By MARCIA C. SMITH
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Professional athletes can seem larger than life as outspoken, fearless giants flexing bravado, commanding our attention – that is, until controversy arrives and they shrink into nimble Chaplins teetering upon their heels in a suddenly-turned-silent movie.
That's how we find our leading-men Lakers now that they have been cast into the political cauldron that is Arizona for Sunday's Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals against the Phoenix team formerly known as "Los Suns."
The Lakers are being careful with what they say – and in many cases saying nothing – about Arizona's divisive Senate Bill 1070, which has given rise to fears of racial profiling as the state cracks down on illegal immigration.
Like every entity with any ties to the Grand Canyon State, the Lakers have a golden opportunity to step up, to speak up and to stand up in support of the Latino community that so faithfully backs them.
As one of the world's most high-profile franchises playing in an NBA that prides itself on globalization, the Lakers are in position to protest a law that allows police to question suspected illegal immigrants about their status and demand to see their documents.
The Suns, at owner Robert Sarver's request "to honor our Latino community and the diversity of our league, the state of Arizona and our nation," wore their "Los Suns" jerseys for Game 2 of a Western Conference semifinals on Cinco de Mayo. They made a statement.
The Lakers, making the safest play of no play at all, are dropping the ball. They've recused themselves from the situation.
"Athletes are very reluctant to make political statements," said Richard E. Lapchick, the director of University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. "There has been a really tiny history of athletes doing that, and where they have done it, they've almost always paid an immediate price for it."
The "tiny history" is headlined by the NFL players' planned boycott of Super Bowl XXVII (1993) in Phoenix because Arizona rejected two ballot measures to make Martin Luther King Day a holiday. The game was moved to Pasadena. The NFL pressure influenced the 1992 Arizona vote for MLK Day and the league awarded the state Super Bowl XXX (1996).
NBA legend Bill Russell detailed his struggle as a black man weathering discrimination in sports and society in his 1965 book, "Go Up for the Glory." In 1966 boxing champion Muhammad Ali protested the Vietnam War, applying for conscientious objector status to avoid the draft.
At the 1968 Olympics, black U.S. sprinter Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists as a declaration of "Black Power" during the 200-meter dash medal ceremony, protesting how Mexican troops opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing 250, just 10 days before the Opening Ceremony.
Social conscience has become part of sporting legacies. But who in today's sports world will risk popularity, reputation and endorsement portfolios to criticize this Arizona law that has been labeled everything from zero tolerance to Draconian.
Staying clear of politics is obviously the most pragmatic play in this lose-lose-lose proposition. Support the law and risk being seen as a proponent of racial profiling. Protest the law and see your patriotism questioned. Straddle the fence and double your critics.
Still, melting-pot cities, among them Los Angeles, have pushed for an economic boycott of Arizona. Activists want snack-maker Frito-Lay to stop supporting the Fiesta Bowl. The World Boxing Council is taking steps to limit fights in the state. A Highland Park, Ill, girls varsity basketball team scrapped a trip to play in an Arizona tournament because of the law.
Major League Baseball, a league in which 25 percent of the players on opening-day rosters were foreign-born, is shouldering the weight of the outcry. Its players' union issued a statement condemning the law. Congressmen suggest that half the league's clubs relocate their Arizona spring-training facilities.
Jesse Jackson, among others, wants Commissioner Bud Selig to move the 2011 All-Star Game out of Phoenix, and Venezuela-born Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said he'd boycott the game if he were asked to attend.
There's also heat on college football's Fiesta Bowl and the BCS national title game, which will be held in January in Glendale, Ariz, as well as major events in NASCAR, golf, tennis and boxing. Even Arizona's four professional teams are feeling the fallout (the Diamondbacks have been getting booed on the road).
"If a team did something collectively, made a symbolic statement, the team would get a lot of attention," said Lapchick. "The Latino fans of the Lakers would be proud that the Lakers did that. However we're in a nation where stunningly 61 percent of the people in a public option poll said that they support the legislation."
The Lakers – like Selig and Fiesta Bowl organizers and all those leaving social issues to the workings of government – are playing hot-potato with the hot-button Arizona law that Lapchick called "the worst piece of legislation that I can remember in my life time."
They play it safe and stay quiet. But in their silence, one has to wonder if they are tacitly consenting to the Arizona law.
With the exception of the edgy move by the part-Mexican Mrs. Kobe Bryant, who donned a "Do I look legal?" T-shirt for this past Monday's Game 1, the Lakers continue pulling the not-my-problem ripcord, detaching themselves from the issue, their city and many of their fans.
"We will not be getting involved in choosing sides among our many different support groups in any debate ..." said Lakers spokesman John Black. "Our focus and goal at this time is on basketball, winning games, and hopefully winning another championship, which we feel the vast majority of our fans want us to focus on."
The team will not only keep closeted the "Los Lakers" jersey it last wore on March 21 to honor its Hispanic following; the team has come out to say that they won't be wearing it during this season's playoffs, which really means while the SB 1070 debate remains hot.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson briefly joined the debate, chiding his opponent's "Los Suns" demonstration and said he interpreted the bill as one allowing Arizona to grow the "teeth to be able to enforce" federal immigration law. His reluctance to oppose the law has drawn the ire of many fans.
It should. So should the fact that the Lakers giants have quietly taken cover inside their cloistered court that honors the separation of sports and state.
They have put on their blinders to this controversy and focused squarely on winning another gold trophy for the booty chest.
But ultimately, what does another NBA world championship mean when a political battle is breaking out in our backyard?