In a perhaps unexpected turn of events for the proponents of S.B. 1070 in Arizona, there has been immediate outrage and condemnation by a range of groups including cities, personalities, and institutions that have expressed their disappointment and opposition to the new law. But what has been most unexpected, though not rare, is the reaction of some sports figures and teams.
The United States has a long tradition of sports figures acting on behalf of social change and civil rights. General Manager and President of the Brooklyn Dodgers Branch Rickey began recruiting African-American players 63 years ago—almost a decade before the Supreme Court struck down segregation. In 1947, he recruited Jackie Robinson, who became the first black player in a major baseball league,to play as a Dodger. Robinson integrated baseball and broke down the color barrier while facing racial epithets, discrimination, threats, and violence. He helped end racial segregation in the sport and brought the moral need of racial equality to the forefront for fans and the public in general. Rickey also recruited Roberto Clemente, the first Hispanic superstar of baseball.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos staged a silent protest against discrimination in the 1968 Olympics, some 20 years later. They closed their eyes, bowed their heads, and raised their blacked gloved fists—the symbol of black power—to call world attention to the state of civil rights in the United States after receiving their Olympic medals and when the "Star Spangled Banner" began to play. Most recently, the National Football League moved Super Bowl XXVII from Tempe, AZ to Pasadena, CA after Arizona refused to adopt Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday. Arizona didn’t vote to approve the holiday in honor of the civil rights leader until 1992.
While these actions were far from popular at the time when they took place, in hindsight most Americans recognize that they helped move the civil rights movement forward. Sports figures by virtue of their status have significant influence among their followers and in society in general. When they choose to use the platform that fame gives them to express themselves in favor of or against an issue or policy it reverberates through all sectors of our society.
Arizona is now seeing that impact. The Phoenix Suns unanimously decided to wear their “Los Suns” jerseys—which they normally wear only during their marketing campaigns—for Game 2 of the second round in the playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs. Owner Robert Saver explained when making the announcement that they would wear these jerseys as a political statement against the new law and to show their support for the Latino community.
The San Antonio Spurs also tried to get a similar jersey dubbed “Los Spurs” for the same game but were unable to get their jerseys on time.
Others have followed suit: National Basketball Association Players Association Executive Director Billy Hunter said:
The recent passage of the new immigration law in Arizona is disappointing and disturbing…The National Basketball Players Association strongly supports the repeal or immediate modification of this legislation. Any attempt to encourage, tolerate or legalize racial profiling is offensive and incompatible with basic notions of fairness and equal protection. A law that unfairly targets one group is ultimately a threat to all.
And the Major League Baseball Players Association, or MLBPA, issued its own statement saying that because of the Arizona law:
Each [player] must be ready to prove, at any time, his identity and the legality of his being in Arizona to any state or local official with suspicion of his immigration status. This law also may affect players who are U.S. citizens but are suspected by law enforcement of being of foreign descent.
The MLBPA is also considering additional steps, such as moving its all-star game from Phoenix if the law is not repealed or modified.
Individual high-profile players have also expressed their opposition in eloquent and convincing terms. Charles Barkley, NBA Hall of Famer, said:
As a black person, I’m always against any form of discrimination or racial profiling…I didn’t realize that in the major leagues there’s 30 percent Hispanic players, and in the minor leagues it’s like 50. Those are some daunting numbers…Immigrants here are busting their hump, doing a great job, and to go after them every couple years because you want to raise hell doing something to get re-elected, that’s disrespectful and disgusting.
Barkely is right. To pass a law that clearly targets people because of how they look in order to advance a political agenda or seek votes is disrespectful, not to mention irresponsible. At a time when the headlines about sports figures are not always positive and when highly paid athletes are sometimes silenced by corporate sponsors, it is reassuring to know that sports stars can still lend their voice to lift up issues to the national conscience, and that our games can serve as conduits to forge bonds among communities. Today, we can truly say “¡Que Vivan! los Suns” and all of those who in time of need choose to stand on principle versus on what’s popular.
Vanessa Cárdenas is the Director of Progress 2050, a project of the Center for American Progress.