In Defense of Etan Thomas

Readers of Edge of Sports: On September 4th, Washington Times sports columnist Tom Knott devoted an entire piece to attacking Etan Thomas for his brave comments in my piece about the use of maimed veterans to psyche up the USA Basketball team. Here is the piece in its entirety.

Injustice? Look at your contract, Etan

Etan Thomas supports the troops but not the war in Iraq, which is not unlike supporting the Wizards but not the games in the NBA.

The contradiction eludes the morally smug.

The far-left politics of Thomas are well-known, and his objections to the Bush administration and all things Republican are usually about as subtle as a sledgehammer.

It should come as no surprise then that Thomas took exception to Team USA's various functions with members of the U.S. military last month.

He thought it tasteless, exploitive, if not a sign of USA Basketball's tacit approval of America's war on terror.

He questioned the practice of having wounded veterans speak to the players, as if culling the insights of the brave and noble was somehow wrong.

Would any company or group seeking the wisdom of a wounded veteran be wrong as well?

Do these wounded veterans not possess a unique character that would be helpful to those in a wide range of endeavors, such as a company looking to improve morale and the bottom line?

It is doubtful Thomas would have an objection to a wounded veteran speaking in an anti-war forum.

"I don't have a problem with the troops talking to the players on their own," Thomas told the Nation magazine. "But for them being brought in to build a better basketball team just feels wrong. If I was there, my reaction would have been completely different. The fact that [Capt.] Scott Smiley has lost his sight would not have made me feel patriotic pride. It would have made me feel ashamed, angered and saddened that this soldier was blinded at the service of a war we shouldn't have been in in the first place."

Thomas speaks in all-knowing absolutes, as if he has a window to the history that has not been written yet on this fragile period in the world.

Thomas neglected to mention that Team USA's experiences with our troops was conducted under the auspices of the NBA's Hoops for Troops program, which has sought to celebrate those who protect our interests.

The program was equally active in Team USA's build-up to the Athens Games in 2004.

It is necessary to note the NBA's Hoops for Troops program because of the left's urge to cite Mike Krzyzewski's West Point background and Jerry Colangelo's GOP work in Arizona as the only impetus behind Team USA's embrace of U.S. troops.

They politicize an affair that the NBA intends to be apolitical, if that is possible in these highly polarized times.

The NBA players professed to be moved by the stories and sacrifices of our troops and demonstrated this by saluting in their direction during the FIBA World Championship.

If theirs was a political statement -- beyond the showing of support for the troops -- it was a benign one.

"It felt great to come here and do something for our troops," Dwyane Wade said after Team USA practiced in front of the troops in Seoul last month. "It definitely helps us get motivated by realizing there are a lot of people behind us and we're representing our country."

Every member of the team made similar statements.

Yet to be genuinely supportive of the troops is to be at odds with the far left, which limits its support to lip service.

Thomas, alas, is of this ilk.

He finds little to celebrate in America.

Or if he does, he keeps it to himself.

His screeds masquerading as poetic musings touch the customary talking points of the far left. He sees all kinds of social inequities in America. He sees poverty, racism and the broken-down public schools of the inner city. He sees that which he disdains but offers no solutions.

Darkness is inevitably a tough sell, even more so for a person who lives incredibly well.

To ease some of the injustices and inequities, at least in his tiny corner of the world, Thomas could start with himself.

He could start performing at a level worthy of his contract.

It's an ugly column whose main point seems to be, "Shut Up and Play." This is an effort to silence someone who has courageously chosen to stand in the tradition of Athletic rebels like Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King: people who also saw their share of criticisms by dime-stor political poodles as well.

Below is the letter I wrote to Tom Knott expressing my dismay with his piece as well as Etan's public response.  If anyone wants to express their feeling to Mr, Knott as well, his email is

In struggle and sports,
Dave Zirin

Tom - As the author of the piece in the Nation you used to hack up Etan Thomas, I am very disappointed in your commentary. You used Thomas as a one-dimensional straw man to be bashed at the service of your own pro-war politics, with little regard for either Etan's credentials as a peace activist or the intelligence of your readers. Is it that hard to understand why seeing a blind soldier might not make a person swell with pride but shudder in sadness? Can you see why using the maimed to psyche up a callow USA basketball team might strike some as inappropriate? Do you even want to understand why a pro-athlete would feel compelled to speak out and risk the public scolding from someone like yourself?

You made Etan sound like a dilettante, choosing not to look at the actual work he has done: with the group Seeds of Peace that attempts to promote understanding between Palestinians and Israelis, in DC Public Schools, and in our youth prisons. He also supports the troops very strongly - by speaking out on behalf of bringing them home (a sentiment 72% of troops agree with.)Perhaps you would prefer him to be like most athletes and just toe the line, drink Coke, wear Nike and tap-dance on cue. That just isn't who he is and frankly - even for a writer like yourself - the world of sports is more interesting for it. (It was at least  more readable than your 1,000 word treatise on the Crocodile Hunter.. but I digress)

I know you feel a need - or a pressure - to serve your masters at the Washington Times: to adapt their "political line" where war critics are traitors, dissent is treason, and athletes should just shut up and play. And I know ideas like "getting the whole story" "painting a three dimensional picture" or "making a phone call to research your column" may seem quaint. But Etan deserved better. Your readers deserved better. And frankly the troops deserve better than what you chose to put to paper. Slandering a good man to score political points are the actions of a hack.

