What does it matter if Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce says he doesn't want to guard a homosexual in the NBA? Why should we pay any attention to the shallow-brained thoughts of Jean Van de Velde, a truly undistinguished player, on women's golf? Who appointed Air Force football coach Fisher DeBerry a racial anthropologist? What do we expect from these people anyway? Why can't we just let them play and coach the game?
Judging by some of the witless remarks in the sports world over the past few days, athletes and coaches are having a nationwide contest for Moron of the Week. The question becomes, should we ask these people about anything important, ever? Should we once and for all restrict the questions we put to sports figures to such matters as, what should the Red Sox do in the offseason, and, what are the merits of a 3-4 scheme versus the 4-3?
Exactly when did we decide that athletes and coaches should by definition be ill-informed, oblivious, insensible, mindless and unconversant? This is a fairly new development -- once, some of our best athletes were our most powerful and eloquent social advocates, from Pee Wee Reese to Arthur Ashe to Muhammad Ali to Billie Jean King.
Historically, from the sandlot and amateur levels to the professional, sports have always been at the forefront of social issues. Long before integration, Paul Robeson played football for Rutgers and Fritz Pollard for Brown. Athletes interact and collaborate with people different from themselves all the time. Every day, they have to pass the ball to, or block for, or call signals for a person of a different religion, or ethnicity. Even now corporations have to write specific hiring codes to ensure diversity, but when a pro team considers whether to draft or trade for a player, the only question that matters is, "Can he play?"
The players who enjoy this fairly egalitarian system are uniquely positioned to address issues that are so divisive in the rest of society. In fact, I'd argue that they're obliged to, because that's how strides will be made. They don't just sell tickets and shoes; they set attitudes. They are the makers of manners. So, it's actually a pretty grave thing if we've granted our sports figures permission to be close-minded.
This week, a monument to Reese and Jackie Robinson was unveiled in a New York park. The sculpture commemorated a crucial moment between the men in Robinson's rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Reese refused to sign a petition by players who didn't want to play with Robinson. One afternoon, Robinson stood at first base enduring yet another a stream of epithets from spectators. Reese walked over, and, according to different accounts, either stood shoulder to shoulder with Robinson, or put an arm around him, and stared at the hecklers.
"Something reacted in my gut, at the moment," Reese told the New York Times years later. "Something about what? The unfairness of it? The injustice of it? I don't know."
This is not about asking athletes to engage in intellectual matters beyond their scope. Athletes are entitled to hold wrong-headed opinions. It's about asking them to talk and act responsibly about fundamental matters that ought to concern them -- even if they aren't directly affected. What I wonder is whether there are any athletes inclined to be modern Pee Wee Reeses, or if we've discouraged them with our low expectations.
Pierce has every right to express an intelligent moral argument against homosexuality, if he can muster one. But when he was asked by the Boston Herald what he would do if an NBA player announced he was gay, as WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes recently did, and he replied, "I wouldn't want to guard him," the very next question we should ask him, and demand that he answer, is if he'd eat in the same restaurant as one, or drink from the same water fountain as one. Certainly, it shouldn't be too much to expect him to connect some intellectual dots. In the same week that Swoopes came out, NBA players stewed over the new dress code and whether it's racist. Why isn't the ostracism of gays analogous to racism? That doesn't seem to have occurred to Pierce, nor did it occur to him that he may guard a gay every night, without knowing it.
DeBerry has every right to discuss race and speed -- a fascinating topic -- but when he explains that Air Force lost to TCU because the other team "had a lot more Afro-American players than we did and they ran a lot faster than we did," he damn sure better justify why he's bringing it up as the main differential in the ballgame, as opposed to hard work, intelligence, or coaching. Otherwise, you suspect he was just invoking an ignorant, mush-mouthed stereotype.
If Van de Velde wants to talk about whether women are capable of qualifying for the British Open or if gender equality is really possible in sports -- a question that has pretty staggering implications -- well, that's great. Except, he doesn't. He just wants to call women skirts, and label their attempt "a farce."
I refuse to set the bar that low. For one thing, there are too many smart people in locker rooms, bright, articulate people with all sorts of complicated thoughts, and different brands of intelligence. The real problem is that not much has been asked of them lately.
Athletes are increasingly separate from the rest of us -- and we're all complicit in that fact. We identify them as stars as early as grade school, socialize them as privileged exceptions, pay them 25 times what the average person earns, and coach them to abdicate on social issues. So, it's no wonder that so many of them live in a bubble of self-absorption, and seem to think courage is demonstrated only on the field.
According to Peter Roby, the director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, athletes should not be "immune or exempt from understanding what it is to live in this world. . . . It's dangerous.
"The lack of empathy that players have for fans, or that fans have for players, comes from this. The danger, when fans view players as simply objects of entertainment, and when we don't need them to have opinions, is that they're simply drones out there for our pleasure. We objectify them."
So there is a consequence for asking so little from our sports figures. The problems of the ordinary world become none of their concern. And when that happens, nobody is smarter for it.