An Interview with Toni Smith
year ago, Toni Smith was just another Division III athlete grinding
through her senior year as captain of the women’s basketball
team at Manhattanville College in New York. Then her decision to
protest on the court at the start of the U.S. attack on Iraq by
turning her back on the flag during the national anthem sparked
debate throughout the sports and political world. Today, Toni Smith
is living in New York City and working for a young people’s
mentoring program called New York Youth at Risk (www. nyyouthatrisk.org).
When did you first see the need to make a stand and why did you
feel it was so important to take the actions that you did?
I’m from a mixed racial and ethnic background. My mom is Jewish
and my dad is Black, white, and Cherokee. I was learning about the
prison industrial complex and the wars against Native Americans.
It made me very angry, but I never paid attention to how this history
played out on the [basketball] court. I never thought about the
National Anthem because I went to alternative schools. I never had
to say the pledge. I never had to stand and salute anything before
last year I was talking with my boyfriend. His family’s very
politically active also. They don’t ever stand for the National
Anthem and they’re very clear on their position. We were talking
about all the policies we dislike and he said, “Why do you
stand for the anthem at your games?” I said, “Well I never
really thought about it. I’m the captain of the team and I
have to be a team leader and a good role model.” He said, “But
that has nothing to do with who you are. This is not what you believe
in.” He’s part Black and part Cherokee also and he said,
“This flag represents the slaughter of our ancestors”
and I said “you’re absolutely right.” We had a game
a few days later and as we stood up for the National Anthem, I said
was probably the first week in December . It was at NYU. I
thought, “No, this is not more important than my beliefs. This
[ritual] has nothing to do with who I am.” I didn’t tell
anyone. I didn’t really think of it as something that should
be made public. It went unnoticed even by my teammates and family.
Then the president of the school came up to me and said, “If
anyone gives you any trouble, send them to me.” I said “Alright,
but it’s not an issue.” Then he told me that there was
this huge uproar, that several parents of team members were furious
and were threatening to go to the NCAA.
few of the parents went to the president of the school. The next
thing that happened was one of my teammates called my dorm room
and said, “You have to look on instant messenger. You have
to see what our teammates are writing about you.” There was
this back and forth battle saying, “I can’t believe Toni’s
doing this; what kind of a team captain is she?” No one asked
me why, no one confronted me about it. The next day in the locker
room I confronted the girl who began the discussion and that turned
into an explosion within the team.
news story said you were protesting the war on Iraq in particular.
Was that the case?
was the icing on the cake. The war took me from angry at the general
direction of the U.S. to, “Are you kidding?” But it wasn’t
just the war. It was everything that the flag is built on, everything
that is continuing to happen and things that haven’t even happened
do you think your actions touched such a nerve?
debate around the war, no question. We were playing a game at St.
Joseph’s. Their assistant coach had just been sent over to
fight. They were angry. Nothing really came about it at that game,
but the next team we were scheduled to play was the Merchant Marines
Academy. People at St. Joseph’s called and warned them about
me. In addition, a news reporter got a hold of it. The Merchant
Marine Academy was the worst team in the league. They were something
like 0 and 25. They don’t have any fans, but let me tell you,
the gym was packed for our game. You can’t imagine what it
was like. They had cadets lined up on the sidelines, each with their
own seven foot flag. Every single person in the stand was in uniform,
with a flag. They were shouting things at me—obscenities, curses,
you name it. It was unbelievable. It was so bad that even the teammates
who hated what I was doing had to put themselves in my place and
defend my position. It came down to, “You’re not going
to disrespect my team.” That news reporter captured how angry
everyone was at that game and at the next game, the AP was there
and the story took off.
of teammates, coaches, administration, school president, who was
supportive and who wasn’t?
of my teammates were completely against everything I was doing.
There were four women who were very against me and tried to make
my life a living hell. The one who started the instant messenger
drama sent a petition around the school, saying, “Sign this
to demand that Toni Smith return all her financial aid because she
is disrespecting our school.” What’s the point in that?
We were teammates in the middle of the season, one of the best seasons
our school has ever had. They talked to reporters when we were asked
not to by the coach and by the president. When I finally decided
to talk to the press, it was because my teammates were speaking
out without permission. It got to the point where either they’re
going to have lies out there or I speak up.
any teammates back you up?
of my teammates stood next to me during the National Anthem, one
in front of me, one behind me, holding my hands. I couldn’t
hang out with anyone else on the team. Then there were four or so
women who were in between. It was, “I don’t agree with
your position, but respect your right to do it, but I wish you weren’t
doing it because it’s making life hell for the team.”
I can respect that. They tried to stay neutral because we were friends.
They were torn between me and what their parents thought—the
season was difficult for them.
about your coach?
have to give it to him. He took a lot of slack for not punishing
me. I think it was very important for Manhattanville, promoting
itself as a liberal arts college, with socially and ethically aware
graduates, that he was so supportive. He made it a point not to
include his personal views and I still don’t know what he thought,
but he definitely supported my right to protest, whether he would
rather I did it or not. I really commend him for that because he
didn’t have to. Not just that, but he reprimanded those players
who were deliberately going against his orders for the team [about
talking to the press].
the Merchant Marines game, you painted a picture of a team that
was able to pull together. Was that just a one game thing?
was tension throughout the season. It got to a point towards the
end where we had to agree to disagree. It took a lot more energy
for them to trash me and for me to hate them than to just play together.
