War and Basketball

Toni Smith's Silent Protest Dares to Offend

March is nearly upon us, as is the brink of war. Usually when I think of March I tend to think of college basketball and March Madness, also known as the NCAA’s basketball tournament. However, at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, the winds of war are colliding with the swish of the nets.

Toni Smith, a senior guard on the Manhattanville College women’s basketball team has been refusing to face the flag during the national anthem, a silent protest that has been met by a much louder response, both positive and negative. Smith has given the impending war in Iraq as a reason for her protest.

In a statement made after a recent game Smith said, “A lot of people blindly stand up and salute the flag, but I feel that blindly facing the flag hurts more people. There are a lot of inequities in this country, and these are issues that needed to be acknowledged. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and our priorities are elsewhere.”

Whether you agree with Smith’s position or not, you have to respect her. She boldly took an unpopular stand on an issue. She stood up, turned her back, and silently spoke her opinion in a public forum.

Often times I don’t dare to speak my mind on anything at all. Instead I choose to remain apathetic and accept the status quo, living up to my Generation-X slacker label. I become a member of the uncritical elite, a group that goes along to get along. I don’t dare to be different if it causes any trouble. Instead I’m content to stay where it’s safe, where I get lost in the crowd of like-thinkers.

Smith’s games have become raucous shouting matches—not between fans of rival basketball teams, but rather between those who praise her protest and those who find it appalling.

Even Manhattanville fans are divided on where they stand on the “Toni issue.” Some think she’s being disrespectful to our troops who are awaiting word on whether we will be launching a strike against Iraq and to those who served in earlier wars. Others support her right to protest by hanging banners in the gym that read, “We love you, Toni!”

One fan stated that Ms. Smith “had not earned the right to disrespect the flag.” She had not served her country, he meant. Sir, with all due respect, Ms. Smith earned that right by her birth as an American citizen, where we all are born into freedom. That freedom doesn’t only include the right to disagree with our President—it demands it, when we feel it’s warranted.

Toni Smith is no slacker. She’s also not disrespectful. She means no harm to the veterans of previous wars or even to American soldiers waiting for a command to launch an attack. Toni, rather, stands for education. She stands for critical opinion. She stands, albeit alone, as a reminder of what education is about: thinking and deciding how you will react to the world based on what you’ve learned.