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From Basketball to Baseball, Professional Athletes Speak Out in Opposition to AZ Immigration Law

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Opposition to Arizona’s new anti-immigrant law has extended into the world of sports. Over the past week, numerous professional athletes have publicly criticized the law and even threatened to boycott games in Arizona. We speak with sportswriter Dave Zirin. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Opposition to Arizona’s new anti-immigrant law has extended into the world of sports. Over the past week, numerous professional athletes have publicly criticized the law and even threatened to boycott games in Arizona. Last night, the Phoenix Suns basketball team wore “Los Suns” jerseys to protest the new law. The union representing Major League Baseball, meanwhile, the Major League Baseball Players Association, has called for Arizona to repeal or modify the law. Baseball is a big industry in Arizona because fifteen Major League teams conduct spring training in the state.

Earlier this week, Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash was interviewed on ESPN about the new law. Nash is a two-time NBA MVP. He was born in South Africa and raised in Canada.

    TONY KORNHEISER: There is political news surrounding the Phoenix Suns. The owner, Robert Sarver, says that on Cinco de Mayo tomorrow night when you play, you’ll be wearing the shirts that say “Los Suns” on them, and the owner is saying it’s in part to make a statement against the new Arizona immigration laws. You are yourself from another country; you’re from Canada. What do you think of this law?

    STEVE NASH: I’m against it. You know, I think that this is a bill that, you know, really damages our civil liberties. I think that it opens up the potential for racial profiling and racism. I think that it’s a bad precedent to set for our young people. I think it represents our state poorly in the eyes of the nation and the world. I think we have a lot of great attributes here, and I think that it’s something that we could do without. And I think it — and hopefully it will change a lot in the coming weeks.

    TONY KORNHEISER: Well, a lot of athletes try to steer clear of politics. You seem to be embracing it at this point. Do you speak for the whole team, do you think, or just for yourself?

    STEVE NASH: Well, I can never speak for the whole team, but, you know, our owner asked us if any of us had a problem wearing the jerseys, and nobody did, so, you know, I think we’re pretty like-minded on this issue. And, you know, this league is very multicultural. We have players from all over the world, myself obviously being a foreigner and many of my teammates, players on the other teams. Our communities are very multicultural. So I think, you know, we have to obviously find a different way to combat the issues that we face in our society, and I think that this is the wrong way to go about it.

AMY GOODMAN: NBA All-Star Steve Nash being interviewed on ESPN.

To talk more about the reaction in the world of sports to the Arizona law, we’re joined by Dave Zirin. He’s the author of a number of books about politics and sports. His latest is A People’s History of Sports in the United States. He’s a regular contributor to The Nation magazine, writes a weekly column called “Edge of Sports.”

Welcome, Dave. So, talk about Dave Nash. Talk about the game last night, Los Suns — Steve Nash. And talk about the other athletes who are taking a stand here.

DAVE ZIRIN: Amy, anybody who believes that sports cannot be an effective platform for social justice need only to have watched the game last night, and they would have been forever changed. I mean, the broadcast alone last night, it started with one of the NBA reporters outside the arena covering a civil rights march that was taking place outside the arena. And then the in-studio hosts, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley, Chris Webber, all former players, took turns taking shots a Governor Jan Brewer and the law. And Chris Webber, former player, even cited “By the Time I Get to Arizona” and John McCain and his former support for boycotting the holiday of Dr. Martin Luther King. So it’s politicized this entire arena. And what the Suns did yesterday —-

JUAN GONZALEZ: Dave, if I can interrupt -—

DAVE ZIRIN: — is entirely without precedent.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Dave, for one second, on the commentators —-

DAVE ZIRIN: Yes, please.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I happened to listen to that pregame discussion, and I was especially struck by Charles Barkley, the legendary former star who actually played in Phoenix. So he was a big figure in Arizona -—


JUAN GONZALEZ: — for many years, condemning it as racial profiling. And I was struck by how strong these athletes and former athletes, especially in basketball —- we’re not even talking here about the Latino ballplayers in baseball, but we’re talking about the major African American and white stars in basketball, have stepped up -—


JUAN GONZALEZ: — to the plate on this issue.

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, some of your listeners and people viewing the show right now might be remembering that Charles Barkley once called himself a Republican. But a couple years ago he said, “Well, I used to be a Republican, ’til the Republicans lost their damn minds.” And I think yesterday he reflected that by speaking about how utterly toxic this law is both for the state of Arizona and for the country.

And look what that does for the discussion. I mean, on sports radio yesterday, they were debating the immigrant law. Steve Nash’s quotes, that you played, have been played all over the country. And I think what’s happened is, because the organization as a whole came out against it — the owner Robert Sarver, the general manager Steve Kerr, numerous players saying publicly that they were against it — it’s provided a degree of cover for everybody.

And I want to make clear that I don’t think the Suns would have done this if it wasn’t for the protests that have been taking place wherever the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Major League Baseball team, have played. There have been protests in half a dozen cities since this law was passed wherever the Diamondbacks play, and I don’t think the Phoenix Suns wanted to be a pariah team like the D’backs.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about — what’s happening in baseball, with the Major League Players Association making a strong statement last week —-


JUAN GONZALEZ: —- and some of the individual coaches and ballplayers?

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, we’ve discussed this on Democracy Now! before. Major League Baseball is incredibly reliant on Latin American talent: 27.7 percent of players come from Latin America. And therefore, numerous players have spoken out just about your own lives and their own families and that they are actually fearful to go to Arizona. Big-time players like San Diego Padres first baseman Adrián González or White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who was born in Venezuela, have both said that they will be boycotting the 2011 All-Star Game if it happens in Phoenix, Arizona. It really is remarkable.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave, when you go back to Arizona’s history, one of the last states to recognize Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, what ultimately, among other things, pressured them to cave was that the Super Bowl was moved, right, to Pasadena out of Arizona.


AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been calling for a boycott of the Diamondbacks, of the All-Star Game in Arizona. How big is that movement?

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, I think it’s very real. I mean, there have already been protests outside the stadiums in Denver, Colorado, in Chicago in front of Wrigley Field. There’s a protest that’s going to actually be quite huge, I believe, in Florida when the Diamondbacks go play the Florida Marlins. Already protests have been called for Citi Field in New York when the Diamondbacks play the Mets. And if there’s one uniting theme to all of these protests, it’s the simple message that says Arizona should not host the midsummer classic, the All-Star Game, if SB 1070 is still on the books. And the idea that that idea has a backing among players and managers, prominent managers like Ozzie Guillen, gives it real weight. And I think Major League Baseball can be pushed to do this. Let’s remember, you just mentioned the National Football League pulling the Super Bowl out of Arizona. No one’s going to confuse the NFL with the IWW. They’re hardly a radical organization. And yet, they were pushed to take that remarkable step because of public pressure.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Dave, someone mentioned to me a couple of days ago a whole other angle on this issue of the pressure on professional sports, and especially baseball, that has not been addressed yet, which is that Budweiser beer is one of the main, if not the main, sponsors of advertisers on baseball and basketball and various other professional sports. And the single largest Budweiser distributor in America is the distributorship owned by Cindy McCain, John McCain’s wife. And obviously, that many, many — Budweiser beer also happens to be the main alcoholic beverage that Latinos drink across the country, so that enormous pressure could be brought to bear on Budweiser to put pressure on Major League Baseball to move that game out, as well. Your thoughts?

DAVE ZIRIN: And people may not know that John and Cindy — John and Cindy McCain were also minority owners of the Arizona Diamondbacks when Jerry Colangelo was the chief owner there. And Jerry Colangelo was the 2004 chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign. So there are a lot of angles here by which to go about putting pressure on.

And the current owner of the Diamondbacks, everybody should know this guy’s name, because he likes to live in the shadows. His name is Ken Kendrick, Jr. He is one of the big bankrollers of the Arizona State Republican Party, and for that reason, above all else, the Arizona Diamondbacks should be a target for protest around the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Just some figures on the Arizona Diamondbacks, at least the executives of the Arizona Diamondbacks. In 2010, the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s third-highest contributor were the executives of the Arizona Diamondbacks, who gave $121,600. Furthermore, they also contributed $129,500, which ranked as the eighteenth-highest contribution to the Republican Party Committee. The team’s boss, Ken Kendrick, and his family members, E.G. Kendrick, Sr. and Randy Kendrick, made contributions — made contributions to the Republicans totaling a staggering one million — more than $1 million. Dave Zirin?

DAVE ZIRIN: That is correct. And it’s interesting, because since the protests have started, Ken Kendrick released a statement through the team’s PR director saying, “On a personal level, I oppose SB 1070.” And a lot of us are looking at that and saying, “You know what? This is far too little, too late. He’s got to put his money where his mouth is.” We’re saying we want to see Ken Kendrick actually in front of cameras saying, “You know what? The spigot has been turned off, and the state Republican Party will not get one more dime from my bottomless pockets until SB 1070 has finally been overturned.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, have you seen a comparable reaction in the world of sports to what you’re seeing right here as a response to the Arizona anti-immigration law?

DAVE ZIRIN: I mean, honestly, I really do believe you have to go back to the days when, with every fight, Muhammad Ali was fighting in a referendum on the Vietnam War and on the black freedom struggle in this country. And where you lined up politically effected how you stood in those fights when Muhammad Ali would face people like George Foreman or Joe Frazier, these epic fights. And when Ali would win, people who were against the Vietnam War felt emboldened; and when he lost, people who were actually for the war and against those draft-dodging hippies, felt a little better about themselves that morning.

I think we’re dealing with something similar now. When Los Suns took the court last night, I was watching it with a bunch of friends, and all we were thinking was, we really want the Suns to win, not because we’re huge Steve Nash fans, but because we knew that if the Suns lost, all the commentary today would be, “Well, they lost because they were distracted by those politics, and that’s why politics and sports don’t mix.” But the fact that they won, the fact that they played a gutsy game where they pulled together as a team, maybe people will draw different conclusions and say, “Hey, the team that stands together politically is the team that can also win on the court.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Dave, what do you think the impact is on sports fans who are watching and hearing these players speak out this way, especially those who might not necessarily be sympathetic to the issue of opposing racial profiling?

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, I think it’s huge, because I’m sure, like you, Juan, and I’m sure like many people out there, I have a lot of friends who skip right by C-SPAN and go right to ESPN, who go right by Pacifica Radio and straight to sports radio, who leave alone the front page and go to the sports page. And so, when these issues get raised in a sports arena, it actually reaches a far broader audience. I keep thinking of a quote by the late Stokely Carmichael, who was speaking about Muhammad Ali, and he said, “Muhammad Ali is far more dangerous than I could ever be, because he actually commands an audience that I could never command. Not that his politics are better, but that he has the kind of soapbox that I could never hope to attain.” I think we’re dealing with something similar right now, where this is now getting debated. I heard one of the lead radio broadcasters this morning on ESPN radio say, “I wasn’t even thinking about this law and its ramifications, but I’m thinking about it now because of the actions of the Phoenix Suns.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dave Zirin, we want to thank you very much for being with us, sports columnist, author of a number of books, his latest A People’s History of Sports in the United States. His column is called “The Edge of Sports.”

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