|We the people ...|
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist
Adonal Foyle won't be suiting up for the playoffs this week. But his Warriors just missed this year, and they're looking like hungry upstarts on the rise.
He's nowhere near being one of the top players in the league. But quietly, steadily, he's been working on his game, and right now his coach says most people have "no earthly idea how important" he is to his team.
Foyle has no signature moves. He doesn't make the crowd ooh and ahh. His best plays are on defense and under the boards -- off the radar.
But they should.
Wanna know why? Because he's one of the most outspoken, intelligent and interesting athletes in the game.
In any game.
You're sitting courtside at the Warriors last practice Tuesday morning, waiting to talk to Adonal about Democracy Matters, a student organization he founded last year that works in support of campaign finance reform in American politics.
"Don't get up," he says. "I'll come to you."
Refreshing, you think.
You ain't seen nothing yet.
For starters, you wonder why campaign finance? Why not some more tangible charity work?
"Everything I looked at came back to one thing -- money's influence on politics. Not to oversimplify things, but it's quite amazing. If you want to talk about the environment, about civil rights, about gender issues, about education, it all comes down to who has the money, who has the financial wherewithal to get their ideas heard."
Not your typical jock-talk, you think.
You remember he went to Colgate, was raised by two professors who sponsored him after he moved to this country from the Caribbean island of Canouan.
You wonder, how did he get started with the kids, first here in the Bay Area, and now at 46 different universities across the country?
"One of the things I detested, and that I heard all the time in college, was that young people were apathetic," he says. "It just didn't ring true to me. There are kids all over the country volunteering their time in soup kitchens and in charitable programs for children and the elderly and so on.
"What young people are is fed up with a political process they're convinced is run by big business interests. They aren't apathetic. They're frustrated. They feel they have no voice in it."
You watch him, you listen to him, and you wonder, have I come across a true believer?
"I felt the most important thing was to show young people a way of getting inside the system, a way of changing the system from within, and a way of articulating their ideas and raising their voices.
"That's why we started Democracy Matters -- we tell them they have a responsibility to have ideas and opinions. We tell them they have a stake in what happens in this country, and they need to make arguments and take part in the debate. If you are not speaking, someone is going to do the speaking for you, and it's not necessarily going to be in your best interest."
Change. It's a tough row to hoe, you think. And maybe a person isn't so jazzed-up about campaign finance reform; maybe they've got other concerns.
That's cool. He hears that.
"I tell the kids to think about building coalitions, to look at another person and say, 'I hear what you say and I appreciate your position, and here are some other things I hope you will consider as well.' I tell them to talk to people all across the political spectrum, to anticipate and incorporate other positions.
"What all these kids want, what we wall want, what unites us across the political spectrum, is the desire to be heard, to have a voice."
You're looking around. You're in a gym, right? This guy's a player? And you wonder, how does this stuff play in the locker room, with guys around the league?
"I try to make them think, to encourage them to consider how they came to think about things the way they do, and to consider what they want to hold onto and what they're willing to give up. Sometimes I get flack, but guys appreciate that I'm respectful.
"Athletes are a mix, just like everyone else. Some of them talk, some of them don't like to talk, and some of them want to talk but are afraid of what might happen. It's a society just like anywhere else."
But athletes are different, too, you say.
"True. As athletes, we are role models; we may not want to be, but we have no choice," Adonal says. "And part of being a role model is speaking your mind. I don't say that everyone has to be on my side about a particular issue, I say let's talk about it, let's engage each other, let's take each other seriously and ask each other questions."
You tell him you heard Kobe say when the war started that his job was to entertain folks for two hours a night.
Steve Nash got burned for speaking his mind, you say.
"Democracy is not a very nice thing. Democracy is about saying things a lot of people may not like. Steve was doing what we say we want from our athletes. He was being a role model and speaking his mind. You don't have to agree with him, but you have a responsibility to recognize him, and his position as valid. We can't shut down the dialogue. I think Socrates would be rolling over in his grave to see how quiet things are most of the time."
But it's war-time.
"Yes, and people don't want to criticize during war-time, but it's important, maybe more important than at any other time, to share your ideas with your representatives and the other members of your society.
"To me, we want the Iraqi people to be liberated, of course, but the war sets a dangerous precedent, too. And I don't have a problem saying that. If I'm wrong, well, I hope to God I am wrong. We say we were going after weapons of mass destruction, and so far we haven't found them. And I don't want to think that Pakistan could use such a precedent to go bomb the living daylights out of India.
"And it doesn't mean that if I don't like the war, I don't support the troops. Those are two different issues. It's not one or the other, it's not black-and-white."
A lot of folks disagree, you say.
"You don't have to agree with me. One of my favorite things is when someone comes up to me and says, 'I don't agree with you.' I love that. That's what I want -- the debate. I think there is too much simplified thinking, too much of, 'You're either with us or against us.'"
You remind him that Charles once said ballers ain't role models.
"I think Charles wanted people like Mother Teresa and parents to be role models, and he was saying that making a lot of money shouldn't make someone a role model. I agree. But at the same time, that's not how society works. The decision is the kids'. They choose us. And if you we are in the public eye, we have a responsibility to them."
Because athletes know better than they do?
"No, because we go through things just like anybody else. We have a lot of money, yes, but the money doesn't erase human feelings and ideas. Guys in the league are people. They have fears and hopes. They love their kids. They have questions about how things work and how they might work. And, just like anyone, they sometimes keep their mouths shut because they don't want to appear stupid in front of others. It's life, you know?"
But he doesn't strike you as being just like anyone else. He comes off a little brighter, a little more complicated, than the average bear.
"Why should that be?" he wonders. "Education, in the league, and in the African-American community in general, is often seen as a nerdy thing. I'm spending my life trying to change that. Why can't it be good to learn? I want to read. I want to talk about things. That's not cool? So what?"
And you keep talking with him, about his feeling for young people, about his natural curiosity as someone both inside and outside American life, about maybe some day coaching (yes) or running for public office (no).
And then your tape runs out. But you keep talking anyway, about his days talking politics and world affairs over the dinner table with the professors, and about how his studies and his work off the court have made him appreciate how much people sacrifice to come watch him play and about how hard that makes him work on his game.
And you know he has to go because practice is long over. But he keeps talking with you, too -- about his hopes for next year's Warriors squad, about his belief that they'll become tighter, talk more, hang in and be there and give it up for each other more and more as they continue to develop as a team.
And when it's over, he's still not going to the playoffs, he's still not a top-tier player in the league, he's still one spin or shoulder fake shy of a go-to move and a long, long summer (at least) away from inspiring any oohs and aahs.
Only now, you've got to give him his props.
Now, you're a fan.
Editor's note: If you are interested in working with Democracy Matters, visit their website at: democracymatters.org.
Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.