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2011 in Review: When Sports Stars Speak Out

Pro athletes are told from the moment they first put on sneakers to check their politics at the locker-room door. But 2011 wasn’t an ordinary year, on or off the playing field, from the Arab Spring to Occupy USA, to the lockouts in the N.B.A. and the N.F.L., which had the  effect of forcing athletes out of their SportsCenter comfort zone and into talking about the real world.

Below are a series of quotes from the  past year that showed a glimpse of a different kind of athlete,  reflecting on and even shaping the world around them.

1. Al’a and Mohammed Hubail, Bahraini soccer  legends, peacefully protested Bahrain’s Army’s shooting of civilians, and for their troubles were sacked from the team, the cuffed and  frog-marched off the practice field with two other players. Ala’a, to ESPN about being tortured in custody: “We were living in a nightmare of  fear and horror.” And to the A.P.: “I served my country with love and will continue as much as I can. But I won’t forget the experience which I  went through for all my life. What happened to me was a cost of fame.  Participating in the athletes’ rally was not a crime.”

Mohammed, to the A.P.: “Sure, I want to play. But first we need a  solution to all of this…. I need to know what is going to happen to me.  For our community, the nation, how long are we going to be like this?”

2. Troy Polamalu, Steelers safety, on the lockout: “I think what the players are fighting for is something bigger. A lot of people think it’s millionaires versus billionaires and that’s the huge argument. The fact is it’s people  fighting against big business. The big business argument is ‘I got the money and I got the power therefore I can tell you what to do.’ That’s life everywhere. I think this is a time when the football players are standing up and saying, ‘No, no, no, the people have the power.’”

3. Charles Woodson, Green Bay Packers cornerback,  defensive captain, and union rep, at protests in Madison, Wisconsin, in  February: “Last week I was proud when many of my current and former teammates announced their support for the working families fighting for their rights in Wisconsin. Today I am honored to join with them.  Thousands of dedicated Wisconsin public workers provide vital services for Wisconsin citizens. They are the teachers, nurses and child care workers who take care of us and our families. These hard working people  are under an unprecedented attack to take away their basic rights to  have a voice and collectively bargain at work.”

4. Nader el Sayed, the former goal keeper of Egypt’s  national football team, running for Parliament with the moderate Wasat Islamist party, on the fall of Mubarak: “It was something I had waited for for so long….We had a popular revolution, now it’s time for the  political revolution. I wanted to join a political party, not a  religious movement….We need to participate without using intellectual, religious or economic terrorism.”

5. Etan Thomas, an eleven-year N.B.A. veteran and  member of the N.B.A. Players Executive Committee, after visiting  Zuccotti Park: “Who is in the same position of power as the 1 percent?  Who wants a bailout for their own mismanagement decisions? Who is more closely aligned with the corporate interests from which the Wall Street occupiers are looking to reclaim the country?”

6. John Carlos, the Olympic sprinter who raised his fist alongside Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics, addressing the General Assembly at Zuccotti Park: “I am here for you. Why? Because I am you.  We’re here 43 years later because there’s a fight still to be won. This  day is not for us but for our children to come.”

7. Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, Memphis point guard, after  becoming the first Muslim woman in history to play Division I basketball with her arms, legs, and hair covered: “In high school, someone called  me Osama bin Laden’s daughter…. It was at Holyoke Catholic. We beat them every time we played them...When some people come at me with, ‘Oh, is that a tablecloth on your head?’—it’s like, really, don’t. If you’re going to have that kind of question, don’t ask me. But some people are  truly honest in asking a question, like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be rude, but why do you wear that?’ That’s the kind of question I’d rather answer.”

[Zirin is the sports editor at the Nation. You can reach him at]

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