The decision by the Phoenix Suns basketball team to protest Arizona’s new immigration law has provoked outcries from some fans and pundits against mixing sports with politics. I beg to differ. Athletes who speak out on matters of public controversy are displaying an admirable sense of social awareness.
The Suns’ players wore the words “Los Suns” on their uniforms during a playoff game, which they described as a gesture of solidarity with the Hispanic community of Arizona. It was, of course, absurd for the Suns general manager to compare the immigration law with the policies of Nazi Germany. Such an analogy demonstrates a poor understanding of the Nazi era, or Arizona’s law, or both. Still, it is refreshing to see anyone in the sports world showing an interest in something besides layups, home runs and multimillion-dollar contracts.
Even during the Hitler era, only a few athletes were willing to risk their own professional advancement in order to aid the less fortunate. In 1936, a handful of American athletes refused to participate in the Olympic Games in Nazi Germany, as a protest against the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews. Sprinter Herman Neugass, swimming coach Charlotte Epstein, speedskater Jack Shea, track and field stars Norman Cahners, Milton Green, Lillian Copeland, and Syd Koff, and the Long Island University Blackbirds basketball team boycotted the Olympics even though that meant risking their future careers in professional sports. Speaking out for the oppressed meant more for them than their personal interests.
In the years leading up to World War II, most Americans opposed U.S. involvement in Europe’s conflicts. A minority of farsighted Americans established the Fight for Freedom Committee, which advocated pre-emptive war against Hitler as the only way to stop the Nazis before it was too late. One can imagine how much bloodshed would have been spared if their advice had been heeded.
Two prominent figures from the world of baseball, Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher and team owner Larry McPhail, took the stage at a Fight for Freedom rally at Madison Square Garden in 1941. It is especially remarkable that they did so in the middle of the World Series between the Dodgers and the Yankees, when they must have been more than a bit preoccupied. Durocher told the audience: “We don’t want Hitlerism, we want Americanism. And the Yankees are a great ball club. Even if we lose, we’ll be losing in a free country.” “Leo the Lip,” in his own inimitable way, was reminding the public that there are things that are more important than even championship sports events.
Sadly, during the Holocaust, only a few athletes spoke out. One was Babe Ruth, who was part of a group of German-Americans that took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, in December 1942, to denounce “the Hitler policy of cold-blooded extermination of the Jews of Europe.” The mass killings, they wrote, “are, in particular, a challenge to those who, like ourselves, are descendants of the Germany that once stood in the foremost ranks of civilization.”
Barney Ross, a boxing champion in three different classes in the 1930s, lent his name, and more, to the cause of rescuing Europe’s Jews. Ross was active in the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe (better known as the Bergson Group). The Committee used full-page newspaper ads, public rallies and Capitol Hill lobbying to pressure the Roosevelt administration to rescue Jews from Hitler. One of the Bergson Group’s newspaper ads featured a photo of Ross with this message from the boxing champ: “There is no such thing as a former fighter. We must all continue the fight.”
Unfortunately, then, as now, athlete-protesters are the exception rather than the rule. In our own era, few athletes have been willing to speak out with regard to the genocide in Darfur. During the 2008 Olympics in China, former gold medalist speedskater Joey Cheek urged athletes to protest China’s support of the Sudanese government, which has been sponsoring the Arab militias that have carried out the slaughter in Darfur. A number of athletes did express their sympathy for the victims by joining Mr. Cheeks’ Team Darfur organization, but no participating Olympians were willing to publicly criticize the Chinese government.
The pursuit of fame, wealth and individual achievement can blunt the human conscience. That’s why it is encouraging when athletes speak their minds, even when it is a small gesture. While some issues are more profound than others - the plight of Jews in Germany and the sacrifice made by the Olympic boycotters of 1936 being among the most profound - it is good to know that some athletes still care about something bigger than themselves.
Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.