After Hall of Famer Jim Boeheim notched his 900th win as Syracuse’s head basketball coach on Monday night, joining Mike Krzyzewski and Bobby Knight as the only coaches in that elite club, he stood at a podium for one of his most hated rituals: the postgame press conference.
Boeheim’s petulant in-game manner often comes out after games, as well, when he is known to occasionally snap at reporters’ questions or call out writers who have ripped on his team. But at the laudatory press conference Monday, where the topic at hand was Boeheim’s remarkable 37-year run at Syracuse and his legacy in college hoops history, he ended the press conference in a most unusual way.
“This will probably offend some people,” the 68-year-old Boeheim began. “If we in this country as Americans cannot get the people that represent us to do something about firearms, we are a sad, sad society. . . . I’m a hunter. I’ve hunted. I’m not talking about rifles — that’s fine.”
He was talking about the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shootings from last week and the semi-automatic weapon used by the killer.
“If one person in this world — NRA, president, anybody — can tell me why we need assault weapons with 30 shots in the [magazine] . . . we need to give teachers guns, so they can shoot people? Yeah, that’s really good thinking, to do that.”
Twitter, perhaps the best barometer of our reactionary society’s penchant to explode over famous people’s words, immediately exploded. Huzzah to Boeheim, for using his sports pulpit to make a common-sense stand for gun control! Or shame on Boeheim, for using his sports pulpit to encourage politicians to infringe upon our constitutional rights!
Social media hubs such as Twitter quickly devolve into lowest-common-denominator sniping on the most sensitive of American topics: race and religion, sexuality and abortion, immigration and gun control. And that sniping looks past the fact Boeheim was following a grand, though increasingly rare tradition, in American sports by using his sporting celebrity to speak out on things that actually matter.
Say what you will about the content of Boeheim’s remarks. He’s heroic; he’s idiotic. What can’t be denied are the guts it takes for a high-profile sports figure to step out of a comfort zone that typically focuses on the finer points of the 2-3 zone defense. It would have been much easier to soak in the adulation of his moment, honor the victims with a word and a prayer and move on, avoiding the more highly charged subject of gun control.
Instead, in this moment Boeheim followed in the footsteps of American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raising their fists in defiant black power salutes on the medal stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics. Or of Muhammad Ali using his heavyweight pulpit to speak out against the Vietnam War. No, Boeheim wasn’t risking being ostracized in the same fashion, but he certainly didn’t play it safe to protect his popularity.
It’s one thing for a coach or an athlete to make a statement against something like cancer (another topic Boeheim has frequently lent his voice and influence to over the years). But what coach is in favor of cancer? It’s one thing for NFL teams to honor the victims of the Connecticut shootings during their weekend games, or for Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson to write the names of each of the shooting victims on his shoes for "Monday Night Football." Admirable to recognize that sports aren’t everything? Of course. Important for sports figures to recognize the tragedies of the real world? Absolutely.
But courageous? No.
What Boeheim did was courageous, whether you’re on his side or not.
I have a rather strong opinion about the Second Amendment, about gun control, and about how our nation’s freedoms are balanced with our nation’s responsibilities. I also realize that you don’t care about my opinion on any of these things. I’ll have these conversations with friends, but I’m not going to throw them about on Twitter, or here, where they’ll only add to the already-deafening noise and awful vitriol from both sides of this heated topic. My pulpit doesn’t bully so well.
Boeheim’s did. Short of an on-court interview in the moments after a national championship victory, this might have been the biggest bully pulpit he’d ever have. He knew it. He knew he’d be stepping into dangerous waters. He did it anyway, knowing that, after 37 successful years as a head basketball coach, it’s not like his job was on the line.
“This is our fault,” Boeheim told the group of reporters after win No. 900, as his wife and young children stood nearby. “This is my fault, and your fault, all your faults. . . . If we can’t get this thing done, I don’t know what kind of country we have. Because this is about us.”
Some will say, hey, you’re a basketball coach, stick to what you’re good at, don’t tell me what to think about gun control. Entertainment is escapism, and you’re not allowing me to escape. The left said that about Clint Eastwood when he spoke against Obama at this year’s Republican National Convention. The right said that about Sean Penn when he spoke out against the war in Iraq during the Bush years. One side will always make the same dumb argument — celebrities need to shut up and entertain us — when the other side has a celebrity who makes its case. It’s a lowest-common-denominator argument, plugging up our ears and saying we don’t need to listen to some celebrity’s views that are different than our own.
We complain that athletes and coaches are coddled millionaires even as we happily consume what they’re selling. We complain about the media’s obsession with Mark Sanchez’s girlfriend or Lolo Jones’ virginity even as we gobble up the tabloid fodder. Then when a prominent sports figure like Boeheim wades willingly into one of the most important, controversial topics of our day and makes us think about the real world when we’re trying to escape with entertainment, we complain that he’s stepping outside his role.
How about we think this way instead: In an image-conscious culture where actors are trying to sell their next movie and athletes are staying as controversy-free as possible so they can get that next shoe contract, we should praise someone like Jim Boeheim for standing up for something that matters.
Whether we agree with him or not.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.