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Patriotism, Protest In N.Y .Endangered Athlete: Delgado Is Behaving More Like Muhammad Ali, And Less Like Tiger Woods
Patriotism, Protest In N.Y.
By STEVE WILSTEIN
July 22, 2004
How much of the patriotism and piety in sports is sincere, how much public relations? It's a question I've often wondered while standing for 5,843 variations of "The Star-Spangled Banner" (some Francis Scott Key wouldn't recognize), listening to 967 recitals of "God Bless America," (the late great Kate Smith still belting it out), and seeing 231 military fly-bys (hoping they don't crash into the stadium).
Sometimes I wonder it while I'm humming the anthem or mouthing the words, watching ballplayers scratch and spit and, occasionally, fall asleep on their feet.
There's a phoniness to all the packaged patriotism that sports deploy, like the flags flapping at car dealerships. Buy a ticket, buy a car, be American. Jingoism sells.
A lot of people really love all that rally-round-the-flag stuff and take it very seriously. I've seen fights break out in the bleachers when some fans thought others who didn't doff their hats were being disrespectful.
There was curiosity, then, in seeing how Yankee Stadium fans would react Wednesday night to Toronto Blue Jays slugger Carlos Delgado, who has been refusing to stand for "God Bless America" to protest the war in Iraq.
In this most patriotic of all ballparks, where Yankees boss George Steinbrenner has cranked up the nationalistic displays since the Sept. 11 attacks, Delgado drew only a few boos when he batted and brief chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" when he lined out in the top of the seventh.
As it turned out, he didn't have to sit in the dugout when announcer Bob Sheppard introduced the song. After his line-out, Delgado headed for the clubhouse and was removed from the game, the Blue Jays trailing 10-3.
No one went nuts over Delgado. No one threw balls or bottles at him. Civility and polite political discord prevailed. Let's hope it stays that way.
The Blue Jays' franchise leader in home runs and RBIs, Delgado is that rare ballplayer who exhibits a conscience about social issues and has the conviction to express himself in his own small way.
He has chosen, most of this season, to do that by sitting in the dugout or ducking into the clubhouse during the singing of Irving Berlin's prayerful ode, introduced by Kate Smith during her radio broadcast on Armistice Day, 1938.
Agree or disagree with Delgado for calling the Iraq invasion "the stupidest war ever," the Puerto Rican slugger is not being anti-American by showing his disagreement with President Bush's policy. He is not disrespecting the soldiers or, as one Yankee fan said, slapping every New Yorker and American in the face.
Delgado is simply exercising the most fundamental of our rights, freedom of speech, or more accurately in this case, freedom to sit silently while his teammates stand on the dugout steps.
Delgado has spoken out on political issues before, opposing the Navy's use of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques as a weapons testing ground. He joined singer Ricky Martin and boxer Felix Trinidad in taking out full-page ads about Vieques in The New York Times and Washington Post. The military ended the testing last year, but left behind the scars of decades of bombing.
Delgado has put hundreds of thousands of his own dollars into repairing the damage to the people and the environment on Vieques, and wants the U.S. government to do much more.
What began as a private protest against the Iraq invasion, which Delgado did not widely advertise and the other Blue Jays didn't mind, is drawing more attention since he opened up to the Toronto Star a few weeks ago.
"It's a very terrible thing that happened on Sept. 11," Delgado said. "It's (also) a terrible thing that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. I just feel so sad for the families that lost relatives and loved ones in the war. But I think it's the stupidest war ever."
Delgado reasserted his beliefs to The New York Times in a column published Wednesday, saying "It takes a man to stand up for what he believes."
Muhammad Ali, so revered now, was reviled by many for refusing to go to Vietnam. NBA guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf of the Denver Nuggets would not stand for the national anthem during the 1995-96 season, which led to an indefinite suspension that was lifted two days later.
Athletes so rarely take political stands that even a Division III women's basketball player, Toni Smith of Manhattanville, triggered a storm of debate when she refused to face the flag during the national anthem in the 2002-03 season.
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said he understood Delgado's position, knew it was a sensitive subject, and wants to talk with him about it.
It was Selig who ordered all teams to play "God Bless America" in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Yankee Stadium is the only park in the majors where the song has been played every game since the attacks.
Some might see that as simply a show of patriotic support. Others might see it as a form of political persuasion, inserting God and America into a ballgame.
Delgado said he's "not trying to get anyone mad." For him it's a personal matter, a way of expressing what he feels about an issue he believes is important.
That's more than most athletes are willing to do.
