there will always be later facts revealed. This doesn't mean necessarily that the report is flawed. I would still advocate official investigatons to reveal what happened even though we will never know the "complete" truth. History is a cumulative process not a hard and fast one.


Think its funny that both of the athletes mentioned are being called unpatriotic when a recent pro athlete just joined the birther movement even after the president released short and long forms of his birth. Of course, this athlete did not get any negative media attention for doing so. Garbage!

re: re: re: Subtle slams...

Racist Moi?...

I see your point. However, we should remember that the U.S. has perhaps the most murderous track record of global destruction in the history of the planet. So when they write an "official report" about anything - I think we can be sure that it's not true. In fact, if you read any official report and compare it to the alternative theory (that certain known factions planned the attack), the official report always looks crazier.

For example, this idea that a person in Africa had sex with a monkey and created AIDS. Then the virus (person or monkey) went to Haiti. Then jumped on a plane and took the redeye to NYC and started infected blacks and gays... etc. That's the official story. The conspiracy is: the polio vaccines were tainted. This from a country that was founded on the basis of biological warfare (read: smallpox blankets).

So the fact that any person gives the most murderous gov't on the history of the planet the benefit of the doubt.. is just plain silly. I realize: Dave needs to maintain his centrality for the purpose of reaching a certain sector. But, really... there has never been a reason to trust anything about the federal gov't.

The Bush Administration wrote the official 9/11 report. I could write that sentence again... but it's fairly clear. To be fair: I miss Bush. He gave the game away. Obama is slick...a much better politician which is -unfortunately- much worse for all of us.

A bit of perspective

With respect to "the most murderous gov't" I am going to wager on those governments with a longer history and more people. Right now that would be China and/or India. In the meantime how about those Cubs.


Dave, you are generally disingenous, and a transparent sucker who tries to fit facts into your really tired old paradigms, but you are on the mark here.


I would take being called unpatriotic as a compliment, even if in the case of most athletes (as in most people), they are only ever called unpatriotic out of sheer luck rather than genuinely disagreeing with patriotic 'pride'. Pride is a very special word, and that is why we should reserve it for very special circumstances - when we, ourselves, have accomplished something. When we, as individuals, personally went above and beyond the call of duty in a situation for the selfless benefit of others, for example, or even just for ourselves. You can't really be 'proud' of being where you are from, because you didn't really have a say in being where you are from. I didn't choose to be born in Toronto twenty years ago any more than I chose to have black hair and brown eyes. Patriotism and national pride can do wonderful things, but I can never manage to suspend my disbelief long enough to be drunk enough on national pride to be 'proud' of anything I didn't really have a single thing to do with. Individually, pride is a beautiful thing. On the scale of an entire country, it allows you to take credit for accomplishments you played absolutely no part in, simply because the people that can take what we might call real pride in those accomplishments were born within the same magical lines in the sand as you were. It will sound to some like mindless philosophy, but your country of birth is a sheer accident. The ends don't always justify the means, and just because the ends of patriotism may occasionally be wonderful for all involved, it doesn't change the fact the means of any pleasant consequences are born out of an idea that can reasonably, however cynically, be interpreted as 'my country is better than your country because I was born in it'.

I hope athletes continue to speak out about anything and everything, if only for the sheer entertainment it provides. Perspective doesn't allow too much sympathy for those that are prevented from doing so, as I personally would gladly take a couple million dollars a year in exchange for my voice until my contract runs out. If we are going to continue treating professional athletes as cheap babysitters for our children, then I think it would be a much more positive influence for those kids to know their favorite players don't think in terms of flags and lines on a map, but see the world as one big country. I'd rather have my kids look up to the athlete questioning the value of patriotism in today's society and being murdered in the media for it, to question what they read, than to have them admire another mindless robot waving a flag all day, continuing to help us all labor under the delusion we're actually any different from anyone else.

sports media a joke

I like seeing that Mendenhall and Douglas-Roberts had specific opinions on a subject that had nothing to do with their careers. They are Americans. They are as American as anyone else who was born and raised here. If you truly look at what Mendenhall said, he was not offensive to anyone. I watched President Obama say that bin Laden has been killed, and I didn't feel happiness or joy. I saw his death with the viewpoint of hoping that the world can be a better place. I want to live in a world where peace can reign supreme. I don't want to celebrate anyone's death, no matter what dastardly deeds they are accused of. I just want peace and equality for everyone. I give a lot of respect to athletes like Steve Nash, Etan Thomas, Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Douglas-Roberts who have something of substance to say.

