As a senior on the Manhattanville College basketball team, Toni Smith drew wide media attention when she turned her back on the flag before games last winter to protest the impending war on Iraq. This article originally appeared in the March 12, 2003, issue of Sporting News. It is reprinted, slightly modified, by permission of the author.

Sports in America have become more than just athletic events. Nowadays, sporting events are conducted as extravaganzas.

Every human emotion is triggered by the wide array of attractions, which collectively create a sense of euphoria. Before the actual event, there are pre-game interviews and shows. During halftime, there is always entertainment, and then, for television viewers, there are post-game reports.

Throughout these events, advertisements are plastered on every possible space in the arena, always vividly eye-catching. The television viewers are not exempt from these enticements, either; they have their 30 minutes of commercials to absorb.

Let’s also remember the cheerleaders and the alcohol. After all, what would sports be without them? There is room for all of these elements during athletic events: sex, alcohol, violence, religion (how many players thank God after a good game?) and any other aspect of life that advertisements include. Yet, suddenly, we have no room for politics in sports? This is sadly naïve.

Sports are filled with political messages, both implicit and explicit. If you are unaware that politics are embedded into every part of American life, I strongly encourage you to read between the lines. The fact “The Star Spangled Banner” is played before every sporting event is political in itself.

Regardless of what the American flag means to each individual, it is a political symbol that represents power and conquest. It has no relation to sports, so to ask everyone to salute it before a game is more of an imposition than to not play the anthem at all. Why is the national anthem even played before athletic events and not before movies, plays, graduations, holiday observances, etc.?

Based on the results of surveys conducted about my not facing the flag before games, it is apparent that a good percentage of people simply do not believe athletes should make their own political statements. This is also true for celebrities. The NBA required Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf to stand for the anthem, and there was debate over whether it was appropriate for Sheryl Crow to wear an antiwar T-shirt when she performed.

Isn’t this a little ironic? Athletes and celebrities are the people who have enough social influence to make their opinions heard. Wouldn’t it be a waste if their only jobs as national figures were to look good and reiterate popular opinions? It might not be their obligation to be political leaders, but as role models, they have the opportunity to be influential in a way that most people don’t have.

It is a blessing to have had the opportunity to touch so many lives through my actions, however unexpected. Contrary to what Mets catcher Mike Piazza and some others believe, my protest was not done for attention. That is a gross misunderstanding of my actions. It is obvious to anyone who has attended or played in Division III athletics that few people pay attention to the games or the players.

In one way, I agree with Mets pitcher Al Leiter that people shouldn’t care what I do. However, it is not because I am just some Division III nobody but because everyone is entitled to her/his own opinions, just as Piazza is free to openly support the Iraq war. Besides, America is composed of little nobodies, some of whom are Division III athletes and many of whom are the reason Leiter is the national figure he is. Furthermore, isn’t it hypocritical that Piazza feels free to support the war and at the same time say it’s wrong for me to mix sports and politics?

Athletes are encouraged to endorse everything from telephone plans to fast food chains. They also use their celebrity status to support certain organizations. So why are limitations all of a sudden invoked when an athlete expresses an unpopular opinion? If athletes promote only popular opinions, then their positions as role models and leaders should be revoked and replaced with “messengers.”

Toni Smith graduated from Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., this May with a Bachelor of Arts degree. She can be reached at pww@pww.org