As though the Seattle Storm needed any more recognition in what is already shaping up to be an historic 2010 WNBA campaign, forward Le'coe Willingham visited the White House on Monday in honor of the Phoenix Mercury's 2009 WNBA championship.
Prior to signing a contract with the Storm this off-season as an unrestricted free agent, Willingham was a starter on the Mercury team that defeated the Indiana Fever in what is widely considered the best WNBA Finals series ever. With the Storm back in town for the first time since the White House visit, Kevin Pelton of StormBasketball.com spoke with Willingham after yesterday's practice and documented her experience.
STORM: Willingham Visits the White House
"Brian (Agler) was awesome to let me miss a practice and experience that," Willingham said. "Our ownership has been awesome, helping me get out there. It was just really a special moment for me, something that I felt proud to tell my godmom and my dad that I got to meet President Obama. That election was a really emotional election. It's something that I wish my grandmother was alive to see."
Unfortunately, while Willingham didn't get much of a chance to speak to President Obama, another member of the Seattle Storm did earlier this season. All-Star forward Swin Cash had the opportunity to visit the White House as one of a small group of active and retired professional basketball players to celebrate the expansion of President Obama's Fatherhood initiative. However, I asked Cash for her thoughts on Obama not to make up for the lack of time Willingham had to speak to him, but because of a tweet she made about Obama on Thursday night.
"Sometimes it's like a team -- whenever you're winning, winning, winning and the media's not really talking about it, some teams can get frustrated and they're like, 'Ugh - come on. Look at what we're doing!'," said Cash. "So I can understand where he's coming from. It's like, 'Hey I'm doing all these good things, but you guys are still talking about this.' So for me, I just tweeted that yesterday just to say hey, let's give him a break. Let's see what he can do."
Regardless of whether you agree with Cash's political opinion, the fact that she so openly expressed a strong political opinion is perhaps more interesting, especially in a 2010 sports climate that has had mixed reaction to the political opinions of athletes.
For example, on the afternoon prior to Cash's tweet, University of Kentucky men's basketball coach John Calipari -- who University of Washington fans may still resent over his controversial recruitment of Husky commit Terrence Jones -- canceled a political fundraiser after drawing criticism for taking a political stand.
Calipari learns sports and politics don't mix - College Basketball Nation Blog - ESPN
Kentucky coach John Calipari has announced that he has canceled a previously scheduled $1,000-a-person fundraiser at his home to benefit Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat up for re-election, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
The paper reported that news of the Calipari cocktail reception drew criticism from its readers for the coach taking a political stance and that he also received a negative reaction in September for writing on his Facebook page that he intended to send a Kentucky jersey to President Obama.
Diamond Leung's headline claiming that sports and politics don't mix is a sentiment that many share and one that became the center of a national media dialogue when the Phoenix Suns took a public stand against Arizona's controversial immigration enforcement law known as Senate Bill 1070 back in May. The standard line of reasoning was articulated most concisely by Arizona Diamondbacks manager A.J. Hinch, but also by Los Angeles Lakers coaching legend Phil Jackson.
Conservative News: Meinecke - When Sports & Politics Don't Mix - HUMAN EVENTS
Or maybe the Suns have learned the wisdom in Los Angeles Lakers’ Coach Phil Jackson’s response to the ordeal as ESPN reported: “I don’t think teams should get involved in the political stuff. And I think this one’s still kind of coming out to balance as to how it’s going to be favorably looked upon by our public. If I heard it right, the American people are really for stronger immigration laws, if I’m not mistaken. Where we stand as basketball teams, we should let that kind of play out and let the political end of that go where it’s going to go.”
Cash might present a different perspective on the broader issue of whether athletes should "get involved in the political stuff".
"Well I think you have a platform and if you have a platform, when you have opinions and you feel certain ways that you should speak on it," said Cash when asked about her thoughts on athletes talking politics. "I don't think that people should put a hindrance on players or athletes or say that because you're playing or because of who you are that you shouldn't speak on things. We're Americans too and I pay my taxes and I have to vote and, I mean, those are part of the things that come with the territory."
The responsibility that comes with having a platform is something that Dave Zirin, author of A People's History of Sports in the United States, has also mentioned with regard to the Suns' stand against SB 1070.
From Basketball to Baseball, Professional Athletes Speak Out in Opposition to AZ Immigration Law
...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."
As much value as taking on that responsibility might have in and of itself, Cash also backs up her words with action. Of course, there's the cultural value of the WNBA which actively promotes its athletes as role models, but Cash also takes an active role in society through her charity Cash for Kids (http://swincash.com/cashforkids/cfkmission.html), a youth development organization focused on developing pro-social skills through athletics, culture, and literacy while also supporting arts initiatives.
