Recently, many of America's underedited sports sections ran a piece of vapid hooey from that intellectual flyweight San Jose Mercury sportswriter Skip Bayless, in which he lectured the Dallas Mavericks' Steve Nash, a Canadian who opposes the U.S. invasion of Iraq, "to just shut up and play."
In case you were embedded, the 29-year-old Nash wore a T-shirt to the NBA All-Star Weekend activities that said: "No War. Shoot for Peace." When questioned by reporters, Nash modestly and without vitriol stated his opposition to violence as a means to settle world disputes and later emphasized that he had nothing but good feelings for Americans and what this country had provided him. The nerve of that guy.
From the reaction of Bayless you would have thought Nash had grabbed the mike at halftime and accused Bush of bankrupting America with tax breaks for the rich and fabricating the connection between Saddam and Osama bin Laden for political purposes. You know, something outlandish!
But no. Nash just respectfully spoke up for peace. Well, he did say one really nutty thing. "I think a lot of what we hear in the news is misleading and flat-out false," said Nash seditiously, "so I think it's important for us to think deeper. ... People should try to educate themselves and learn so they can make an informed decision."
Steve, Mr. Ashcroft will see you now.
In the real world, Nash's comments were so innocuous and innocent as to be whispers in a Baghdad firefight. But apparently in Skippy's little world of balls -- I worked with Bayless in the late Seventies at The Dallas Morning News, though I was in the news department -- athletes were put on earth to silently entertain the masses and not to have any unpleasant public thoughts that might stray from the playing field. Just tell us about the last-second shot, the four-iron on 18, beg the clichémeisters. What could you possibly have to say about the war?
Summoning all his moral courage, Bayless writes that Nash exhibited "the height of arrogance and audacity" and ridiculed him as sounding "like a Miss America contestant." Sorry, girls, Mr. Bayless won't be needing you either.
Dutifully, Bayless reassures us that he respects Nash's right to protest. Gosh, thanks. But that's just a cover for those who don't fully get democracy. Bayless wants critics of the war to shut up. Period.
In Bayless' Ozzie & Harriet vision of how things should be, John Carlos and Tommie Smith should never have raised their gloved black fists at the 1968 Olympics. Shut up and run, say Massuh Bayless. Muhammad Ali should have happily served in Vietnam. Curt Flood should have never challenged baseball's system of indentured servitude. Gay athletes should stay in the closet.
It's the athletic equivalent of keeping women barefoot and pregnant. Stay sweaty and dumb. We'll do the talking.
Like other sages in his profession, Bayless has done his share of pedantic ranting about how ungrateful quasi-pro athletes never take college seriously and go on to live monosyllabic, self-absorbed lives of luxury as pros. But with Nash we have a thoughtful, self-effacing athlete who apparently still cracks a real book or two and, like it or not, found the courage to stand up for his beliefs in the face of opposition from many Americans, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, and a host of bumpersticker patriots like Bayless.
We could use more Americans like this Canadian. And sports, in general, could use more, not fewer, professional athletes who aren't afraid of jeopardizing their Taco Bell endorsements to speak their minds.
Bruce Selcraig, a former U.S. Senate investigator, contributes to The New York Times, Smithsonian, and Golf Magazine, among other publications. Reprinted by permission.