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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.

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