"Right now we have a partnership with YouthPlaces (YouthPlaces.org), which is a non-profit in Pittsburgh," said Cash, a Pittsburgh native. "And I have a summer league that's going on. So actually, once we get back to the east coast I'm going to try to get a time to go back and see the kids. We have about 70 kids right now throughout the McKeesport and surrounding areas that play in the summer league and they come out and participate and we're going to do other things with them."
As part of a series about charities of athletes with Seattle ties, Seattle Times reporters Greg Bishop and Danny O'Neil described how poor execution and handling can ultimately damage the vision of well-intentioned athletes, such as former Seattle Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander. For Cash, the key to success for her foundation -- which has led to the repeat visits to the White House -- is her family and making sure to keep the scope of her organization manageable.
"My family's great," said Cash when asked about the management of her organization. "But actually right now we're looking to advance and take it to the next level to develop more because I want to do things out here in Seattle. But it's hard when you don't have people willing to help or to volunteer. So for me I had to really establish myself here before I can start just bringing my charity and doing other things here. But my family's great back in Pittsburgh. They have been a staple of why the charity's had the success and why we have so many kids playing throughout our leagues."
The consistency between Cash's words and actions is impressive alone. Furthermore, in the celebrity culture we live in it might even be considered admirable, as described by Rafael Medoff in a Washington Times article published about the Suns' action.
Mixing sports with politics - Washington Times
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.
For Cash, her involvement in political action and willingness to take a stand on political issues she believes in is a natural fit. So should we expect to see Cash tweeting political thoughts more often?
"Probably," said Cash. "I think I'm big on, obviously, women's rights and really helping in urban areas and urban communities, especially at-risk kids. So I do stuff already with my charity. So I'm always hearing these things and I'm always doing different things when it comes to grants."
To be clear, Cash's tweet isn't directly analagous to the Phoenix Suns' opposition of SB 1070 -- while the Suns took a stance against something they found unethical, Cash is taking a much less public partisan stance against the critics of the Obama administration. Moreover, while the mantra "the personal is political" is certainly applicable to this discussion, it can become nothing more than cynical identity political posturing if people refuse to engage in matters that might not affect them personally. Perhaps more problematic is that Twitter and other social media can function as something of an echo chamber rather than a catalyst for authentic dialogue across differences.
However, the commonality between the two is that citizens who some might think had something to lose took a stand for something they believe in. As described in a previous article about Washington Mystics owner Sheila Johnson on SBN's Swish Appeal, the free flow of ideas -- from all stakeholders -- is fundamental to having a functioning democracy, regardless of how close you might think we are to even having that.
The Value of Taking a Stand: Sheila Johnson & the Navigation of Culture, Politics and Sport - Swish Appeal
That the Phoenix Suns are taking a stand on something when they could remain silent, acknowledges not only a response to injustice, but the fundamental value of being willing to exchange ideas in a democracy. It doesn't really matter whether you agree -- an environment where people can openly and honestly share ideas is ultimately good for all of us.
Even if we disagree, we have to get to a point where we can honestly share ideas and listen to one another. The fear of backlash reflects an inability to dialogue. This should not be about a cold cost-benefit analysis or reputation risk assessment -- it's about participating in a society beyond oneself. Although I certainly understand the reasoning of protecting business interests or even the idea that its possible to "just be yourself" and act in silence, to remain neutral in a world where many others have to live with dire consequences is also unacceptable.
The value of people like Sheila Johnson taking a stand is that they have the power to give others the courage to take a stand. That's not quite a watered down concept of "empowerment" -- which, at its best, implies not only taking a stand but also possessing the tools and ability to get results -- but simply encouraging others to give voice to their beliefs is an essential good. Even if it's just influencing people close to us, we all need someone to inspire us to find our own voices before any reasonable action is taken.
The bottom line is that regardless of what we think about Obama or Cash's perspective on the current political climate, the recognition for her youth development work and the opportunity to meet him in person adds at least a little personal weight to her political insights that most of us will never have the opportunity to gain access to, even if it is only a few tweets.
"I would say he's very personable," said Cash. "He's just one of those people that whenever he came into the room when he was speaking to us you could tell just from his mannerisms that he's about the people. And I think that for me -- one who follows politics and all those things -- he's caught a lot of bad breaks, but he's done a lot of great things and he came in to a bad situation. He's done a lot of great things, but those things aren't getting the same publicity."
Perhaps we should consider the political stands that come from athletic platforms an opportunity to engage in the type of dialogue that Zirin notes won't happen if we all retreat from the consequential world of politics by heading to the sports pages.