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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

How far we have come, in the wrong direction (Updated)

Gyree Durante, a freshman backup quarterback at Albright College, a D-III school in Pennsylvania, was kicked off the team for kneeling during the national anthem. The team's "leadership council" had decided to kneel during the coin toss (because racial injustice is intimately associated with coin tosses) but stand for the anthem. Durante thus acted against the team decision that was an "expression of team unity and out of the mutual respect team members have for one another and the value they place on their differences."

[Updated: Upon further consideration, I must marvel at how so much anti-intellectualism and raw majoritarianism was packed into such a seemingly anodyne statement. Because the majority won, in a rout. The athlete inclined to do so was denied the opportunity to express a criticism of an aspect of American society in a meaningful way, unless kneeling or coin tosses per se mean something about racially disparate police violence. The majority deigned to allow him a small expressive token, but that token is meaningless as a message (or the message the athlete wanted to send), again unless kneeling or coin tosses say something about racism and police violence. Yet this is praised as  "mutual respect for differences."  There was no mutual respect at work here--the majority got what it wanted by prohibiting a protest around the symbol of what some people see as the social problem to be protested; Duarte got nothing of expressive consequence.]

In this article, I discussed Toni Smith, who in 2003 was a member of the women's basketball team at Manhattanville College, a D-III school in New York. During the ramp-up to the Iraq invasion (which was being sold to the public as a necessary national-security response to 9/11), Smith would turn her back to the flag during the anthem. She was not sanctioned and was supported by her teammates, coaches, and school administrators. Some fans booed or jeered and one person walked onto the court mid-game to get in her face. A Google search revealed that Smith (now Smith-Thompson) is an organizer with the NYCLU and wrote an open letter to Colin Kaepernick in 2016.

But it is striking that such protests (which I describe in the article as symbolic counter-speech, in that a person counter-speaks to a symbol through the symbol itself) draw more public anger and less support from teammates and those around the protester today than 15 years ago, on the eve of what at the time was a popular military action. That speaks depressing volumes to our willingness to protect political dissent (or at least certain forms of political dissent). Smith-Thompson suggested the difference is social media. Another difference is that President George W. Bush did not make a hobby of calling out dissenters as unpatriotic sons-of-bitches.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 11, 2017 at 10:39 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink


I agree that it became a national story--I remember reading about it when it happened. But it wasn't something that was covered on ESPN and Sports Illustrated every week either. Plus, it's always difficult to generalize from a single (or relatively few) data point. While Gyree Durante was kicked off the team, many more players have protested and not been punished (so far the only other player I've heard about being punished related to the anthem protests was Alejandro Villanueva, and that was for not participating in the team's protest). Had Smith inspired a movement, who is to say that other players wouldn't have been kicked off their teams in 2003 as well? And from what I remember, the public reaction to Abdul-Rauf was very similar to the current reactions (if anything, even more uniformly opposed), with little or no support from his teammates or other players. So I'm just not that sure that things really have changed all that much.

Posted by: jph12 | Oct 12, 2017 2:09:09 PM

JPH: That is why people talked about one rather than the other. And more people talking allows the critical views both to come out and to be difficult for supporters to resist. Smith did become a national story for a while, so there would have been time for her teammates and coaches to turn on her; none did. But Smith-Thompson herself points to social media making hers a much bigger story than it was.

Of course, the problem is not so much the criticism of Smith or Kaepernick or Durante or anyone else for protesting; it is the insistence by those who control it that they stop.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 12, 2017 1:16:04 PM

Do you think the fact that Toni Smith was a D-III womens basketball player, rather than an NFL quarterback, makes any difference in the relative reactions? It's easy for even an ardent sports fan to ignore D-III basketball, mens or womens, harder to ignore the NFL. It's not like professional sports haven't dealt with national anthem controversies before--in 1996, the NBA suspended Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for refusing to stand for the national anthem (and the compromise to end the suspension required him to stand). I could well be wrong, but I don't remember there being much support for Abdul-Rauf.

Posted by: jph12 | Oct 12, 2017 12:24:20 PM

I assume you were being sarcastic in saying that racial injustice is closely associated with coin tosses, but it's actually pretty spot on symbolically. You call heads and if you win the toss you defer your decision until the second half, and if you lose the toss you get stopped and frisked by the refs.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Oct 12, 2017 9:58:05 AM

That's a good question.

Is it more important to stress that a majority of Americans support first-term abortion, or stress that Americans are divided on third-term abortion?

Is it more important to stress that a majority of Americans support the individual right to own handguns for self-defense, or stress that Americans are divided on silencers and magazines?

Is it more important to stress that a majority of Americans support the right to be a Muslim and mock Islam, or stress that Americans are divided on "hate speech"?

Posted by: Stressful | Oct 12, 2017 2:30:44 AM

The question is regardless of your political orientation, what values do nearly all americans have in common (that can assure us that we are already unified and don't have to worry about unity).

The obvious seem to be general abstract principles about due process and crimes like "innocent until proven guilty" and "rape and murder are felonies". But what positive rights [i.e., outside the criminal justice system] do most people value in common (speech, voting, abortion, guns, etc.)?

Our leaders tell us that no matter where we go on Earth will find people who agree with us on our most basic fundamental principles, it is these values that are the common humanity we all share underneath our skin--so what are these principles? Should we be teaching them in school?

Posted by: C.S. Lewis and Clark | Oct 12, 2017 2:07:03 AM

In women's college softball, the entire team comes onto the field to congratulate the batter after hitting a home run. In male baseball, when this happens, they are kicked out of the league for unsportsmanlike conduct--same with football players dancing in the endzone.

There's no such thing as "unsportsmanlike conduct" among women for the same reason that women can wear pants or a skirt, but men have to wear pants.

Posted by: Pants-suit vs. skirt-suit | Oct 11, 2017 11:53:02 PM

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