Lokar finds certain amount of uniformity to freedom of choice

KEN ROSENTHAL

February 15, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

It's the rare sporting event when everyone isn't cheering for the same team. And it's the rare political event when everyone is.

The case of Marco Lokar, the Seton Hall basketball player whrefused to wear an American flag on his uniform, merely serves as the latest example of why sports and politics don't mix.

Because of the furor resulting from his decision, Lokar is leavinschool and returning to his native Italy, unwilling to remain in the land of the free and the home of the brave after threats toward him and his pregnant wife Lara.

"Go back to Italy," the huddled masses cried at New York'Madison Square Garden during the Seton Hall-St. John's game Feb. 2. Lokar said when he picked up the phone at night, it was even worse.

In announcing his plans to return home Wednesday, Lokar citehis Christianity as the reason he would not wear the flag patch as a show of support for U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf war.

Supporting the troops is not the same as supporting the war, buLokar didn't want anyone confusing his position. The howl of intolerance was worse than he could have imagined, especially in a land founded on dissent.

L The original Philadelphia 76ers might have called him a hero.

But more than 200 years later, Marco Lokar was merely aathlete, and a college one at that. He lived in a black-and-white world. The crowds cheered at home, booed on the road. It was very neat. Very clean. Very simple.

War, of course, is none of those things. War is a thousanshades of gray, an experience that elicits profound, conflicting emotions even when the vast majority of citizens believe it just.

Such is the case right now, and the American peopleembarrassed by the negative excesses of the Vietnam era, want it clear they support the troops fighting Iraq.

The sentiment is noble.

But it's intensely personal all the same.

Recognizing that, Seton Hall gave its players the option owearing flag patches. The two other foreigners on the team, one from Israel, one from Lithuania, chose to wear them. Marco Lokar did not.

Instead, his jersey featured an invisible scarlet letter. In thsports arena, the reaction was predictable. The sports arena is not the place for thoughtful discussion. It's the place where mob rules.

For historical perspective, simply turn back the clock to 1936when Adolf Hitler transformed the Berlin Olympics into a coming-out party for Nazi Germany.

The German athletes became symbols of their nation'ascendancy, and the first skirmishes of World War II commenced on the playing fields. Soon after they shifted to battlefields, and the horror hit home.

This nation had its symbols then -- Jesse Owens in track anfield, Joe Louis in boxing -- but only in response to Hitler. Most recoiled at the notion of using sports as a means for achieving a political end.

The analogy might seem extreme, but now Marco Lokar is symbol, when all he wanted in this country was to play basketball and receive his education. He never asked to be the center of a political debate.

Some, including Seton Hall athletic director Larry Keatingwonder now if athletes should continue wearing flag patches on their uniforms. Keating, a Vietnam vet, said yellow ribbons might be more appropriate.

The unfortunate thing is, the patches serve their purposeSoldiers in the gulf were ecstatic to see them worn for the first time during the World Series, three months before the start of the war.

The gesture has meaning because sports are woven so deeplinto the fabric of American society. But many cringed when the NFL turned the Super Bowl into a pep rally for the war, and many are cringing now.

Topps is producing Persian Gulf bubble-gum cards -- would yotrade a Bo Jackson for a Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf? -- and for $24.95, you can purchase a dozen Saddam Hussein golf balls and pound them down America's fairways.

Meanwhile, the war continues, and it's not exactly Orioles-BluJays. Support in the United States remains high, but what if public opinion turns? Will players remove the flag patches from their chests?

Those are valid questions, and they underscore the incongruitof athletes serving as U.S. billboards. In fact, it's frightening to think national pride hinges on such displays of patriotism, however sincere.

Sports might be part of what makes America great, but much oit is about conformity, a concept that is best kept at a distance in a nation where almost everyone's ancestors come from someplace else.

Marco Lokar chose to be different.

He thought it was the American way.

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