Thursday, September 13, 2007

Jeers & Fears

Amid the shock, dismay and outrage I've read and heard about Rutgers' football fans heckling the Naval Academy's players last Friday, I've yet to discover exactly what those kids yelled out. Was it simple fuck-yous and you-sucks? Was the masculinity of the future Navy officers derided if not questioned? Or did the Rutgers students shout anti-war and anti-military chants?

Whatever the case, many people are upset, from the numerous reactionaries who host and call into sports radio shows, to Rutgers University President Richard McCormick, who sent a letter to U.S. Naval Academy Vice Admiral Jeffrey Fowler, apologizing for the "disrespectful and disgraceful behavior exhibited by some of [Rutgers'] fans" during the game. "No student-athlete should ever be subject to profane language directed at them from the crowd, and certainly not the young men of the Naval Academy who have made a commitment to serve our nation in a time of war." The war angle was also used by Mark DiIonno, a columnist for the Star-Ledger of Newark, and a Rutgers grad and Navy veteran. DiIonno chastised the Rutgers students for their "loutish" behavior, reminding them that some of The Midshipmen "may soon be among the young American men and women fighting and bleeding and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Fair enough. Yet, I don't seem to recall similar condemnations in early 2003, when Toni Smith, a player for the Manhattanville College women's basketball team, refused to face the American flag during the National Anthem. Smith was quietly protesting the upcoming Iraq war, along with other social ills, and was hammered by students, parents, and media alike for her "unpatriotic" actions. While her right to protest was acknowledged by some, Smith was still a target for all kinds of verbal abuse and the occasional death threat. Perhaps the most telling incident came when Manthattanville played at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. Some 300 midshipmen waved American flags and chanted the highly original "USA! USA!" toward Smith, as well as "Leave our country!"

Think about that last line: "Leave our country!" First of all, this country -- what's left of it, anyway -- is not the sole property of the Merchant Marines, or any branch of the military. But more importantly, those midshipmen, by telling Toni Smith to leave "their" country, violated their pledge to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, of which the First Amendment is a vital part. Smith protested peacefully and silently. Her actions were completely legal. For future members of the military to advocate deportation as punishment for legal behavior they don't like should concern those who value free, political expression. But then, there are many authoritarians and fascist-minded knobs in the military. I certainly knew more than my share.

I don't know if the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy ever offered an apology to Toni Smith for its open contempt for the Constitution. Whatever those Rutgers students said to Navy's players, I'm guessing it wasn't nearly as bad as what Smith endured as an individual, more than once, without complaint or appeals for mercy. You don't have to wear a football helmet to be tough.