Sorry, Sports Fans. Trump's Muslim Ban Would Be Trouble.
Donald Trump's call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. has drawn criticism from across the political and cultural spectrum. His dismissiveness of President Barack Obama's contention that "Muslim-Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes" drew strong rebuttals from two of those very idols: Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Trump even apparently failed to think of a single Muslim-American sports figure, despite being photographed numerous times with the likes of Ali, Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal.
As much as Trump's ideas seem at odds with the American ideals of opportunity and liberty, they also reflect an exclusionary strain that has clouded our history, even when it comes to sports. The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was one of the darkest periods of the betrayal of those ideals. Yet it was also a moment demonstrating how athletics -- even that most American of pastimes, baseball -- can promote assimilation and help break down cultural barriers.
Baseball was already part of the Japanese-American identity; the community first formed a team in San Francisco in 1903 and expanded to an eight-team league by 1910. Many of the internees formed leagues, with second-generation youths playing alongside first-generation professionals. In doing so, baseball's popularity among Japanese-Americans thrived, simultaneously fighting the injustice they were enduring and countering the notion that these people were somehow less than American, by ingraining such an important and culturally specific aspect of our society, and in turn, bridging the Japanese and American identities. "Putting on a baseball uniform was like wearing the American flag," one prisoner famously said.
Perhaps that's why Trump had so much trouble recalling even a single Muslim athlete: their athletic success overshadows their "otherness." Mainstream Americans have progressed to the point where we claim the Alis and Abdul-Jabbars and O'Neals and Olajuwons as our own -- as, rightfully, American heroes. That's a very, very generous reading of Trump's statements, but it also belies the prominent role many of these athletes' Muslim identities have played in their careers and public personas. One could never accuse Ali or Abdul-Jabbar of hiding their faith to make fans comfortable. For them, as with the Japanese internees, sports have served to bridge two distinct but not incompatible cultural identities, even as society at large has sought to separate them.
But what Trump is proposing would go far beyond stigmatizing contemporary Muslim athletes like NFL players Muhammad Wilkerson and Aqib Talib in the eyes of fans who likely never considered these players' religious views until now. Trump has been inconsistent about whether the ban would apply to U.S. citizens trying to return from abroad. Would the Denver Nuggets' Kenneth Faried be denied re-entry if he traveled with the team to play the Toronto Raptors? Detroit Lions rookie running back Ameer Abdullah and defensive back Isa Abdul-Quddus played the Kansas City Chiefs in London last month -- under President Trump, would they have been stuck on the other side of the Atlantic? What about Sarah Attar, a California-born track-and-field athlete who holds dual citizenship with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and who made history in 2012 when she became the first woman to represent Saudi Arabia at the Olympics?
Things are clearer regarding Nazem Kadri, a Muslim-Canadian center for the Toronto Maple Leafs: He would effectively be banned from all NHL games not played north of the border. Muslim soccer players are among the best in the world -- nearly 100 competed in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, including big names Mesut Özil and Yaya Toure. At a time when MLS is struggling to increase the quality and popularity of American soccer, the league can't afford xenophobic policies limiting the pool of stars from which it can draw. Columbus Crew striker Kei Kamara, a Muslim from Sierra Leone, finished tied for the league scoring title this season.
By preventing these athletes from doing their jobs, a travel ban against Muslims would strip us of some of the most visible ambassadors for the successful integration of Islamic populations into U.S. society. As a lesser consideration, it would also harm the quality of our sports, that ultimate meritocracy that, thanks to players like Ali and Abdul-Jabbar, has long helped bridge cultural divides and move the majority to accept and recognize the worth of put-upon minority groups. If isolating and dividing the Muslim community from Western society is a main goal of terrorist groups, perhaps a most effective countermeasure is to simply let our Muslim neighbors play ball.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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