NEWBURGH Fans packed the stands before the women's basketball game at Mount St. Mary College last night. They held flags. And they waited.
They got what they came for. As Mount St. Mary student Sara Klemeshefsky sang "The Star-Spangled Banner,'' Manhattanville's Toni Smith turned to the side, away from the American flag, and faced the floor.
She held tight the hand of freshman teammate Dionne Walker. When the anthem was done, Walker gave Smith a hug.
Manhattanville's Toni Smith turns her back on the U.S. flag during the playing of the national anthem yesterday before a game against Mount St. Mary in Newburgh. (Dave Kennedy)
Smith has made the same quiet quarter-turn all season, usually without incident. But on Feb. 11, the team traveled to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, where more than 300 flag-waving midshipmen greeted Smith with chants of "U-S-A" and "Leave our country." Since then, word has spread.
The Mount St. Mary student government spent more than $100 on small flags and handed them out before the game. More than 500 filled the small gym and jeered Smith at every opportunity. Smith picked up two fouls in the first 2:16 and sat the rest of the half, prompting a dissatisfied crowd to chant, "We want Toni." The crowd dwindled by halftime and quieted, more interested in the two-point game that Mount St. Mary won, 67-65. The remaining fans stood and sang "God Bless America" as the clock ran out.
"It's disgraceful," said Mount St. Mary junior Jess Varvatsas, who wore a Stars and Stripes halter top and brought a flag to the gym. "I'm against the war, but the flag stands for more than war."
They, like everyone else, assumed that Smith turns away to protest America's march toward the war with Iraq. That's part of it, Smith said in a written statement.
"For some time now, the inequalities that are embedded into the American system have bothered me," Smith wrote. "As they are becoming progressively worse and it is clear that the government's priorities are not on bettering the quality of life for all of its people, but rather on expanding its own power, I cannot, in good conscience, salute the flag."
Until last night, Smith had kept her rationale to herself. She refused to discuss her views with the media and Manhattanville President Richard Berman, who offered Smith a hug and words of support early in the season.
"I told her I think what she's doing is courageous and difficult," said Berman, who protested the Vietnam War while a student at Michigan in the 1960s. "But that in this community we respect one another's views, and whether I agree or disagree is irrelevant. I asked her if she wanted to talk about the issues, and she said no."
In Smith's online profile, which is linked to the team's roster, Smith posted two quotes: "If you don't stand for something, you will fall for anything" and "It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the military has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber."
Smith's refusal to face the flag, however, went unnoticed until some players and their parents mentioned it to first-year coach Shawn Lincoln. He spoke with Smith, then held a team meeting.
"The team is like any other collection of people," Lincoln said. "Everybody has their own beliefs and opinions, and we're no different."
Lincoln refused to discuss the team's reaction.
That was the end of the issue internally for the team, which, at 15-9, has proceeded to have one of the best seasons in the history of Manhattanville women's basketball.
But Smith's protest did not fade into the background for opponents. By a fluke of scheduling, Manhattanville played Skyline conference rival St. Joseph's twice in a week. Three of St. Joseph's players have friends or family in active military service, and after the second game, St. Joseph's Christine Argentina yelled at Smith.
"After the game, we were walking down the line, and my point guard called her a jerk and (said) 'You've got a lot of nerve' and got in her face," said St. Joseph's coach Dennis Case, whose son, Dwayne, is with the Merchant Marine in the Mediterranean Sea.
"I supported her," Case said of Argentina, whose brother is in the Middle East. "If Toni Smith has First Amendment rights to not face the flag, then my point guard has First Amendment rights to tell her what she thinks of that. Under no circumstances would I ever reprimand her for that."
Argentina's comments were mild compared to what Smith faced at USMMA six days later. More than 300 midshipmen packed the stands, a record turnout for the winless Mariners. The fans hung flags from the rafters, waved them in the stands and wrapped them around their shoulders. During "The Star-Spangled Banner," Smith looked at the floor the only place in the gym that wasn't red, white and blue. At halftime, 50 plebes (freshmen), each carrying a flag, marched into the gym and stood across from the Valiants' bench. They stayed there until the game was over.
"Every time she got a ball, (the fans) were yelling and waving their flags," USMMA sports information director Kim McNulty said. "We were proud of the professionalism with which the midshipmen displayed their feelings. They did nothing to offend or make the game an unsafe atmosphere. They were expressing their opinion."
Smith has stood firm in the face of her detractors. In her statement, she wrote, "It is my right as an American to stand for my beliefs the way others have done against me. ... Patriotism can be shown in many ways, but those who choose to do so by saluting the flag should recognize that the American flag stands for individuality and freedom. Therefore, any true patriot must acknowledge and respect my right to be different."
Copyright 2003 The Journal News