Friday August 8th, 2008

"We have the power to unite the people. If we can unite people who are willing to take a stand, miracles can happen. In Darfur, hundreds of thousands have been murdered, mutilated. Families torn apart...we have the power to save lives. Restore lives." -- Kobe Bryant, in a widely distributed PSA

"For me to try to create awareness of the situation that's going on in Darfur and other places, for me in the position I am, I should speak on it and I'm going to speak on it... We're not talking about contracts here. We're not talking about money. We're talking about people's lives being lost, and that means a lot more to me than some money or a contract." -- LeBron James, in an interview with ESPN before the Olympics

The words of James and Bryant were supposed to merely be the opening salvo from a crop of prominent American athletes who arrived in China with a veritable megaphone at their disposal. In one voice, the contingent from USA Basketball could have expressed their outrage at the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who are being slaughtered in Darfur. Together, they could have blasted China's decision to revoke 2006 Olympic gold medalist Joey Cheek's visa because the American speedskater had been a little too critical of China's role in the genocide.

Instead, Team USA chose the path of least resistance and fell silent. They weren't alone. The White House, which thus far has ignored China's contributions to the mass slaughter in a manner that would have impressed Neville Chamberlain, issued a terse statement saying they had contacted Chinese officials to "express our concern and complaint" about the decision.

The USOC was even more equivocal. The same organization that championed Cheek for donating his $40,000 USOC bonus to a Sudanese charity, which made him the U.S.'s flag bearer for the closing ceremonies and named him its 2006 Sportsman of the Year, couldn't have put more distance between itself and Cheek if it were piloting a Lear jet.

"Obviously, he's a great Olympic champion," said USOC CEO Jim Scherr. "He was not a part of our delegation here, coming to these games, but as a private citizen he was attempting to come to the games as a past Olympian and participate and watch these games. We think that it is unfortunate that he will not have that opportunity, but that's something between this government and Joey as a private citizen."

If you are counting, that's twice Cheek was referred to as a private citizen. Which is PR-speak for "he's not with us." And from Team USA?

The deafening sound of silence.

That silence hasn't sat well with some people, especially Ira Newble. If you haven't heard of Newble, the Los Angeles Lakers guard has been the NBA's most outspoken critic of China's role in Darfur. The Chinese are the top arms supplier to the Sudan and a major investor in its oil industry. Newble is one of a handful of players who have seen firsthand the devastation caused by the violence in Darfur. He has viewed the pictures drawn by young children in refugee camps of their parents being murdered. He has heard young women speak about being raped repeatedly. And he has seen the mutilated body of a man with his eyes gouged out. Last year Newble sent a letter to the Chinese government expressing concerns over their actions in Sudan, a letter that was signed by many NBA players. And he believes it is well within a high-profile athlete's rights to speak out.

"When I first saw LeBron's interview [with ESPN], I was pleased and impressed that he had read the information, stepped up and decided [what was happening in Darfur] was wrong," said Newble. "He decided he had a voice that could possibly band the Olympic team together and do something about it. I thought he could help them form some solidarity without disrespecting the games. But recently I saw most of the athletes have retracted from their previous statements. I am disappointed by the latest events."

Newble's frustration extends beyond the players. According to a source close to the team, the players have been asked by U.S. officials not to comment on the situation in Darfur.

"I'm more mad at the bureaucrats that are behind it," said Newble. "They are trying to intimidate players into not saying too much about Darfur during the Olympic games. I believe LeBron's intention was to find a way to show some form of solidarity. There are other forces -- I'm talking about USA basketball -- that are pulling on them more, preventing them from stepping up and saying something."

USA Basketball denies that there has been any attempt to silence its players.

"Our position is, nobody has a muzzle," said USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo. "What they say is entirely up to them. There has never been any attempt at intimidation or an attempt to lead them down a certain path."

Colangelo points out that in the weeks leading up to the Olympics the team was addressed by himself, NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver and members of the IOC, specifically about sensitive topics like Darfur. "And we all said the same thing," said Colangelo. "It's an individual matter. It's up to you what you say."

While the outright condemning of China is an extreme -- though not unwarranted -- measure, Newble believes there are ways for the U.S. players (unquestionably the most popular athletes at the Games) to show their support for the people of Darfur. He points to the naming of U.S. track star Lopez Lamong -- a Sudanese native who was a victim of violence in southern Sudan as a child and spent 10 years in a refugee camp in Kenya before being adopted by a US family -- as the country's flag bearer as a step in the right direction. But there is more that can be done.

"If given the opportunity, there is a way [athletes] can come out and speak on behalf of the people in Sudan," said Newble. "China is somewhat responsible for this. They have been blocking the sanctions from the U.N. They are supporting the murder of three or four hundred thousand people. The Olympic team does have a voice. They could speak out about it. I was hoping the guys who spoke out about it before would do it now."

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