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Girls basketball meets SB1070 and the right-wing outrage machine

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A few days I noted that if anyone in the youth sports world objected to the new Arizona law, SB1070,  that creates a Latino hunting season, I mean, allows police to demand identification is they suspect someone might be an illegal immigrant, a boycott would be an effective way to suck money out of the state and draw some attention to the cause.

I had no idea that someone would take this suggestion seriously (even if, technically, they probably came to the idea independent of me), or that it would succeed so wildly — in the same way Disco Demolition Night was a wild success for the Chicago White Sox. In that, the decision to disallow the Highland Park (Ill.) High School girls’ basketball team to go to a tournament in Scottsdale, Ariz., is certainly attracting attention to the cause, but with an out-of-control reaction by a lot of over-the-top yahoos, someone is going to suffer some collateral damage for the unexpected amount of attention it generated. Especially with Sarah Palin getting involved.

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The scene at Highland Park High.

The most likely victim: Suzan Hebson, assistant superintendent of District 113, of which Highland Park is part. She is the one who, apparently all by her lonesome, decided May 12 that the Giants girls’ basketball team should not go to Arizona. According to the Chicago Tribune, she cited safety concerns raised by the new law, what with 15 percent of the district being Hispanic. (Highland Park itself is an upscale suburb, but the district also draws from the poorer, much more heavily Latino suburb of Highwood.) However, the part that got parents riled up and fueled the backlash against her decision was her statement that the trip “would not be aligned with our beliefs and values.”

So instead of going to Arizona and wearing “Los Giants” in protest, the school wasn’t going at all.

If President Jimmy Carter’s 1980 boycott of the Moscow Olympics over its invasion of Afghanistan (ah, remember the days when the Taliban was on our side?) taught us anything, it’s that athletes who have worked hard for a big event, and the family members who supported them, get very upset when one person decides to cancel a trip for political reasons. If there’s any doubt this was not a decision by committee, the Tribune story had this line:

District 113 Superintendent George Fornero declined comment, saying it “wasn’t just my decision.” He referred calls to Hebson.

Plus, the coaches running the tournament in Arizona said they didn’t know about Highland Park’s withdrawal until reporters asked them what they thought about it.

While I suggested a boycott of Arizona, let me clarify: I don’t think canceling the girls basketball trip was a good idea. At least when the Phoenix Suns won “Los Suns” on Cinco de Mayo, the Suns’ owners asked the players what they thought, and got their support, before their protest. I could understand Hebson saying, from here on it, no new trips to Arizona. But canceling a trip already scheduled, without checking with anyone? Yes, you’re hurting Arizona (which I have no problem with), but you might end up hurting yourself more.

And here’s where Sarah Palin comes in.

By coincidence, Palin — on her I-quit-being-governor-to-make-scads-of-cash-neener-neener speaking tour — happened on the evening of May 12 to be speaking a few miles to the west of Highland Park, in Rosemont, Ill. With conservative talk radio already starting to get het up over the Highland Park cancellation, Palin decided to throw her folksy weight around on the issue in front of the adoring audience of 4,000. From the Chicago Sun-Times:

“Them are fightin’ words when you say a girl can’t play in the basketball tournament … for political reasons … so we’re going to see about that,” Palin said. …

Palin said the school is still sponsoring a trip to China.

“You know how they treat girls in China?” Palin said. “It makes no sense. Even if they have to do this on our own. …  If the kids have to ‘Go Rogue,’ girls.”

Bringing up Chinese human rights? That’s such a cheap… such a cheap… dammit, Palin might have a point.

Of course, having the former Republican Vice Presidential candidate and the de facto leader of the Tea Party Republicans weigh in put the backlash against Highland Park and Hebson into overdrive. Actually, Palin, a former high school basketball player, did more than weigh in. She is sponsoring, with a local right-wing radio host, a Facebook page dedicated to demanding the Highland Park girls get their trip back. I would love to be inside the heads of any liberal parents of Highland Park girls’ basketball players, trying to balance there incredible dislike for Palin with the strange sight of her now being on their team.

