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'Los Suns' statement comes in a perfectly fine arena for politics

By Mike Wise
Thursday, May 6, 2010; D01

On the edict of their owner, the Phoenix Suns wore "Los Suns" jerseys in Game 2 of their playoff series with the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday night. Because this gesture is less about honoring Cinco de Mayo than standing in solidarity with Latinos and other people upset with Arizona's new immigration law, the predictable lament has already begun:

Why is a sports owner getting involved in politics? Can't an NBA arena, where the political left, right and center commingle in support of the same institution, stay out of this scrum?

The answer, quite clearly, is no. Sports franchises have never been separate from the communities in which they reside, and they have become even more entwined over the years as they have skyrocketed in value, becoming some of the most lucrative properties in their geographic areas.

As an owner of one of Arizona's four major pro sports franchises, Suns owner Robert Sarver in effect was making a choice no matter what action he took. Doing nothing would have been silent acquiescence.

Sarver is both an Arizona citizen and a businessman. He knows the ugly tenor growing around the country over the law, which is the closest thing to legalized racial profiling since having to show proof of emancipation. He also knows he has an arena to fill. His stance risks offending a good portion of his season-ticket base, but a national boycott including hotels and conventions could financially decimate the state.

For better or worse, the games and the times they are played in are now inextricable.

You can't get these stories off the sports page, just as you can't get Tim Tebow's religion, Curt Schilling's political leanings or a woman alleging that Ben Roethlisberger is a sexual predator off the sports page.

One of the reasons we want sports to be a separate arena is because we like the safe feeling that the winner's circle is colorless, genderless, accepting of any ethnicity or socioeconomic group. It's a relief from real-world complexity. Everything from the score to the time has finality to it, genuine resolution. It's not intractable; it's resolvable.

But when political issues so pervade a community, a sports franchise -- from the owner to the players -- can't pretend they are somehow above or below the fray.

Sarver and the NBA are not alone on this issue.

Peter Gammons, the longtime baseball writer and television analyst now with MLB Network, called Arizona's new law "a terrible problem for Bud Selig" on Wednesday. Gammons surmised the commissioner and baseball will "eventually pull the [2011] All-Star Game out" of Phoenix.

"It's not going to work with [Arizona Senator] John McCain having a commercial about illegal aliens intentionally causing automobile accidents to collect money from the government," Gammons said. "I don't think there's any reason left in Arizona. Right now some people used to have principle; now it's all about poll results."

Gammons asked aloud how embarrassing it would be for baseball if they wait to pull up stakes anytime after July 10. Suppose, he said, during the Arizona Fall League four young players -- he hypothesized three Dominican players and one Cuban player -- were "walking out of a 7-Eleven and someone calls in and they look suspicious."

"By this law the police have to act," he said. "How embarrassing would it be if for no reason four 19-year-olds are taken in by police just because someone thought they looked suspicious?"

Sports don't shield their participants from the communities in which they play. In fact, most of the Suns want to be part of it.

"I think [wearing the jerseys is] fantastic," Suns point guard Steve Nash said. "I think the law is very misguided, and unfortunately, to the detriment of our society and our civil liberties. And I think it's really important for us to stand up for things we believe in . . .

"It doesn't feel good to have people around the world and around the country look at our state as less than equal, less than fair. So as a proud [resident] of this state, I want us to be held in the highest esteem. I think we have a lot of great attributes and a lot of great people, and I think we need to be very cautious in how we respect our civil liberties, and the tone we're setting, and the precedent we're setting going forward."

Suns forward Amare Stoudemire, according to the Arizona Republic, said it was great to "let the Latin community know we're behind them 100 percent."

My only problem with the decision: Nash was the one responsible for taking his teammates' temperature on the issue. If you are a player with opposing views to the best player on the team, and the owner of the team, wouldn't that give the appearance of a lesser player's employment situation to be at least murkier than it was before the political stand? I certainly wouldn't want The Washington Post owners making me wear a uniform with their political views on it.

Besides, what's that corny saying, "Stand for something or fall for everything?"

We live in a relatively politically inactive era when it comes to sports. The days of Arthur Ashe, Curt Flood, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown appear long gone. Perhaps not coincidentally, as activism has diminished, salaries and endorsements have risen. So it's nice to see a rich man with much to lose put his conviction where his wallet is.

In that vein, Robert Sarver deserves to take a bow.

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