Phoenix Suns speak out instead of playing it safe

By Michael Wilbon
Friday, May 7, 2010; D01


It's not a small number of people who want Steve Nash, Grant Hill and the Phoenix Suns to shut up and confine themselves to basketball. Don't think, don't engage, and certainly don't publicly oppose Arizona's new immigration law.

Instead of embracing a convenient neutrality that might have helped the bottom line with a great many locals who favor a new law that requires local police to check the legal status of suspected undocumented immigrants, Suns owner Robert Sarver called the law "flawed" and "mean-spirited" and asked his players what they thought of wearing "Los Suns" jerseys during Wednesday night's playoff game. Depending on your point of view, it was either an act of support for the Latin community, whose members feel targeted by the law, or an act of defiance toward those in the larger community who are angry over illegal immigration in a border state and rail at any dissent.

The folks here who wanted, at worst, silence picked the wrong team. The Suns' locker room has too many independent thinkers, too many activists, too many players whose experiences and sensibilities are, thankfully, a lot broader than most of their neighbors. Sarver's players not only had no problem wearing "Los Suns" jerseys, they felt, to a man, pretty much the same way he did, damn the backlash, and were quite willing to say it. And there was plenty of backlash. Suns Coach Alvin Gentry, an hour before Game 2 against the Spurs tipped off, pointed to his computer, referring to the angry e-mails from folks who wanted the players in lockstep with the state's misguided new law.

A great many of the critics simply don't want politics to touch sports, as if that's a practical position to take in today's world, where players are asked (and expected) to comment on virtually everything of cultural importance. It's amazing that people would think after six years of exposure to Nash, soft-spoken but certainly outspoken, that he would just smile and nod in agreement with a law that goes against everything he stands for . . . as if Nash was going to issue some lame neutral statement through a spokesman.

Nash, during a conversation with Tony Kornheiser and me on ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption," said, of the law: "I'm against it. I think that this is a bill that really damages our civil liberties. I think it opens up the potential for racial profiling . . . racism. I think it's a bad precedent to set for our young people. I think it represents our state poorly in the eyes of the nation and the world. I think that we have a lot of great attributes here and [this law] is something that we could do without. And I hope it will change in the coming weeks. . . . Our owners asked us if any of us had a problem wearing the [Los Suns] jerseys and nobody did. So, I think we're pretty like-minded on the issue. This league is very multicultural. We have players from all over the world, myself obviously being a foreigner [Canadian], many of my teammates, players on other teams. Our communities are very multicultural. So I think we need to find a different way to combat the issues that we face in our society. And I think this is the wrong way to go about it."

Nash stressed that he was speaking only for himself, but he was indeed speaking quite eloquently for most of us who feel the way he does, that the volume needs to be turned up when it comes to fighting racial profiling, which this country should discourage instead of adopting it as a matter of policy. Nash, again, is on the right side of a monumental issue, one of great interest nationally but an obsession here in Arizona. And while it came as zero surprise that Nash would speak out, it did come as a surprise to many that Sarver would take the stand he did.

"I applaud Robert," Grant Hill said after the game, which was still just a game -- despite the angst of those who don't want politics and sport to mix -- and a well-played one at that. "Most owners, regardless of the sport, wouldn't put themselves in a position to be criticized for expressing what they believe. I'm really proud of him. Most owners vote their pocketbooks, and Robert could have done that. He took the initiative. To me, it's a greater injustice to not speak up, regardless that some people are going to be angry because they think we should just play ball. One, this is an incredibly important issue. Two, it's the right thing to do."

That was the sentiment throughout the Suns' locker room, pretty much: They were thrilled their owner took the lead in opposing something they all opposed, and they could take the heat. Who knows at this point whether it will cost Sarver money. Nash and Hill had received communication from some longtime Suns fans to the effect that they would no longer root for the team. But it's difficult to see folks, no matter how angry in the moment, canceling the most prized sports/entertainment ticket in town the last 40-plus years because grown people with their own ideas dare to disagree.

It's not as if Sarver said he wanted open borders. In fact, what he said was, "However intended, the result of passing this law is that our basic principles of equal rights and protection under the law are being called into question, and Arizona's already struggling economy will suffer even further setbacks at a time when the state can ill-afford them."

That also leads into the discussion about what Major League Baseball will do about the 2011 All-Star Game, given that nearly one-third of its players are of Latin heritage, and several have already ripped Arizona's new law. At some point, though he's got some time, Commissioner Bud Selig is going to have to take the temperature of the players and executives in the major leagues and figure out who he's going to offend, the state of Arizona if MLB moves the game, or his Hispanic players if MLB keeps the game here.

And it's not as if the big leagues are grappling with the question of "what to do" alone. Various organizations are suggesting or flat-out lobbying for removal of certain scheduled events from Arizona as a form of protest. The people who think sports and athletes are going to be exempt from this conversation, particularly as it becomes more impassioned and more polarizing, are unthinkably naive.

Usually when sports and politics mix, some government is telling athletes they must boycott or somehow represent the nation for which they play. This time, athletes and, in the case of the Suns, a team are proactively engaged. And they're as entitled as the people defending the law to express their opinion. In fact, for some of us, it's downright encouraging.

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