Palin isn’t specifically sending people after Hebson, but she doesn’t have to. The right-wing outrage machine, fueled by Palin’s interest in the matter, is already all over that, not the least of evidence being the top of the Sean Hannity radio show I caught on my car radio (for research purposes only — by the way, I might be a liberal, but I usually find the local left-wing talk station as predictable and unlistenable). A Fox News story talks about Hebson’s background as principal of the other District 113 high school, Deerfield, and the controversy she courted for various gay-friendly initiatives, including a diversity seminar for freshmen that included gay students and adding gay-friendly literature to the school reading list and library.

Of course, the quotes in the Fox News story are exclusively from parent activists from the starboard side of the political spectrum, and they make it sound as if Hebson was authorizing students to have gay sex in front of each other as an integral part of their education. Instead, Hebson said her efforts were simply a means to make for a safer and more tolerant environment, and this report said only a few parents objected, not the dozens Fox said. Yes, that report is from a gay newspaper, but you want the opposite of Fox if you’re trying to make a report like this fair and balanced. (Sorry.)

The school district itself, under siege, on May 13 put out a letter that explained the REAL reason for the cancellation, a letter signed by Superintendent Fornero himself.

As you are aware, there has been significant media attention to Township High School District 113’s decision to not send the Highland Park High School varsity girls’ basketball team to a tournament in Scottsdale, Arizona scheduled for December, 2010.  This decision is not a political statement regarding the State of Arizona’s recently enacted legislation regarding immigration.

OK, I know you’re going to explain why that’s true. But it might be a little late for that explanation.

Under long standing constitutional law, all school districts are required to provide an education to all children within the District’s borders regardless of immigration status. District 113 boasts a diverse student population and, as a school district, we believe in equal opportunity for each of our students.  The selection of a girls’ varsity basketball team for the 2010-2011 winter athletic season will take place in November, 2010.  The team has yet to be selected.  When our students travel, the school district is responsible, both legally and ethically, for their safety, security and liberty.  We cannot commit at this time to playing at a venue where some of our students’ safety or liberty might be placed at risk because of state immigration law.  Our athletes will play in a competitive basketball tournament during their winter break.

Possibly on the back of Highland Park parents’ cars, instead of “Go [insert daughter’s name here]! Win state!”

So what the superintendent is saying, if I read this right, is that the district is not sending a team because it has a philosophical issue with SB1070. It’s because of the possibility that there will be players who may or may not be the target of police for suspicion of being illegal.

That’s a reasonable discussion. And it’s the discussion that should have taken place between Highland Park school officials, the coaches, the players and their parents before one person made the ill-explained decision to cancel the Arizona trip. The consistent thread in Hebson’s most controversial decision-making — and why in some cases the school system has backtracked — it’s been an inability or disinterest in anticipating problems on contentious issues, putting her district in the position of having to explain, after-the-fact, in a crisis situation what might have gone down with far less difficulty if the discussion had happened earlier.

When I say that Hebson might be the collateral damage in her all-too-successful attempt to put a spotlight on a troublesome state law, I don’t think that means she will lose her job. If she was going to, then her boss wouldn’t have put out a statement supporting her decision. What I mean is, Hebson is going to be the latest Enemy of Freedom No. 1 for the right-wing outrage machine, in ways she never was when she was being assailed for being gay-friendly.

After all, in those cases, Sarah Palin wasn’t fightin’ for ’em.

Sarah Palin and the political evolution of the soccer/hockey mom

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In 1995, Denver city council candidate Susan Casey, PhD, a former director of the presidential campaign for Gary Hart (she was known, perhaps unfairly, as the person who scheduled the Monkey Business cruise), came up with a campaign slogan to make herself more human and less plugged-in politically, even though she was getting a lot of out-of-state contributions from old pals: “A Soccer Mom for City Council.”

