When a Seton Hall basketball player quit the team and left school yesterday after being harassed for declining to wear an American flag on his uniform, it raised anew the issue of political symbolism in sport.
Since the outbreak of war in the Persian Gulf, the wearing of flag patches by both college and professional athletes has become more the rule than the exception.
Players in the National Football League wore flags on the backs of their helmets during the playoffs. So did National Hockey League players at the All-Star Game. National Basketball Association players have American flag patches on their warm-up jackets. And many college basketball teams have added flag patches to their jerseys.
But Marco Lokar's decision to buck this trend -- he said that, as a Christian, he could not in conscience imply support for any war -- ran him headlong into an overzealous, love-it-or-leave-it reaction.
"Go back to Italy," hecklers jeered at New York's Madison Square Garden during Seton Hall's game with St. John's on Feb. 2.
Lokar, 21, a sophomore guard, said that because he and his wife also had received threatening phone calls, they were indeed leaving the country.
Lokar was shocked that simply by declining to make a political statement, he had become one.
One basketball coach, Pete Carril of Princeton, said yesterday that no athlete should be made the object of such intense political scrutiny. Flag-wearing in the arena, Carril said, may be just plain pointless.
At Seton Hall, the athletic director, Larry Keating, emphasized yesterday that players there had been free to choose whether to wear flag patches.
"We've talked about that," Keating said. "We've made it clear to our kids that they have a choice.
"I don't think the athletes view [wearing a flag] as a political statement. The flag has been construed as a political statement; it probably is. But I think student-athletes are using the flag non-politically.
"I think, to a person, they're not saying that they support the war. They're hoping the troops get back safely, and they're supporting them and making them feel good. I think this comes out of the post-Vietnam era, when everyone felt bad that we were taking it out on veterans -- the fact that the U.S. went to war."
Carril would prefer going in an entirely different direction.
"Sometimes I just think the players could better support the troops by doing the particular thing they're doing to the best of their abilities," Carril said.
"Sometimes slogans and shows of support, if they're not backed up with more than symbolism, are worse than no symbolism at all. If you play the game and have a flag on your jersey and you don't study in school, that seems to be contradictory. These guys in the gulf have to give their best. Players should give their best, too.
"There are better ways to support the troops than symbolism or making an announcement that 'I dedicate this game to the [troops].' That's better left unsaid. Go play your butt off. Do the best you can do. That's enough.
"In the meantime, if you want to do something in your own private way, go ahead. Religious people can pray for their safe return. Non-religious people can wish for their safe return. And follow their progress.
"I bet a lot of guys wearing flags don't know about what's going on over there."
Lokar was not the only foreign basketball player who had to make a flag-wearing decision. In fact, two other Seton Hall foreigners, one from Lithuania, one from Israel, chose to wear American flag patches.
But one foreign player who has been put in an awkward political position is Manute Bol, the Philadelphia 76ers center. Bol is from the Sudan, which supports not the allies but Iraq in the gulf war.
Bol long ago distanced himself from the Islamic fundamentalist government of the Sudan. In fact, he was afraid to return home last summer because of continuing civil strife there.
"I don't believe in this war," Bol said last night from Portland, Ore., where the Sixers played Tuesday night. "I don't think it's right for people to be dying like that."
But Bol's warm-up jacket sports an American flag patch, as do those of all other NBA players.
"I don't work for the government of the Sudan," Bol said. "They didn't get me this job. I work for the company, the Sixers. I love my country, but I'm not going to quit my job because I must wear the American flag. I have a wife and kids to support. If the government harasses my family [in the Sudan], it is stupid."