Endangered Athlete: By Refusing To Stand For The Playing Of God Bless America, Carlos Delgado Is Behaving More Like Muhammad Ali, And Less Like Tiger Woods
July 22, 2004
Carlos Delgado is rich because he can hit a baseball. Tiger Woods is rich because he can hit a golf ball. But while the two black athletes live in similar income brackets, they are entirely different species.
And Delgado is on the endangered list.
When the Toronto Blue Jays slugger walked into Yankee Stadium for a game last night, he did so expecting to be Public Enemy No. 1. His crime has been to turn the baseball diamond into a private demonstration, where, for more than a year now, he has refused to stand outside the dugout and doff his cap during God Bless America, which baseball teams have been playing since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
While Delgado's stance, which had gone unnoticed until recently, is anti-war rather than anti-American, it had created a growing media maelstrom that was expected to peak last night when the Blue Jays made their first visit to New York.
Instead, he received a few barely audible boos before his first at-bat and was protected from any further reaction when he was pulled from the game midway through the seventh inning. Delgado was on his way to the clubhouse as God Bless America was playing.
"I don't know Delgado at all, I just watch him hit home runs on television," said Geoff Smith, a history professor at Queen's University. "But Muhammad Ali carved out an entire new framework of political critique in the 1960s and I think that most black stars who have deigned to speak about politics follow in his footsteps.
"The interesting thing to me is why people like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods haven't been more outspoken, haven't followed [Irish rock star] Bono, for example, with his critique of the way we deal with HIV/AIDS. Michael Jordan had more potential impact than anyone else in history, but did he do anything with that? No. Tiger Woods doesn't do anything, either."
Smith acknowledges that Jordan and Woods -- and, for that matter, Wayne Gretzky -- are not obliged to become political actors. Indeed, the professor argues most athletes are not educated enough to make an informed comment on the state of the world. But while an athlete might not have an advanced education, he or she is still capable of learning.
Delgado was plucked from his Puerto Rican home and fed into the Blue Jays farm system when he was 16 years old. And though his only degree is in the science of hitting, he always understood right from wrong. The first baseman's political awakening began in April, 1999, when he saw news that a civilian, David Sanes, had been killed by a stray bomb during American naval manoeuvres on the tiny Puerto Rican island of Vieques.
Delgado did his research, and he learned that the U.S. Navy had been using Vieques for target practice since the Second World War -- with devastating results. Much of the island is in dire environmental shape, while its 9,300 residents are desperately poor and beset by health problems they blame on the uranium-depleted shells that were tested there.
"It's still in the environment, it's still in the ground, it's still in the water," Delgado said this week. "That's why they've got the highest cancer rate of any place in Puerto Rico."
The slugger would add his name, along with the Dalai Lama and Hillary Clinton, to a list of high profile people urging the Navy to pull out of Vieques. He also donated US$100,000 to the islanders. Faced with a growing public-relations nightmare, the Navy finally left the island on May 1, 2003.
But by then, many of the weapons that had been tested on Vieques were being dropped on Iraq.
Nearly two years before the Navy sailed out of Vieques, baseball commissioner Bud Selig had ordered all the teams to play God Bless America. Selig's decision to make a political statement during games in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks left Delgado with no choice but to make one of his own.
"I'm not trying to get anyone mad," Delgado has said of his one-man protest against the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. "This is my personal feeling."
When Ali said he "ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong" and then refused to serve in Vietnam in 1966, those were his personal feelings too, and they cost him his heavyweight title. Sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos expressed their personal feelings on the podium at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, when they stood, arms raised in the Black Power salute, during the playing of the American national anthem.
But that was then. Now any would-be anti-establishment athlete who has a political statement to make is now part of the establishment -- and for the most part market savvy enough to know when to keep quiet.
"I find black athletes of great talent being able to attach themselves not to the [American] state but to the free market, and the price they can draw in terms of supply and demand, and many of them have done very well," Smith said. "And [the free market] is not necessarily a place where they want to talk about something that is controversial that will in effect make their status as an athletic hero more controversial -- that's what they don't want."
At least most of them don't.
During the 1998 NBA season, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the Star Spangled Banner, claiming it conflicted with his Islamic beliefs, and the Denver Nuggets guard soon found himself out of a job. Seven years earlier, Craig Hodges of the Chicago Bulls was blackballed by the league after protesting the Gulf War during a team visit to the White House. And last year, Canada's very own Steve Nash drew heavy criticism for speaking out on Iraq.
Delgado, meanwhile, already has enough money in the bank to live happily for years. He also has the courage to stand up for what he believes in.
As for Tiger and Michael?
The world is still waiting to hear from them.