Standing Tall for Peace: Questions for Toni Smith


Editor’s Note: Toni Smith was the starting forward/center and team captain at Manhattanville College in New York and recently graduated. The media spotlight shone on her in the spring of 2003 as she, among millions of others, decided to protest US militarism and war. Before each game, instead of saluting the US flag as is customary during the national anthem, she turned away with her head bowed. She immediately became a renowned figure, as many in the peace movement compared her with Muhammad Ali, Tommy Smith and John Carlos.

PA: You’ve become well known for the kind of protest you made against the war. How did you come to feel so strongly about it?

TS: I always felt that way, but it never occurred to me to put my beliefs ahead of what I felt like were other priorities: my team, my school, 'doing the right thing.' Prior to my stand I simply stood, faced the flag with my head down and thought of something else, I reflected on the anthem, did whatever, I wasn’t paying attention. Then, in the beginning of that last season, I had to think about it another way. I came to realize that I didn’t believe in what the flag stands for. I don’t feel like it represents me, my beliefs or my family. That is more important than my position on the team. Before, I thought, 'I’m the team captain. My team is looking to me. I have to set a good example.' But when it boils down, being a member of a basketball team is a privilege. It’s not more important than my beliefs. That really shifted for me. I realized that being on a team doesn’t mean I have to salute the flag, that they don’t go hand in hand, which had been my misconception previously because they have always been in place. They’ve always been in place in the professional basketball associations. When I stopped to think about it, one has nothing to do with the other. My love for basketball has nothing to do with my beliefs. Why should I compromise my beliefs because something has become the norm?

PA: Should sports become a public venue for expression of different political beliefs?

TS: I don’t think the sports arena has to become a venue for different beliefs, but if the goal is to keep politics out of sports, then the flag should be kept out of sports, because the flag is inherently a political symbol. The flag was instated before sporting events to try to prove our superiority over other countries.
PA: What were the most memorable responses to your stand?

TS: Definitely from my teammates. Half of the team was opposed to my stand. They were very uncomfortable. But I think a few of them were more influenced by their parent’s rage. I think a lot of them didn’t really know where they stood, but they knew that their parents believed that it was wrong. So they tended to follow that. They were really uncomfortable with the heckling, we were in the paper, and people were saying bad things about us. The natural response in humans is to look to place the blame in order to release the anger. So, of course, the easiest place to do that was me because I generated it. There were definitely a lot of issues between me and a few members on the team. Surprisingly it never really got transferred onto the court. It never really affected our performance, but off of the court, there wasn’t a friendship. There was barely even an acquaintance or any kind of relationship other than teammates. After the season was over, we didn’t speak anymore.

PA: Were there some positive responses?

TS: There was tons of support for me on campus, especially from the Black and Latino communities. Even those people I hadn’t spoken with very much before – we were on kind of a 'hi-bye' basis – came out and supported me with signs. They would speak to me on campus. They would go out of their way to show their support. Verbally and out in the open, there was an equal amount of supportive responses as negative responses on campus.

PA: Even with a lot of support, it must have been a difficult personal decision. What kept you going?

TS: First, my stand wasn’t completely a stand against the war, although that was the icing on the cake. My belief is that the flag represents the rise of American power since the slave trade and going back in history. I’m very unhappy with how America has become such a worldwide power. When I decided not to face the flag, it was for personal reasons. It was a personal choice I made not to compromise my beliefs and not to sell out on myself. When I realized the responses that I was getting and the repercussions of my actions, people were so angry and so closed to any alternative opinion.

I found out that a lot of people weren’t even interested in my reasons, even my teammates. None of my teammates asked me why I was doing what I was doing. They made assumptions. They decided to have a team discussion about what I was doing without me. All of this made me want to stand my ground even more. It reconfirmed for me why I was standing for what I believed in, because, especially at that time after 9-11, everyone was in such a panic. Actually I’m really stubborn. So when people were saying, 'Stop doing that. You’re a disgrace,' all of the negative backlash just made me say, 'Now you’ve made me want to keep doing it. Even if I didn’t want to before, now I do.' Just because of that thinking.

PA: How did the team end up doing?

TS: Our record was 17-8, which is the third best record in Manhattanville women’s basketball history. So what’s funny about that is that a lot of the comments I got and my team got was, 'How can you do this to your team? How can you disgrace your team? You’re bringing your team down.' All of this and we have one of our best seasons ever. We just had a really good team, and before everything unraveled, we had tremendous potential. Our team bonded. Our practices were great. We had great talent. I think that from day one, we all knew that. From day one we said, 'This year is our year. This year we’re going to defy the past and the previous records.' I think that was clear for everyone regardless of our personal beliefs, regardless of the tension and the falling outs, that was clear. We were not going to sacrifice the potential that we had.

PA: Can you talk about how you got interested in sports?

TS: This is actually a new revelation I’ve had in the last year. I’d never put my finger on it before. Because I’m mixed – my mother is Jewish and my father is mixed, white, Black, and Native American – so growing up, I didn’t feel like I was white. My mother is white, but my father is noticeably not white. So I didn’t have any experience growing up, although my skin is light, as a white person. Somewhere around sixth grade there was a cluster of the Black girls in my class, and they would hang out together during lunch and recess. Then there were the white girls. And there was a pretty good mixture, half and half. I always felt myself straddling this line in between. I didn’t quite fit in with either group. I didn’t jump double-dutch, because I was afraid of the rope. Whatever the white girls did at recess, I didn’t completely fit in. Some of the conversations they had and the way they thought were really uncomfortable for me because I had a different view.

So one day I picked up basketball. When I played basketball I noticed that boys at that age don’t make that distinction, I mean, the ones who were playing sports didn’t have a Black-white distinction when they are playing sports. They just said, 'How good are you in that sport?' There was no separation of activities; that was my experience. Back then there was no WNBA, so it wasn’t common for girls to play. We were scattered around the country playing with boys.

PA: They were kind of skeptical about you playing with them?

TS: Yes, but when I got better, they became amazed. It was fun, and I was really interested in getting better. Although, I still didn’t fit – I wasn’t a guy – it was an elevated exclusion. I didn’t fit in, but they didn’t say you can’t play. They said, 'Oh my god, I want to watch even more because there is a girl on the court.'n