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J.A. ADANDE

File Away Conspiracy Theories

Wristband issue might have been a distraction before Miami game, but what's wrong with some UCLA football players making a political statement?

December 10, 1998|J.A. ADANDE

They were only wristbands. Wristbands that weren't even worn, as it turned out.

But if you tune to the right radio station or land on the right Web site, you might be led to believe they're the reason UCLA isn't playing in the Fiesta Bowl.

The bare essentials: Before last Saturday's game at Miami, some players wanted the team to wear black wristbands to promote and support the cause of education for underprivileged children.

Coach Bob Toledo opposed it, and at a team meeting Friday the players decided not to wear the wristbands. In the game, the Hurricanes rolled over UCLA's defense for a comeback 49-45 victory.

Anyone who finds a definitive link between the two events has been watching too much "X-Files."

The wristband issue might have been a distraction, but not 689 yards' worth of distraction.

Ultimately it's not about what happened in this game. It's about freedom of speech and taking a stand. It's about athletes caring about more than just making "SportsCenter" highlights.

As protests go, this wasn't exactly the Montgomery bus boycott.

Some players got together with other students and talked about a way to call attention to the precipitous drop in what are termed "under-represented minorities"--African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans--admitted to UCLA in the wake of Proposition 209, which prohibited affirmative action in state programs and university admissions.

Eventually they moved away from that divisive issue and broadened the scope to incorporate impoverished youth of all races. They shouldn't have to be athletes to get to go to premier universities.

It's kind of hard to take a stand opposing that.

"It's a socioeconomic issue that we're fighting for," Bruin linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo said. "We want everyone to have an have equal opportunity to have a chance to get a higher education.

"We feel it starts in inner cities, it starts with young kids. The message we want to get across is athletics isn't going to be what gets you what you want in life, it's your academics. It's OK to have your dreams--still aspire to be an astronaut, or a football player or tennis player--but the first and foremost thing that's going to get that goal in your grasp is academics."

That's what they wanted the wristbands to represent. And it would be simple. They wouldn't walk off the field to get the point across. They wouldn't cause any disruptions. They wouldn't raise black gloves during the national anthem.

And black wristbands surely wouldn't be as offensive to the eye as those black uniforms the basketball team wore in Puerto Rico.

Ayanbadejo was the driving force behind the wristbands. He also happened to sprain a knee ligament in the first quarter and miss most of the Miami game.

"We decided as a team we're not going to wear them," Ayanbadejo said. "It was over, we moved on. I get hurt the first play of the game, the defense didn't play up to par, we played atrociously. Now there's all this speculation about players on the team quitting and I'm faking my injury and we threw the game because Coach Toledo didn't let us protest affirmative action. That's not even the issue at hand. We just played a bad game. In the midst of us trying to do something positive, it all got misconstrued into something terrible, like we're throwing the game."

There's no way the defense would tank this game over this issue. They've worked just as hard as the offense all season (even if the results weren't as good) and would be crazy not to want it to end in a championship.

"We put it on the back burner, went out focused to play the game," Ayanbadejo said. "Offense did their job, defense didn't do their job.

Besides, if they wanted their message to get across--one of the reasons the Miami game was selected was because it was televised nationally on ESPN--the Fiesta Bowl would have been the best venue.

Ayanbadejo said one of Toledo's concerns was that any controversy over a protest could affect the way voters ranked them in the coaches' and media polls. Toledo said that wasn't the case.

"I was supportive of what they were trying to do, their feelings," Toledo said. "And I wholeheartedly agree with what they're trying to do. But I didn't think the football team was a place to make a political or social statement."

What better place is there? They don't have access to a greater stage to make their views known.

The NCAA always talks about "student-athletes," to the point of humorously sticking by that reference on every introduction during NCAA tournament news conferences. When student-athletes actually try to live up to the term, they should be encouraged.

The attention paid to Division I football and basketball players should be an excuse to voice their opinions, not a reason to keep them to themselves. We should want our youth to be about making change, not trudging along with the status quo.

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