The idea of professional athletes being role models has been badly damaged of late. The sports pages are filled with stories about labour disruptions which, whoever may be to be to blame for them, feed an image of greed that’s hard for athletes to shake. Between baseball players enhancing their performance with steroids and hockey players being found guilty of assault for their actions on the ice, it’s hard to find an athlete that you’d want your children to emulate.
Steve Nash, just recognized as the National Basketball Association’s Most Valuable Player, is someone who deserves our admiration, not just because of his inspired play on the court, but because of the excellent example he sets off the court. One of only two Canadians playing in the NBA, Nash led the Phoenix Suns to one of the greatest turnaround seasons in league history this year.
Nash personally sponsors the youth basketball program in British Columbia, a program that nearly collapsed after the Vancouver Grizzlies left town and took their sponsorship money with them. Before the 2000 Olympics, he anonymously covered the travel and living expenses of his Team Canada teammates who, unlike him, were amateurs. In short, he’s just an all around nice guy in a sport that thrives on trash talk and inflated egos.
Two years ago, while playing deep in the heart of Texas, Nash made a move that was far riskier than anything he had ever attempted in pursuit of a winning basket. Prior to the 2003 NBA All Star Game (on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq), Nash showed up for media interviews wearing a t-shirt (designed by a Canadian high school friend) that said “No War. Shoot for Peace.”
What’s more, Nash didn’t shy away from defending his stance when questioned by reporters. “I realized that with minimal effort… I could have an incredible effect on the situation, just by wearing a t-shirt and voicing my opinion.” He added in a separate interview that “If I had the time and I lived there [in Vancouver], I would try to get more involved [in the anti-war protests being organized by his friend]. But I thought because I had a platform, I had an opportunity to get this out. Because the amount of hours they’ve spent trying to educate, paying speakers, gather people around to protest this, to try to create changeâe¦ they’re putting their hearts and souls into this for the betterment of others, not for themselves.”
Describing himself as “a borderline pacifist,” Nash urged people to think outside of what they perceive as their national interests. “This goes much farther than countries, borders, boundaries and establishments. I think that is a major problem. We don’t look at the world as a global community as much as we should. We don’t consider people of other races, nationalities and religions and cultures.”
In an interview with ESPN, Nash said he “spoke out just because I don’t want to see the loss of life. People are mistaking anti-war as being unpatriotic. This has nothing to do with the fact that I’m from Canada. This is a much bigger issue… I’m not embarrassed by America. I’m embarrassed by humanity. More than embarrassed, I think it’s really unfortunate in the year 2003 that we’re still using violence as a means of conflict resolution. That’s what I’m speaking out against.”
It apparently didn’t occur to Nash that he should keep his opinions to himself, although he soon heard that message from several sports columnists and some irate fans. Dave Krieger, of the Rocky Mountain News, argued in a column that the political opinions of athletes should be ignored because “they seldom know what they’re talking about” and singled out Nash for having “uninformed opinions” (meaning, opinions with which he disagrees). “Everyone’s like, athletes don’t generally do this. I didn’t think about that when I did it. I’d just been reading all this and I did it… I just stated my opinion to urge anyone to go out and educate themselves… to stand up for what you believe in.”
While Nash’s message drew some hostility, it earned much praise as well. A column in the Dallas Morning News credited him for his gutsiness. “For those athletes who aren’t so ignorant to what is going on outside their gated homes, the fear of alienating the ticket-buying, sneaker-wearing public is too great to share any serious thoughts. Refreshingly, Nash has chosen a different path, like Arthur Ashe and Muhammad Ali and a few others before him. He’s a new iconoclast for the new millennium.”
Controversy, at least controversy that stems from espousing an unpopular political opinion, does not bring endorsement contracts. As The Toronto Star noted in a recent article, “Nash appears to be simply too smart with too much of a social conscience for many corporate executives.” The article, which referred to Nash as “a marketer’s nightmare,” quoted one advertising executive as saying that “his views on important issues would probably be a turnoff for a number of CEOs.”
But, Nash has said that he doesn’t care. “It’s not going to hurt me because I don’t really care if I have any endorsements. I’m not in this for endorsements.”
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