Dave Zirin

It is so amazing how a reporter like Tom Knott, because of his far right politics, is absolutely blinded to reality. For some odd reason, he and unfortunately other right wingers like him always equate being against the war with somehow being unpatriotic. They feel that if one points out a way in which their country could be better whether through fairer practices regarding the public school system, health care, lack of a response to hurricane Katrina, an unjust war etc. that somehow this transcends to being reduced to as Tom Knott described me in his article as simply a person who "finds little to celebrate in America". If Tom Knott and others who share his opinion feel that they support a war that has cost us the lives of over 2600 US troops, had absolutely no exit strategy, had absolutely no connection to Sept. 11th, had no effect on making us safer here in America, etc etc, then they are free to do so, but don't claim that someone is somehow un-American if they have an opposing view. I do stand by my statements made in the Nation magazine , "I don't have a problem with the troops talking to the players on their own," Thomas told the Nation magazine. "But for them being brought in to build a better basketball team just feels wrong. If I was there, my reaction would have been completely different. The fact that [Capt.] Scott Smiley has lost his sight would not have made me feel patriotic pride. It would have made me feel ashamed, angered and saddened that this soldier was blinded at the service of a war we shouldn't have been in in the first place."  I think that what's really unpatriotic is sitting by and allowing a president to make bad decision after bad decision and not say anything about it. That is the beauty of living in a democracy. Each citizen has the right to voice his/her opinion, although Tom Knott obviously feels otherwise. Silence is actually the enemy of democracy. I'm sure that if I spoke out in favor of the Bush administration and painted some fictitious picture of how brilliantly he handled protecting America, Knott would have had absolutely no objection to those statements. Iraq will go down in history as an American tragedy, and people will ask "why didn't anyone do anything"? How did they let this happen? Little kids will read in their text books about all of the lives lost, innocent Iraqi civilians slaughtered, American soldiers killed, and wonder what type of patriotism did all of those people who went along with this show?

I have nothing but the utmost respect for Capt. Scott Smiley and every other soldier who has been wounded and risked their lives for our country. Of course the players saluted them, I would have saluted them as well. In addition, it came as no surprise that the players were moved by their words and gained a higher level of understanding as to the sacrifices that they made for their country. Unfortunately, Tom Knott missed the point of my objection.  My respect, admiration, and overall reverence for the soldiers are what compel me to speak out on their behalf. Not that they asked me to, or even all feel the way that I do. I always hear people who disagree with me, usually Republicans, say that this is what they signed up for, and they knew what they were getting themselves into, but I vehemently disagree. These soldiers put their lives on the line for their country, and there is no greater sacrifice that one can make. This is why it is critical that the leaders of this country do not needlessly sacrifice them as pawns in a war that simply did not have to happen. It is the job of the President to lead, and I simply do not feel that Bush has led us in the right way. In fact, his actions have actually done us a disservice. Instead of spending all of this money in Iraq, that money could, as Tim Russert stated "have been put to much better use in homeland security." There is a reason that the 911 commission gave the Bush administration Ds and Fs but I digress. It hurts me and angers me every time I see or have conversations with, as I often do, wounded soldiers or hear the number of U.S. casualties continuously rise. It is now at 2600, and it simply did not have to happen. Then I hear Bush have the audacity to say that he is actually looking out for their best interest, and praise them for their continuous work. And say he's committed to staying the course. Dick Chaney was just on Meet The Press and echoed Bush sentiments, as well as Rice and the rest of the GOPs that if given the chance to start all over, would they still invade Iraq. Is there anything that they would have done different. And he simply said no. With all of the casualties that have occurred, the fact that it appears that this invasion has actually made things worse in Iraq, there seems to be a civil war on the brink between the Shiites and the Sunnis, U.S. soldiers are continuously dying everyday, it does not look like we will be able to bring our troops home anytime soon, but there is nothing that they would have done differently. And they pretend to care about the soldiers. Life is precious. And the lives of our soldiers our heroes, even though they signed up to defend their country, are precious as well.

Tom Knott says that darkness is a tough sell. But actually, light penetrates the darkness that is already there.

Then, in a very cowardly manner, instead of actually speaking to me in an effort to gain more clarity as to exactly what my feelings and opinions were, Tom Knott chose to write an article simply bashing me for my views. Then, in an unprofessional manner, because he disagrees with my politics, he chooses to criticize my play on the court as if the two are somehow connected. The notion that I don't support my team is probably one of the most unmerited statements he made in his entire article. I would expect a higher level of journalism by a writer in his position, but maybe that was simply a mistake on my part. See, unlike Bush, I can admit when I have made a mistake, rushed to judgment, or overlooked other possibilities before I formulated my opinions. Maybe in the tiny corner of his world, Tom Knott, can try to actually do research before he writes another inaccurate article. I believe it was Confuscious who said, " No investigation no right to speak."

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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