March 17, 2003
Dishonoring Flag Shows Immaturity
by Donald G. Mashburn

By now you’ve seen the video clips and photos showing Toni Smith with her back turned to the flag. Smith is a senior at Manhattanville College, located 30 miles from New York City. Smith is majoring in sociology, and plays Division III basketball for her school. And she has embarrassed and infuriated many by refusing to face the flag during the national anthem before each game.

In a written statement to explain why she turns her back on the flag, Ms. Smith refers to “the inequalities that are imbedded into the American system,” and “the war America will soon be entering.”

As an American, Toni Smith is entitled to her opinions. And those opinions don’t have to agree with what others think. But the judgment Smith has shown is remarkably poor, even for a college senior in sociology.

Smith’s opposition to war isn’t a problem. Aren’t all sensible people against war? I know I am. The people I talk with – in my community and in the places I travel to – are all against war. So Smith’s anti-war stance isn’t what makes her judgment suspect. It’s where she chose to make her political statement that reveals her “spoiled brat” attitude.

Toni Smith could express her anti-war views most anywhere and few would have noticed. And she would be welcomed in many places. But Smith chose to call unmerited attention to herself. And, by her conceited attitude, she has – by contrast with her own “enlightened” state – made her teammates, coaches and school appear to be mindless minions of the system with “imbedded inequalities.”

Smith’s opinions could be right or wrong, or jejune words and hollow phrases, and it wouldn’t matter to most of us. But the place she chose to make her statements brought others unwillingly into her public pout. Her classmates and school faculty should not have to put up with Toni Smith’s brand of immature behavior.

At a recent game, a Vietnam veteran, Jerry Kiley, ran onto the basketball court and waved a U.S. flag in Ms. Smith’s face. “She disgraced herself, and she disgraced the flag,” Kiley called out, as he was being escorted off the court.

In a Feb. 11 game with the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, a capacity crowd was on hand to see 300 young seamen of tomorrow wave flags at Toni Smith, while chanting, “U-S-A” and “Leave our country.” The following week, at the Manhattanville home gym, another capacity crowd sang “God Bless America” for Smith and her teammates, and student government leaders distributed small American flags.

In general, public reaction has been negative toward Smith’s mixing of basketball and her own private brand of anti-Americanism. But Smith also has many supporters. Others, like Richard Berman, Manhattanville College president, support Smith’s right, under the First Amendment, to express her views.

Much of the support is the predictable knee-jerk kind that’s critical of America and its traditional values. Particularly if those “traditional values” happen also to be based on Christian and patriotic principles.

Toni Smith’s poor judgment is a proper topic for criticism. Because it was Smith who chose to go “public” with her anti-American demonstration. And Smith chose to put her teammates in the publicity spotlight.

Smith must also take responsibility for her written statement criticizing her country. The senior in sociology can’t claim to have knowledge equal to her national leaders, regarding Saddam Hussein and the dangers of weapons of mass destruction. Nor can she, as a student at an expensive private school (about $10,000 for a 14-week term), expect to have much insight regarding “inequalities imbedded” – or not imbedded – in the American system.

Smith is classified as a senior – presumably about ready to graduate. But with her silly, self-centered display of disrespect toward our nation and its flag, she shows she isn’t mature enough to make a meaningful contribution in the real world.

And considering what she has put her classmates and school through, her study for a degree in sociology hasn’t prepared Toni Smith to help solve the world’s problems.