The next year, in the 1996 Presidential election, the term “soccer mom” was everywhere — a shorthand for white, middle class women who were considered to be the key swing vote. Over time, the term went from a desired demographic to a pejorative. A “soccer mom” was a dull-minded, misinformed, minivan-driving person whose political activity was butting her nose into conflicts involving her never-going-pro athletic children. (By the way, Casey’s son did go pro — Conor Casey is the leading goal-scorer for the MLS’ Colorado Rapids and was a member of the USA’s Confederations Cup team, the one that stunned No. 1 Spain in South Africa a few weeks back.)

One of the most interesting things about the short, comet-intense, parabolic political career of Sarah Palin is how the soon-to-be-former Alaska governor turned the concept of the political sports mom on the opposite direction. A hockey mom wasn’t something a politician became to relate to the hoi polloi. A hockey mom was something that made a person ready for bare-knuckled politics.

No matter what Palin’s next move is after her stunning announcement Friday that she was resigning after only two-and-a-half years as Alaska’s governor, she always will be remembered for her introduction to the national stage at the Republican convention, one that heralded the arrival of a new era of sports motherism: “The difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull? Lipstick.”

2838903036_598e06ffef1“What’s the difference between Sarah Palin and me? I pee and poop outside.”

When my wife recently became secretary of our kids’ elementary school’s PTO, we joked that this was the first step to her 2016 vice-presidential bid, given that Palin started her political career on her kids’ school’s PTA. However, there is something inspiring that a woman can take a first step in a political career somewhere that is traditionally a woman’s venue, whether hockey mom or PTA. That could serve as a strong signal to future female candidates that you don’t have to start off in a traditionally man’s world to build a political career.

But Palin’s career also shows how being the hockey mom can inspire passion on both sides — to the point that future hockey mom candidates need to consider how much hockey momism is desirable in their political personalities.

In the politics of the youth sports sideline, a particularly intense mother inspires one of two, very passionate reactions. One is the love and support of other parents who see someone willing to stick up for them and their kids against a youth sports culture aligned not in their favor (or, thanks to her, now aligned in their favor). The other is the dislike of other parents, particularly those whose spouses are coaches, who find them a major pain in the ass. To say who is right and who is wrong is immaterial. What’s important is that both sides will never agree, and will make that parent the constant center of conversation and gossip either way. Especially if she’s good-looking.


Definite hockey-mom conversation-generator.

Is there sexism involved in a lot of the attacks on soccer/hockey moms and Palin in particular? You betcha! It’s shocking to see, in Todd Purdum’s recent Vanity Fair breakdown of the McCain/Palin breakdown, McCain staffers wondering whether her difficult personality is a result of post-partum depression. I guess if Palin hadn’t just had a child, those staffers would have wondered whether she was on the rag. Of course, that Palin is “difficult” is its own sexism. I would hardly be the first to point out that a man who had Palin’s, um, difficulties would be lauded as a tough-ass.

So Palin has had to cut through a lot of crap as a real hockey-mom-turned-national-political-figure. On the other hand, she’s brought a lot of crud on herself as a real hockey-mom-turned-national-political-figure. Being Sarah Barracuda, browbeating your way to the top, can bring a backlash at the PTA level, but not to the level of people trashing you on national television. Palin’s mavericky-ness that can work for a hockey mom at some point runs into real opposition once you reach a real political level. Palin might still be a star among certain Republicans, but often she sounds like a hockey mom who thinks everyone likes her, and doesn’t realize or ignores the sniping behind her back.

It would be wrong to assume Palin’s political career is over, even though many, even Republicans, took to the cable news outlets soon after her short, hurried resignation speech to bury her. One thing about a hockey mom: she might be down, but she’s never out, unless it’s on her terms.

The best thing about Palin’s career, whether it ends now or with an unsuccessful 2012 Presidential run (and, really, whatever you think of Palin, it’s hard to see her with a strong shot at winning at this point), is that a real soccer/hockey mom can go from the sidelines to the frontlines, rather than a candidate running to the soccer/hockey mom sidelines to seem real. The next-best thing is that future soccer/hockey moms are getting to learn from her mistakes and successes.