On the edict of their owner, the Phoenix Suns wore "Los Suns" jerseys in Game 2 of their play-off series with the San Antonio Spurs - which the Suns won 110-102 - on Wednesday night. Because this gesture is less about honouring Mexico's annual "Cinco de Mayo" holiday than standing in solidarity with Latinos and other people upset with Arizona's new immigration law, the predictable lament has already begun: why is a sports owner getting involved in politics? Can't an NBA arena, where the political left, right and centre commingle in support of the same institution, stay out of this scrum?
The answer, quite clearly, is no. Sports franchises have never been separate from the communities in which they reside, and they have become even more entwined over the years as they have skyrocketed in value, becoming some of the most lucrative properties in their geographic areas. As an owner of one of Arizona's four major professional sports franchises, Robert Sarver, the Suns owner, in effect was making a choice no matter what action he took. Doing nothing would have been silent acquiescence.
Sarver is both an Arizona citizen and a businessman. He knows the ugly tenor growing around the country over the law, which is the closest thing to legalised racial profiling since having to show proof of emancipation. He also knows he has an arena to fill. His stance risks offending a good portion of his season-ticket base, but a national boycott including hotels and conventions could financially decimate the state.
For better or worse, the games and the times they are played in are now inextricable. You cannot get these stories off the sports pages, just as you cannot get Tim Tebow's religion, Curt Schilling's political leanings or a woman alleging that Ben Roethlisberger is a sexual predator off the sports pages. One of the reasons we want sports to be a separate arena is because we like the safe feeling that the winner's circle is colourless, genderless, accepting of any ethnicity or socio-economic group. It is a relief from real-world complexity. Everything from the score to the time has finality to it, genuine resolution. It is not intractable; it is resolvable.
But when political issues so pervade a community, a sports franchise - from the owner to the players - cannot pretend they are somehow above or below the fray. Sarver and the NBA are not alone on this issue. Peter Gammons, the baseball writer now with MLB.com, called Arizona's new law "a terrible problem for Bud Selig" on Wednesday. Gammons surmised the commissioner and baseball will "eventually pull the All-Star Game out" of Phoenix.
"Suppose," he said, "during the Arizona Fall League, four young players [he hypothesised three Dominican players and one Cuban player] were walking out of a 7-11 and someone calls in and says they look suspicious, by this law the police have to act," he said. "How embarrassing would it be if for no reason four 19-year-olds are taken in by police just because someone thought they looked suspicious?"
Sports do not shield their participants from the communities in which they play. In fact, most of the Suns want to be part of it. "I think it's fantastic," Steve Nash, the Suns point guard, said. "I think the law is very misguided, and unfortunately, to the detriment of our society and our civil liberties. And I think it's really important for us to stand up for things we believe in." Amar'e Stoudemire, the Suns forward, according to the Arizona Republic, said it was great to "let the Latin community know we're behind them 100 per cent".
My only problem with the decision: Nash was the one responsible for taking his teammates' temperature on the issue. If you are a player with opposing views to the best player on the team, and the owner of the team, would not that give the appearance of a lesser player's employment situation to be at least murkier than it was before the political stand? I certainly would not want the Washington Post owners making me wear a uniform with their political views on it. Besides, what is that corny saying, "stand for something or fall for everything"?
We live in a relatively politically inactive era when it comes to sports. The days of Arthur Ashe, Curt Flood, Muhammad Ali or Jim Brown appear long gone. Perhaps not coincidentally, as activism has diminished, salaries and endorsements have risen. So it is nice to see a rich man with much to lose put his conviction where his wallet is. In that vein, Robert Sarver deserves to take a bow. * The Washington Post