MENTION TONI SMITH to college basketball coaches, and you would think that the NCAA has become ROTC.
Smith is the player from Manhattanville College who all season has turned away from the American flag during the playing of the national anthem, to notable hostility from fans and opposing players. Smith said she turns away to symbolize the ''many inequalities in this country.'' She said her action remembers the ''millions and millions of indigenous people who were massacred to claim it'' and the ''millions of those enslaved in order to build it up'' and the ''millions of those who are still oppressed in order for it to prosper.''
She said she understands that the flag also stands for soldiers who died for the this country, ''but I think that if the flag means to you respecting all of those who died fighting for it, you must also acknowledge all of those who were killed to build it up.''
Be careful of what you ask for when you send your child to college; you might just might get back an educated person. Her nonviolent protest is far more dignified than the response from a lot of basketball coaches, who sound as if they are profiling terrorists for Homeland Security.
Oklahoma women's coach Sherri Coale said, ''We have an American flag on our uniform. ... I think perhaps the only workable solution would be for her to remain in the locker room.''
Oklahoma men's coach Kelvin Sampson said, ''When they represent the university, then it's not the right place'' to protest.
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said, ''It's disrespectful and, as a coach, I would have the right not to have that person on the team.''
Purdue men's coach Gene Keady said, ''If somebody has a problem in the United States with the way we do things, maybe they shouldn't be here.''
Louisiana State women's coach Sue Gunther said, ''I'd want her peers to put pressure on her. ... 20 years ago, you'd suspend a player.''
Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage, said, ''An athletic event is not the best forum for articulating political or religious views.''
In preparing for protests during the upcoming tournament season, Big 12 conference associate commissioner Tim Allen said, ''You don't want to stop people from speaking their mind, but you want them to understand this is not a political forum.''
Sports events become political forums every time the announcer subtly coerces the crowd to stand up for the national anthem, with the tacit assumption that no one will try and remind us that the flag is a complex symbol. If shows of respect before entertainment are so critical, we would sing the national anthem as we go into museums, concert halls, or Best Buy.
There is another hypocrisy at work. Coale said, ''When you commit to be a part of a team, you make the commitment to have your own selfish desires come secondary.'' That is amazing, given the selfish desires of many colleges, starting with hers, to put sports before academics. Among the 64 teams in last year's National Collegiate Athletic Association women's tournament, Oklahoma ranked 55th in graduation rates, at 46 percent. This year, the graduation rate is 27 percent, according to the NCAA.
Oklahoma's men were tied for dead last among tournament teams - and all colleges - with a graduation rate of zero. Louisiana State's women ranked 56th at 43 percent. UConn's women had a graduation rate of 67 percent, but that was still in the bottom 32 of women's 2002 tournament teams.
Virginia's women had a graduation rate of 87 percent, but that does not make their coaches any more enlightened. Last weekend one of its players, Deidra Chatman, turned her back to the flag. She said she was opposed to war in Iraq. She also said she was raised as a Jehovah's Witness and that she did not need to face the flag if she did not want to.
The next day, Chatman issued a statement that sounded as if she had spent the night in an interrogation room. ''I did not intend for my actions on Sunday to offend anyone,'' Chatman said. ''I would much rather have the attention focused on our team. Since we are a team, in the future I will stand with my teammates facing the flag honoring our country.'' In a patronizing statement, Littlepage said, ''I don't think that she intended for there to be a reaction at all. It sounded like it was spontaneous and she hadn't really thought it through.''
Chatman and Smith had thought it through, enough to try and make the rest of us think what the flag means on the eve of a deadly, controversial war. If the thought police are working so hard to squelch dissent on the basketball courts of America, it foreshadows what awaits the average citizen when Iraq ceases to be a game.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company