Sports Columnists, Athletes, and Dissent

On March 24, two sports columnists opined about an NBA player making statements against the war in Iraq. The writers, Skip Bayless of the San Jose Mercury News and John P. Lopez of the Houston Chronicle, both suggested that Steve Nash of the Dallas Mavericks, "just shut up and play."

As sports journalists who depend upon First Amendment freedoms, did Bayless and Lopez act irresponsibly by advocating an athlete's silence during wartime? Several sports columnists, who have reported Nash's comments, responded to the question of irresponsibility by e-mail.

Dave Krieger, of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver said, "Saying someone should shut up is not the same as saying he doesn't have a right to speak. It is more often a judgment on the quality of what he says." Krieger argued in a column that the public should disregard political musings from athletes because "they seldom know what they're talking about." He said Americans have the right to speak their minds, including telling someone to keep silent.

Krieger said, "If dismissing uninformed opinions becomes politically incorrect, then free speech becomes an excuse for intellectual paralysis."

If the goal of journalism is to inform the public and encourage debate, then the circular logic of "You shut up. No, you shut up" is intellectual paralysis. We're moved closer toward complacency and further from enlightenment.

Bayless defended his column, saying that athletes were preoccupied with maintaining their luxurious lifestyles. "Their ability to talk about issues is clouded," Bayless said by phone. "I thought it was time to speak out against this."

Lopez was unavailable for comment.

Nash made his anti-war sentiments at the All-Star Game in February. He wore a T-shirt that read, "No war. Shoot for Peace." Reporters questioned Nash's beliefs. Nash said, "I'm embarrassed by humanity. More than embarrassed - - I think it's really unfortunate in the year 2003 that we're still using violence as a means of conflict resolution."

For Bayless, civilization's history of war and genocide reduced Nash's position to "silly idealism." "At some point it's just too much to take. These people are paid money because they serve as an escape," Bayless said.

Despite knocking Nash's knowledge of world affairs, Lopez and Bayless invoked the opinions of San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson, a former naval officer. Robinson responded to Nash's views saying, "The time for debate is really beforehand." He later added, "There's plenty of time for commentary later." After learning that Nick Van Exel, Nash's teammate, also voiced dismay with the war in Iraq, Robinson said, "Maybe they should be in a different country."

So, Bayless and Lopez debunked one athlete's anti-war stance using another athlete's pro-war position. What gave Robinson authority not only to disavow discourse on the war, but suggest that people leave the country if they don't agree with the government? David Steele, of the San Francisco Chronicle, said, "What was the difference? The writers agreed with Robinson's view on the war and disagreed with Nash's."

And what about Nash's authority? Has either columnist measured Nash's engagement on international issues? Lopez called Robinson a "gentleman scholar." Why is this true and how does this merit sway? Even if Nash never picked up a book or read a newspaper, he is human. Can't Nash speak his mind on the authority of his conscience? Is Nash's view any sillier than President Bush trying to liberate Iraqis with "smart" bombs? War equals death, and Nash is embarrassed that humans cannot resolve conflicts peacefully. Yes, ignoring homicidal dictators allows innocent people to die. Bayless was wise to raise this point. Has Nash thoroughly pondered his position? We don't know and Bayless and Lopez never ask. They tell him to shut up instead. End of debate. They'll resume talking after the war is over.

Journalists should use the powerful muscles of free speech and freedom of the press. But what Bayless and Lopez practiced wasn't journalism. It was little league bickering.

Steele defended Nash's legitimacy to speak: "If columnists don't agree with it, they can fire away at him. But don't hide behind some feeble stereotype about athletes that only unmasks your own laziness as a journalist, to express your views on the topic."

In an e-mail last Wednesday, Bayless said Golden State Warriors forward Adonal Foyle was also critical of his column. Bayless wanted to personally question Foyle about the war, but said, "I'm just a sports columnist and can't write a piece debating politics with a basketball player." Because he said athletes should stick to entertainment and keep away from political discussions, Bayless said, "Obviously, I'd come off as a hypocrite."

But Bayless and Lopez already are hypocrites. They're journalists who preferred to advocate silence rather than advance debate. They argued that an athlete's job is to entertain the public and avoided a journalist's duty to explore ideas. They would rather we err on the side of ignorance, and not illumination.

  • Sean Alfano

    I am a New York City resident and student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.


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