Howard's dismissive words not at home among the brave stands

The irony of Josh Howard's misguided ramblings about "The Star-Spangled Banner" is that they represent what we want from our athletes and what we value about our nation.

What makes America the best country on the planet is that you are free to stand or sit for the national anthem, to sing along or to yell in anger at the government as much as you want without getting tossed in jail for your political beliefs.

And normally, if a rich athlete were to think beyond his charmed life and speak out on behalf of the oppressed, we would admire his selflessness.

But it's too sensitive a subject for people to recognize the real topics at hand. And besides, Howard isn't the right guy to be representing these principles. We're talking about delicate issues that require elaborate explanations, coming from someone whose judgment isn't so unassailable. Howard, the Dallas Mavericks forward coming off a year in which he publicly admitted his penchant for smoking marijuana and defiantly partied away during the NBA playoffs, has a termite-ridden soapbox.

If he wants to provide a thoughtful account for his stance, I'll listen. But his rationale that "'The Star-Spangled Banner' is going on. I don't celebrate this [expletive]. I'm black," doesn't cut it.

In 2003, when a basketball player at New York's Manhattanville College named Toni Smith was thrust into the national spotlight for her refusal to face the flag during the national anthem, she at least gave eloquent reasons for her choice.

"The flag means to me; first, it means it stands for the millions and millions of indigenous people who were massacred to claim it," she said on "Outside the Lines" that year. "It means the millions of those enslaved in order to build it up. And it means the millions of those who are still oppressed in order for it to prosper. It also does stand for those who fought. They gave their lives in order for this country to prosper, but I don't think that for any specific purpose I should compromise my beliefs to accommodate people's personal offenses towards their family or however they feel defending them.

"I showed support for everyone who died for this country, but I think that if the flag means to you respecting all of those who died fighting for it, you must also acknowledge all of those who were killed to build it up."

If you're going to exercise your First Amendment right to free speech, have something worthwhile to say. In the end, our country respects those who take a principled stand. That's why Muhammad Ali, who had his heavyweight championship belts snatched away when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War, was given the honor of lighting the flame at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta more than a quarter-century later. And four decades after sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists during "The Star-Spangled Banner," there are statues of them on a college campus and they received a standing ovation when they were handed an ESPY award.

Ultimately, we appreciate those who put others first. Ali, Smith and Carlos were at the top of their sports when they made their stands. It wasn't about them. America had provided them with great opportunities. It was about all the people who didn't get the same chance they did, whose race or economic conditions created too many obstacles for them to overcome.

I'd bet Howard would tell you the country has been great to him. He went to college and made it to the NBA. Now his contract is being used against him, why is it that we hate it when athletes put money first, but so many believe that same money should trump their right to complain about the country?

I doubt his words were a result of how he's been treated. This wasn't really about him. Think about where he was when he made the statements: Allen Iverson's charity flag football game, which raises money for scholarships to historically black colleges and universities. It's great that Iverson has organized this event, but it shouldn't have to exist. If the ideals of equality this country was founded on had always been met, there wouldn't have been a need for the historically black schools, and students wouldn't need donations to be able to attend them. So if we're going to be mad at what Howard said, we should be just as mad at the lengthy chain of events that led him to be where he was when he said it and we should do something about ending it.

If you click on the YouTube links, you'll find that the worst part isn't what Howard said. It's in the comments that follow, a free-flowing cesspool of n-words and orders to go back to Africa, far too much evidence of this country's ever-present racial divide.

Last month, we celebrated as an all-black group of NBA players wearing red, white and blue stood on a podium and cast their eyes on the American flag as "The Star-Spangled Banner" played. This month, we're talking about Josh Howard.

So much for progress.

J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.