I think our team had so much potential to be a great team and that
overpowered everything else that was going on. I think everyone
realized the potential that we had to have a really great season
and to break records that our school our team has never broken,
and I think that was more important. We ended up with the third
best record in the history of Manhattanville. I don’t know
how we played together and did it, but we did.
someone were to ask, “Why demonstrate on the basketball court?”
What would you say?
wasn’t really a stand. It was just, “I’m here to play
basketball and I have to salute the flag? I don’t want to.”
Manhattanville is a small Division III school. Our fans consisted
of close friends, family, and a few women. Not more than 60 people
would be at the games. So it would not be the best place to get
a message out.
do you say to people who counter, “Sports is no place for a
World War II, when the U.S. decided that we needed to show our superiority
to other countries, they implemented the National Anthem before
sporting events. When they did that they put politics in the middle
of sports. The question is not why did I choose to turn my back
on the flag. It’s why do we have to do this at basketball games?
If they don’t want politics in sports then they need to take
the National Anthem out because that is inherently political.
year people didn’t want to acknowledge that we were going to
war. They wanted to hide it. It can become really easy to not acknowledge
the fact that we are killing people in other countries because it’s
not here. A big issue I had with September 11 was that was the first
event since Pearl Harbor where there was an attack of such magnitude
on this country. You could see this all over the place, people going,
“Never forget, never forget 9/11.” September 11 was terrible,
but that level of destruction is every single day for other people
in other countries. I think it is unbelievably arrogant to say [in
the aftermath of 9/11], “Now we can do whatever we want.”
It has sent the message that, “We are better than you. We are
superior human beings to everyone else in the world.” It’s
you asked to speak at any anti-war demonstrations?
the season, I was asked once or twice to come and speak and I declined.
I felt if I was going to attend demonstrations, I was going to attend
them as a regular person, not a person of importance. If it ever
got to the point where I was speaking at a rally, it would be because
I had done the work, I had paid the dues, and I didn’t feel
like I deserved that.
you ever feel physically threatened during this whole process?
guy who walked onto the court with the flag; I actually didn’t
feel threatened by him. I think we were all in too much shock- as
to how he got onto the court and why he was interrupting our game
to do this- to even be scared about it. It wasn’t until afterwards,
when my family and a few of my friends were really outraged. “How
could this school let him get on the campus? What if he had a weapon?
You’re not safe.” Then I got a bit concerned; but I still
wasn’t scared. I got one letter in the mail that was a death
threat. It said, “I’ve seen you, I’ve been close
enough to touch you, I’m a disabled veteran, I’ll find
you again, you won’t be able to disrespect my country anymore,
I’ll make sure that it’s an end for you.” That scared
me. I was a little bit frightened after that, and I was more cautious
about where I went for a little while.
you feel any of the coverage was skewed because of sexism?
didn’t think it at first. Someone brought it to my attention.
They said, “You’re threatening. You are saying things
that no one is saying right now. You’re protesting things that
people are too afraid to protest, and you’re a woman.”
That really got me thinking after that. I still don’t know
what conclusions I’ve come to because of it, but I definitely
feel people don’t expect women to be bold and speak out. I
think when women do, then that puts you in another category, which
is, “You must be a lesbian, you must be mean, you’re not
a lady.” It brings up hundreds of other stories.
seen that happen with other female athletes—ones who don’t
pose for magazines, ones who come out. It completely discredits
you as an athlete, as a person. People don’t want to hear your
story after that. Even in a lot of the letters I got, it went back
to my looks. It all went back to my physical appearance.
the events in Iraq validated the stand that you took?
anyone ever said invalidated or made me question what I did. The
only thing I ever questioned was my safety and the safety of my
family and friends. But the way I felt at the time was that there
were many protests during the Vietnam War that outraged people.
Then when circumstances came to light about how illegal the war
was and how many died senselessly, people said, “Oh, now I
are a lot of people who were angry at the time, saying, “How
dare you not support my son, he’s going off to war.” Now
either their son has died or their son is still over there and they
realize that this war is bogus and they don’t have any health
insurance or they have to wait on line for food. Now they say, “Oh,
now I get what you were trying to say. Now my daughter’s over
there and I can’t help when I could have helped before.”
you have any regrets?
really big on not living with regrets. There are always things in
your life you’re not going to be happy with, choices you’ve
made that you’re not pleased with, but every choice you make
you make it for a reason and you might not know what that reason
is until later, and it might hurt you at the time, but eventually
it pans out and it shapes who you are as a person.
have any final comments?
I was one of those kids who went to overcrowded schools with no
books and we had to recycle Xerox copies of books. When I got to
college and I told my stories of high school—how we didn’t
have a gym, how we played in a junior high school across the street—they
said “Oh, my god. I can’t believe you had to do this,
I can’t believe you didn’t have this, you didn’t
have books.” We were assigned to write ten-page research papers
and none of them knew how to do it. I was in a higher writing class
than any of my friends and they were complaining, “How can
I write a three page paper? What’s an introduction? How do
I end it?”
didn’t know one thing from another. It is unfair that there
is such unequal funding between school districts, but there is something
to gain from every situation. Examine where you feel overlooked,
uncounted, deemed unimportant, and use it to build yourself up.
I would not trade the education I received for an education at a
private school. It’s all about what you take from life, not
what you feel life is or is not giving you. The script is unwritten
until we write our own stories.
Dave Zirin is
the News Editor of the
Prince George’s Post
Prince George’s County, Maryland. His sports writing can be read