We have officially entered uncharted waters. Never before in my years of reporting has a sports team been forced to abandon the field of play due to political protest from fans. Never before have fans become the central actors in turning a sporting event into a political melee.
But Tuesday evening in Ankara, Turkey, the Israeli basketball team, Bnei Hasharon, had to flee the wrath of what the Associated Press described as "hundreds of fist-pumping, chanting Turkish fans." What exploded was yet another protest against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. The shock here is the setting, a sports arena, and the target, a basketball team.
It may be surprising that this came to pass in such a supposedly apolitical environs–a Eurocup game against a team called Turk Telekom–but local officials knew this could happen and took every precaution. Thousands of police officers surrounded the court, and street demonstrations of 4,000 people were already taking place outside the arena. Protesters shouted, "Israeli murderers, get out of Palestine!" and "Allah-u Akhbar!" as the Hasharon team bus entered the arena. Only 500 fans were even let into the arena and were also subject to intense searches, but it wasn’t enough. Police made the mistake of not confiscating the shoes.
Before the game could begin, angry chants of "Israeli killers!" came down from the crowd as smuggled Palestinian flags were unfurled. Then, in a scene that would look familiar to a certain sitting president, off came the shoes as footwear rained down from the stands (the shoes didn’t hit any players). As both teams looked at the crowd, frozen in place, battles began between police officers and Turkish fans, as the fans surged forward to take the court. Both Hasharon and Turk Telecom were rushed off and spent two hours in the locker rooms while the battle for control of the arena raged on.
Hashoran captain Meir Tapiro spoke about the fear and chaos he felt around him to the Jerusalem Post: "The fans raced on to the court and ran towards us like madmen, but the police stopped them. It was really scary."
After ninety minutes all the fans were expelled, arrested or dragged from the arena. The referees attempted to get the teams back onto the court to play before an empty arena, but Bnei Hasharon, after two hours of being prisoners in their locker room, had no desire to play. Referees called it a forfeit, and the Turks were declared winners of the game by the official forfeit score of 20-0.
Hasharon team chairman Eldad Akunis was understandably incensed. "After such a trying ordeal, there was simply no point in playing. The players were just concerned for their safety. We were also given instructions by the Israeli embassy staff, who were monitoring the situation, not to play," said Akunis.
There is no doubt that it was "a trying ordeal," a frightening experience that not even Red Sox fans would wish on the Yankees. But to put it mildly, it pales in comparison to the situation in Gaza itself. With more than 500 deaths, 3,000 injuries and 100 tons of bombs dropped on one of the impoverished regions of the world, the trials of a basketball team seem trivial.
It’s certainly true that none of the players–two of whom are African, five of whom are American-born–bear a hint of responsibility for any of this carnage. But it’s difficult not to remember the famous telegram sent by playwright Arthur Miller to President Lyndon Johnson. Miller was invited for a gala of some kind and refused, saying, "When the guns boom, the arts die." Perhaps when the guns boom, sports should die as well.
We may recall January 2008, when soccer star Mohamed Aboutreika lifted his shirt to reveal the slogan "Sympathize with Gaza." He wanted people to stand up and notice that an economic blockade had triggered, for the Palestinians in Gaza, a humanitarian crisis. The new year begins with another instance where the reality of Gaza has unexpectedly interrupted the field of play. Only this time–fitting the new moment–it was altogether more livid, more dangerous and more desperate. No sympathy has meant no peace.