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Josh Howard

Howard’s Anthem Controversy Familiar to Sports Fans

October 03, 2008 10:12 AM
by Denis Cummings
Mavericks forward Josh Howard apologized for remarks he made about “The Star-Spangled Banner,” one of several controversies involving athletes and the anthem.

‘That’s Not Josh Howard. That Was an Idiot’

Howard apologized Tuesday for his behavior over the last five months, during which time he admitted to smoking pot, was arrested for drag racing, and was seen in a YouTube video making negative remarks about the Star-Spangled Banner. It is those remarks that have received the most attention.

In the video, taken at a charity football game, Howard turns to a camera during the national anthem and says, “‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is going on. I don’t celebrate this [expletive]. I’m black.”

The video became a national news story on Sept. 18, sparking a debate over patriotism and free speech. There were reports that the NBA was considering disciplinary action, but it chose not to do so.

On Tuesday, Howard distanced himself from the remarks, saying that he didn’t mean to disrespect the anthem or the country. “I know that’s not me. I love this country. If it wasn’t for this country, I wouldn’t be out here playing basketball. For me to have that opportunity is the greatest,” he said. “That’s not me. That’s not Josh Howard. That was an idiot.”

Though Howard apparently did not intend to make any political or social statement with his remarks, athletes in the past have used the national anthem to express their political or religious beliefs, and faced hostile reactions from fans, writers and other Americans.

Background: Athletes and the national anthem

In 1968, during a turbulent year in the United States and shortly after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, African-American Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos staged a protest at the Summer Olympics. While standing on the medal podium during the playing of the national anthem, Smith and Carlos each wore a black glove and raised a fist in a black-power salute.

“The sacrifices Smith and Carlos made were huge,” writes Owen Slot in The Times of London. “After the medal ceremony, the IOC insisted that they be expelled from the Games and banned from further competitions. The white America to which they returned home vilified them; backs would turn on them when they looked for work, and their families suffered too.”

In 1996, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a converted Muslim player for the Denver Nuggets, refused to stand for the national anthem because of his religious beliefs and called the flag “a symbol of oppression, of tyranny.”  The NBA suspended Abdul-Rauf, but after just one game, they reached an agreement where Abdul-Rauf would stand during the anthem with his hands in front of his face, praying.

The pose “drew boos on the road and ultimately got him traded away, until he was shoved off the NBA court into obscurity,” writes Robert Sanchez in Denver magazine 5280. “Abdul-Rauf was a pariah, regarded as if he were some kind of an Islamic terrorist.”

In 2003, as the U.S. prepared for war in Iraq, a basketball player for Division III Manhattanville College, Toni Smith, caused a controversy by turning her back to the flag during the anthem. She faced abuse from both home and road crowds, including from one ex-marine who ran onto the court and held a flag in front of her. Smith did receive support from many in the media, including ESPN’s Ralph Wiley.

“To say athletes and sports are precluded from this process is, in fact, insulting, that a Tommie or a Toni Smith are like cattle and should just give their milk and moo and shut up and not have their own feelings. We should be proud of them. What they are doing is actually an act of love,” wrote Wiley. “But we’re not proud of them. I shouldn’t say ‘we,’ because some of us are proud of them, or at least tolerant of their opinions. That’s what all those people died for; freedom, tolerance, not cloth flags.”

Related Topic: Singing the anthem

The singers of the national anthem have sparked controversy as well. In 1968, Puerto Rican singer Jose Feliciano performed a blues version of the anthem before Game 5 of the World Series. He received a mix of cheers and boos at the game, but the radio and television audience’s reaction was overwhelmingly negative. Feliciano faced a backlash over the following few years, but his rendition opened the door for singers like Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Gaye to put their own touch on the anthem.

In the '90s, sprinter Carl Lewis and comedienne Rosanne Barr performed disastrous renditions of the anthem. Barr’s screechy 1990 performance was called “disgraceful” by President George Bush, while Lewis was ridiculed for not knowing the words and coming nowhere close to hitting the notes.

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