Dwight Howard briefly waded into the murky waters of global politics, and in doing so raised a number of questions on celebrity, Twitter and free speech (at least for sports stars).
Last week, after seeing images of the carnage in Gaza, Howard responded with some normal, human emotion. Even worse, he broke the cardinal rule of athletes on Twitter: He expressed an opinion.
Not long after tweeting "#FreePalestine," Howard backtracked, deleting the post, sending out apologetic follow-ups and calling it "a mistake." Of course, as Deadspin notes, that only served to anger both sides. "He should be publicly condemned as strong as Donald Sterling was," the Zionist Organization of America said. He was, it turns out, but by the pro-Palestinian part of the Twitterverse -- which recognized public-relations revisionism when they saw it, asking him to stand by his original tweet and reviving the #DwightCoward hashtag.
Howard learned the hard way that whatever opinion you publicly express, there will always be detractors whose voices are amplified by social media. From an athlete's standpoint, the smart thing to do would be just to keep quiet, and frankly, Howard is about as qualified to comment on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as Jenny McCarthy is to give parents advice on vaccinating their kids.
But do we really want to live in a world where celebrities feel the need to neuter themselves in a public forum, to strip themselves of any semblance of personality just to avoid potential controversy? Amid all the Derek Jeter celebrations this week, there's been a continued backlash against him, much of which has centered around his well-manufactured image of perfection. Save for a few (thousand) gift baskets, his reputation is spotless, which you could either view as a smart athlete who just kept his head down and did his job, or a cold, corporate cog whose icy facade took all the fun out of covering him.
If anything, Jeter's involvement in Tuesday's All-Star Game demonstrated exactly why we can't allow the 24-hour media cycle and the concerns of agents and marketers to strip our athletes of their humanity. After Adam Wainwright all but admitted that he "grooved" a pitch to Jeter in what should be a meaningless game, he too had to quickly backtrack, unconvincingly telling Erin Andrews that he was joking, or something. Conspiracy theories aside, the most ridiculous thing to come out of that ordeal was sportswriters contending that Wainwright should just have kept his mouth shut. As Will Leitch wrote on Sports on Earth, reporters asked a pitcher who is well-liked for telling it like it is a question that he answered truthfully, and then they proceeded to criticize him for not being smart enough to lie. Must we live in a world so cynical that journalists equate candor with naiveté?
I don't know about you, but I'd like to be able to hear or read something by a player that doesn't sound like it belongs in a press release. Athletes already have image managers, and one of them probably got to Howard not 15 minutes after his tweet. Equally troubling is that nobody, not one of the free speech apologists -- I mean, advocates -- that defended Donald Sterling's right to be racist or Don Jones's right to be homophobic felt the need to defend Howard's right to express sympathy for dying children. Similarly, Amar'e Stoudemire -- who has Jewish roots, runs a basketball academy in Tel Aviv and has applied for Israeli citizenship -- took down an Instagram photo of an Israeli and a Palestinian child embracing with the caption, "Pray for Palestine." Meanwhile, Omri Casspi, Howard's teammate and the NBA's first Israeli player, received no major backlash for tweeting his own opinion on the conflict shortly after Howard.
On this subject, Dave Zirin wrote in The Nation:
An athlete tweeting #freepalestine is smacked down with an immediacy that speaks to how desperate Israel and their backers in the United States are to keep them insulated from even a whiff of criticism. I am not mad at Dwight Howard. I want to thank him. I want to thank him for showing with utter clarity what few will say openly: that acknowledging the humanity of the Palestinian people comes with a price.
What Howard and Stoudemire and Wainwright also showed us this week is that, increasingly, athletes acknowledging their own humanity comes with a price, too.
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