By Ryan Divish
There are plenty of easy things to write about when it comes to Toni Smith.
If you aren't familiar with her, Toni Smith is the women's college basketball player for NCAA Division III Manhattanville College, who has decided to turn her back on the American flag during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner before her games in a mild form of protest against the U.S. government.
Her quiet protest has erupted into a storm of media coverage, debate and analysis. Everyone has an opinion about it and several people have taken the easy way out when describing the situation.
It's easy to call her a traitor, a heretic and a Benedict Arnold.
It's easy to call her a hero and courageous for taking a stand that she knew would be unpopular in most people eyes.
It's easy to say that as an American, she has the right to protest, no matter how unpopular it is with people.
It's easy to say that she is dishonoring the soldiers from past wars. Soliders, who fought and died for her right to make this protest.
It's easy to hate her and want to be like Jerry Kiley, who ran onto the court during a Manhattanville game and shoved an American flag in her face.
It's easy to respect her and remind people like Kiley that the symbol of freedom in America can't be just a flag, but rather the right to turn away from it in protest.
There are so many easy things to say and do when it comes to Smith's protest.
But there is one thing that isn't easy about the situation.
It isn't easy to be Toni Smith's teammate.
Sure, teammates hold her hand during her protest in a form of support. Although, others have donned red, white and blue headbands to show the U.S. their support.
But, the real question isn't why they are supporting her. You support your teammates no matter what. The real question is, why Smith is putting them in a situation where they would have to.
To be part of a team is to give up some of your individual rights. Why else do we have all those sayings like, "There is no 'I' in TEAM."
Coaches spend hours upon hours of breaking players down to stop them from thinking individually and start thinking as part of a team.
Smith's might be the greatest team player during the game itself. Her 5.4 points per game and 2.7 rebounds her game shows she isn't a ball-hog.
However, her actions before the game still have their reprecussions. The media circus and angry opposers of her protest have caused a major distraction.
To some of the people in the MSU-Northern basketball programs, Smith's action are best summed up in one word. Selfish.
"There are better ways to protest," said Skylights head coach Mike Erickson. "All this has done is draw attention to herself and the team. For the most part, it hasn't been good attention. It's such a distraction. I don't see how it can be good for the team. You spend so much time trying to avoid distractions and focus on basketball and all of the sudden you have this huge distraction that has nothing to with the game. It's really kind of selfish."
Perhaps no one in the Northern basketball programs would be better qualified to speak about an anti-war and anti-government protest than Light forward Charlie Ereaux.
Ereaux gave four years of his life to the government in the U.S. Marine corp. In fact, Ereaux is still a Marine on inactive duty. The possibility is slim, but he could still be called to active duty if war against Iraq breaks out.
"If I was still on active duty, I am sure I would be there," Ereaux said. "I could still get called on duty, but I doubt it."
With newborn son, Brendan, at home, Ereaux is thankful that he isn't in the Middle East. But it hasn't soured his sense of duty to the government.
"She has the right to protest this," Ereaux said. "But in other countries she wouldn't be able to. They would beat her and put her in prison."
But what really bothers Ereaux is that she is going against the framework of being a team player.
"That's a big distraction," Ereaux said. "She is isolating herself from her teammates. You can't have distractions, basketball is tough enough without them. It's nothing but selfishness."
Ereaux is older than most college players and his time in the military along with the responsibility of a wife and child, have made him a very old 26-year old.
"It seems a little immature," Ereaux said. "She's only 21, she hasn't really lived and grown-up. She hasn't experienced things that really would make her see how good it is to be here. She doesn't know what it's like to live somewhere else. Someone is filling her head with this stuff, and she's eating it up."
For both Erickson and Ereaux, the question remains, "What would they do if a player on their respective teams wanted to make a protest like this?"
Erickson admitted that he and his assistant coach Warren Quick have differing opinions about the situation. But very simply, Erickson wouldn't allow it. If the player felt otherwise, than they would need to find a coach that would allow it.
"The program and the players are a direct reflection of me," Erickson said. "And it's something I don't believe in. I respect (Smith) beliefs, but it goes against my personal belief and doesn't represent what I want our program to represent."
Said Ereaux: "I would ask them to think it over and be a team player. They wouldn't have to look at the flag, but at least face it. I would tell them 'I respect your individual rights, but you have to respect the team and your teammates."
There is no right or wrong when it comes this issue. Each person has certain individual rights. But each person doesn't have the right to play college basketball.
"Playing college basketball is a privelege," Erickson said. "With that privelege comes certain responsibilities, one of them is putting your team and teammates before yourself even if you don't want to."
Putting your team and teammates ahead of yourself is the essence of what it means to be part of a team.
It sounds simple, but for Toni Smith, that idea isn't easy.