White America

The stifling of free speech by corporate interests is nothing new, nor is the predictable fervor with which the mainstream crushes dissent. but what I fina sadly ironic is how all those "free speech warriors" who cry bloody murder every time one of their pundits lands in hot water for another racist, sexist, homphobic or otherwise diatribe rejoice over the corporate backlash against Mendenhall. turns out that, as Chomsky says, just like Stalin, the anti-"PC police" are all about free speech for themselves only.

Free Speech

Nobody is saying that athletes don't have a right to say what they want to say but there our consequences for what you say. Nobody is trying to take away an athlete's voice but just like anyone else you have to face the consequences when you say something the majority of the public disagree with. Mendenhall will be playing next year, he won't be locked up so the idea that he has no freedom of speech is ludicrous. Freedom of speech is not freedom of consequences. Chomsky has made plenty of money off his books and speaking tours so the idea that he's persecuted for his opinions is BS. Just because people don't want to hear what you have to say doesn't mean your freedom of speech is taken away. Fringers like Chomsky need to realize that just because you're not as popular as you think you should be doesn't mean we're in a totalitarian state.

Free Speech

Nobody is saying that athletes don't have a right to say what they want to say but there our consequences for what you say. Nobody is trying to take away an athlete's voice but just like anyone else you have to face the consequences when you say something the majority of the public disagree with. Mendenhall will be playing next year, he won't be locked up so the idea that he has no freedom of speech is ludicrous. Freedom of speech is not freedom of consequences. Chomsky has made plenty of money off his books and speaking tours so the idea that he's persecuted for his opinions is BS. Just because people don't want to hear what you have to say doesn't mean your freedom of speech is taken away. Fringers like Chomsky need to realize that just because you're not as popular as you think you should be doesn't mean we're in a totalitarian state.

To Jason

I couldn't have said it better.

Get Off Zirin's Back

Remember, guys, this is the same Dave Zirin who had his head so far up Michael Vick's butt he couldn't see the sun shine for months. I fully expected a column in SUPPORT of bin Laden, and I guess we won't see one. Sheesh, give the man some credit for once...


Are you seriously trying to compare Mike Vick to Osama Bin Laden? And if you are that is just down right insulting.

Free Speech

That's right, there are consequences for what you say. If you dare to be a whistle blower against corporate malfeasance you should expect to lose your job and have high-priced lawyers bleed you dry in the courts. No one is denying your free speech, there are just consequences. It is just like Sen. John Cornyn said, if 'activist jurists' are going to make 'political' (i.e. left-wing) decision they must expect to be shot. No one is denying their free speech, but if people are encouraged to kill them, speech has consequences.

Free speech not insulation

Jason mostly beat me to it, but neither one of these qualify as infringement on free speech, in that neither Mendenhall nor Douglas-Roberts will be jailed, arrested, fined, nor denied their livelihood for what they have said.

In the case of Mendenhall, it is not just the nature of his opinion as much as the ignorance. If he were critical of the campaign to capture or kill bin Laden and/or any of the surrounding efforts, this would be a conversation topic. Yes, you have a right to say he has "a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down...," but when you have the footage of the incident and rubble that kept smoldering for 3 months, you just sound ridiculous if you do. Speaking your mind is fine, but it adds to the discourse if you have a mind to speak.

As for CDR, any reaction to his quotes hardly rises to incendiary when you have to dig to find the quotes, let alone the reaction unless you actually follow Milwaukee Bucks' goings on out of season.

For what it's worth, I think some valuable information and viewpoints are effectively censored one way or another, but the sports forum is a weak example.

straw man

No one is limiting free speech by criticizing the speech on another. The freedom to criticize what someone else says -- even in an unconstructive manner -- is also protected speech. And guess what? The government is not involved in any of your examples, so this "free speech" nonsense is a moot point. If you are an employee of a private company (like a sports team), the management/owner can discipline you for what you say as a representative of their "brand."

I'm sorry, within the scope of

almost everyone's occupation we forfeit the ability to have "free speech" (quotation marks as rightly posted previously and ad infinitum - there is no such thing as free speech when discussing the private sector) independent of possible repercussions. Just as the referenced athletes are dealing with negative reactions from their client base (i.e. the public), I would deal with the same if I said the exact same things in the company of one of my clients. Enough with this (insert public figure here) forfeiting their inalienable rights.

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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
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