Can Sports Build Bridges Where Others Want Walls?
Maplewood, New Jersey native Ibtihaj Muhammad says she was detained for two hours at the airport by U.S. Custom and Border services on her way to the MAKERS Conference in California- an event that focuses on women’s empowerment.
Muhammad is the first American woman to wear a hijab and represent the United States at an Olympic level. She won a bronze medal in the Team sabre event in fencing at the 2016 Rio Games. She is a brilliant advocate for justice.
It comes as no surprise that a Black woman in a headscarf who often carries a sword might be questioned under the current administration. But that an American hero and history maker was subject to two hours of questioning for nothing more than suspicion and for what she looks like is not simply inconvenient but also unsettling.
A few short weeks after Trump’s Executive Order (EO) attempted to ban people from seven Muslim-majority countries, there was tremendous uproar and confusion in the sports world.
NBA, MLS and NHL are wondering how to navigate a system that is unjust and frightening. Even though the NHL might not currently have players from Syria, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Yemen, frequent cross-border travel is a concern.
Nazim Kadri is a Canadian hockey player with Lebanese roots. He is Muslim and often works in supporting relief-agencies that support refugees and orphanages in war-torn countries.
Amir Khan is a world-class boxer currently training in California for an upcoming fight. Khan is a British national and son of Pakistani parents. If he were to travel outside of the US would he be given a tough time if he was to re-enter? I can’t help but wonder whether if would be detained.
This is clearly not an issue about popularity or star power. Otherwise Muhammad, whose face graced the covers of TIME and many newspaper covers - would not have been questioned.
The response from major league athletes has varied. In a response, some Super Bowl champions are refusing to go to the White House to celebrate their championship win.
Mark Parker, CEO of NIKE, spoke out out publicly defending such tremendous athletes as Mo Farah and denouncing the ban.
There are, of course, those who support Trump and these xenophobic policies. After Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank stated that he feels Trump is an “asset” for the United States, sports figures such as Steph Curry, Dwayne Johnson and Misty Copeland (all whom are sponsored by Under Armour) immediately spoke out against him.
Many athletes including WWE superstar Sami Zayn, 18-year NBA veteran Nazr Mohammed and two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, tweeted in anger, disbelief and utter sadness.
Freedom and liberty packing up their things...— Steve Nash (@SteveNash) January 28, 2017
I have already written about how powerful solidarity from athletes expressing their support for marginalized communities is. This is not the first nor will it be the last of sports stars using social media to express themselves and confronting injustice.
These athletes are right to be concerned with the toxic political climate. Muhammad’s two hour detention is alarming. She was born and raised in New Jersey. She is not a naturalized American citizen. She is not an immigrant, a refugee - nor are her parents. She has no connection to any of the countries in the EO. But she was detained.
Muhammad publicly expressed her dismay. "I don't know why. I can't tell you why it happened to me, but I know that I'm Muslim,” she told Popsugar during the MAKERS conference. “I have an Arabic name. And even though I represent Team USA and I have that Olympic hardware, it doesn't change how you look and how people perceive you."
This piece is crucial to understanding that although the EO of said Travel Ban was in the vein of “anti-terrorism” or such mumbo-jumbo to prevent unwanted violence on American soil, it affects anyone who might look, or have a name that is, Arab, South Asian and/ or Muslim - even if they are American citizens.
Muhammad, a very proud member of the US Olympic Team, has been very public in her criticism of Trump, even before he took over the White House. She has addressed his triggering language and venomous message in the past, along with his attempt to isolate American Muslims from mainstream society.
“I think his words are very dangerous,” she said in August. “When these types of comments are made, no one thinks about how they really affect people. I’m African American. I don’t have another home to go to. My family was born here. I was born here. I’ve grown up in Jersey. All my family’s from Jersey. It’s like, well, where do we go?”
This ban is not about security. It is about legalizing xenophobia and Islamophobia. It affects all Americans negatively. It attempts to rip apart the multiple identities that many American athletes are proud to have. Trump might not be aware of the contributions of Muslim-American athletes, but they are an integral part of American sports history.
Sports are a way to unite people from different communities and build much needed bridges. Muhammad is a stellar example of a woman pushing boundaries and making the country so proud. Her experiences in sport cut across so many lines and intersections of important issues.
But the ability to flourish and feel supported by her own country is marred by unnecessary detentions and horrendous racial profiling.
"My human response is to cry because I was so sad and upset and disheartened — and just disappointed," she said after the ordeal.
Now is the time to rally behind Muslim athletes. Now is the time to support all athletes of color, LGBTQ athletes, Para athletes, those who might not have platforms and whose opportunities could be affected.
For now, the travel ban has been stalled in court. But the effects of the hateful rhetoric will be felt long after. And there is no assurance that the current government intends to ease up on any of the pressure and stress on the non-Tom Brady’s of America.
But Muhammad has focused her attention on staying positive for all Americans - not only her community - but anyone who might be a target of unjust laws and policies enacted by this administration.
“I think that we will come out on top as women, as people of color, as Muslims, as transgender people, as people who are part of the disabled community — I think that we'll come out on top."