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Two athletes, one nation, with liberty, justice for all

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 7, 2003

You may recall Pat Tillman. An NFL player so deeply affected by the war on terrorism, he walked away from a $3.6-million contract last spring to enlist in the Army with his younger brother.

By now, you should know Toni Smith. A college basketball player so deeply disturbed by a potential war with Iraq, she chooses to turn her back on the U.S. flag during the national anthem.

Two athletes, two extreme views. One worthy of admiration, the other easy to decry. Yet both, in their own ways, essential to our world.

* * *

You can say they have little in common. That they share no more than a nation's borders. You should either applaud the patriot or support the protester. Except such absolutes are rarely on the mark.

Perhaps, in a sense, their hopes are similar. Maybe they're just arriving from different points of view.

There is no doubt concerning Tillman's devotion to the United States. He has risked wealth, comfort and, potentially, his life for his country.

Not only did Tillman and his brother, Kevin, enlist in the Army, but they enrolled in the elite Ranger Indoctrination Program. Now members of the 75th Ranger Regiment, they could be deployed for combat on a day's notice.

Tillman, a safety with the Cardinals, was eight months into his marriage and coming off a franchise record for season tackles when he abruptly retired from the NFL and accepted an $18,000 Army salary.

Halfway into Arizona's 2002 season, Tillman had completed his Ranger training and, at graduation, was chosen as flag bearer for his unit, B Company of the 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment.

He has declined media requests to explain his decision, so it is left to friends to speculate. They say Tillman, 26, always has been a restless sort. Neither impressed by wealth nor his celebrity.

That he retired at the peak of his career was not a shock to friends. Tillman, they say, always was a little different; more interested in pursuing his beliefs than following the crowd.

Which is not so different from the way acquaintances describe Smith.

A forward at Manhattanville College, about 25 miles north of New York City, Smith is a sociology major and an average Division III basketball player. She grew up on the Upper West Side and, her mother says, became more socially conscious after enrolling in the tiny school with a history of activism.

Her silent protest went largely unnoticed this season until it showed up in a newspaper. Now, in a month's time, she has become a symbol for those opposed to the war and a target for just about everyone else.

Fans for the Merchant Marine Academy taunted her at a recent game. An opposing player shouted obscenities in her face. A Vietnam Vet ran onto the court and waved a flag at her before being led away. The Mount St. Mary student government purchased tiny flags and handed them out to fans before a recent game.

Smith, at first, declined to talk about her protest.

Later, she issued a written statement. Finally, last week, she spoke for 10 minutes after a game, expressing as much dissatisfaction with domestic issues as the Iraq conflict.

"A lot of people blindly stand up and salute the flag, but I feel that blindly facing the flag hurts more people," Smith said.

"There are a lot of inequities in this country, and these are issues that need to be acknowledged. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and our priorities are elsewhere."

You can dismiss her words as simplistic and, perhaps, overly dramatic. Criticize her for choosing an inappropriate forum and seeming to have little regard for its impact on her teammates. You may even wonder about the depth of her beliefs beyond a symbolic gesture.

None of which means her message should automatically be ignored.

It is not only permissible to question our leaders but, at times, necessary. If you have been around to see James Meredith, Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra and Monica Lewinsky, you understand that.

Some have suggested Smith is a hero. Others have painted her as Benedict Arnold. Both characterizations give her more credit than she is due.

Smith simply seems young and idealistic. Misguided though you may think her, she is at least willing to stand up for what she believes. Which is more than we could say for a lot of high-profile athletes.

In no way does this suggest Smith's sacrifice is nearly as great as Tillman's. Or that her beliefs are somehow more admirable than his.

Think of it more as an example of the nation's strength. One athlete standing up for the flag and another turning away. One person with a passion for one cause and another who firmly believes the opposite.

There is little, really, to link these two. Just a belief that they have some responsibility to the place they consider home.

Tillman may be protecting the principles this country has long stood for, but Smith is promoting the ideals this country has yet to fully achieve.

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