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Of anthems and pro sports // Basketball player should have stood his ground

What really begs for a closer look in the wake of the Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf affair _ he's the Denver Nuggets basketball player, a recent convert to Islam, who was briefly suspended without pay for refusing to stand for the national anthem _ is not the player's religious scruples. It's the routine association of commercial sport with piety and patriotism.

The Star-Spangled Banner is more severely threatened these days by the often grotesque versions one routinely hears in sports arenas. In any case, what's the connection between patriotism and contests that have far more to do with money and play than with community values? What is the point, anyway, of wrapping play-for-pay in such dripping sanctimony?

Sports idolatry _ of which all the sanctimony about the flag and the anthem is a part _ has been dangerously inflated by television revenues and is very nearly out of control. It exerts a disorienting influence on the "values" we piously say we want young people to embrace. Read, for instance, Friday Night Lights, a saddening account of the high school football mania that absorbs the energies of Texas youth in Odessa and elsewhere.

That said, it will be no surprise that the NBA's sanctioning of Abdul-Rauf, which stood to cost him nearly $700,000 if had remained benched for the rest of the season, gives me a royal pain in the you know what.

The NBA was moved to act only after Abdul-Rauf, having sat out the national anthem all season long, gave a press interview in which he called the flag "a symbol of oppression and tyranny." The NBA stepped in to protect the flag against heresy and seems to have succeeded. Abdul-Rauf has met the league more than halfway.

True, it seems inconsistent to demand respect for one's religious views while disparaging the flag. But that is neither here nor there. So long as he performs the duties he was hired to perform (and his 19-point average per game isn't bad), Abdul-Rauf's views about the flag, American history, race, religion, or your uncle's old brown derby hat are wholly immaterial _ or certainly should be.

The NBA says the issue was merely the rules, and otherwise without legal or constitutional significance. But why, then, did the NBA overlook Abdul-Rauf's boycott of the national anthem until he embellished it with provocative talk? Pro basketball routinely tolerates more glaring incivilities without visiting outlandish penalties on the perpetrators. Brawling, foul play, trash talk and obscene gestures have become pretty routine and _ worse _ the bad habits are spreading into the junior farm clubs, known as college teams.

No doubt the NBA will protest that Abdul-Rauf's suspension had nothing to do with his embrace of Islam. Let us stipulate, moreover, that the young man may have been confused about what the Koran requires. That, however, is no one's business but his. It isn't for the NBA or any other "private" employer, backed by civil laws of contract and public subsidies of the playing arenas, to define what is or isn't acceptable in belief or expression.

Far from affirming the better side of patriotic sentiments, cases like this one show how reflexively Americans invoke piety or patriotism to bully those who choose to be different. As with the treatment of Muhammad Ali over the Vietnam War draft issue, and the still earlier wartime treatment of schoolchildren who refused to join in the Pledge of Allegiance, they reveal a nasty streak of intolerance lurking just below the surface.

The appropriate guideline was stated half a century ago by Justice Robert Jackson when the Supreme Court threw out a West Virginia law stigmatizing Jehovah's Witnesses children who refused to salute the flag at school:

"If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."

If that standard is good enough for the U.S.A. it should be good enough for the NBA as well, and it's too bad Abdul-Rauf threw in the towel so early.

Washington Post Writers Group

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