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The bridge protest

As you may know, I’m a tournament bridge player, though not as frequent a player as I once was, thanks to other obligations. I can honestly say that in nearly 20 years of playing at tournaments, I have very little idea how most of the folks I’ve played with and against vote. It just doesn’t come up in the conversation. So I guess I’m as surprised as anyone to hear about this.

In the genteel world of bridge, disputes are usually handled quietly and rarely involve issues of national policy. But in a fight reminiscent of the brouhaha over an anti-Bush statement by Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks in 2003, a team of women who represented the United States at the world bridge championships in Shanghai last month is facing sanctions, including a yearlong ban from competition, for a spur-of-the-moment protest.

At issue is a crudely lettered sign, scribbled on the back of a menu, that was held up at an awards dinner and read, “We did not vote for Bush.”

By e-mail, angry bridge players have accused the women of “treason” and “sedition.”

“This isn’t a free-speech issue,” said Jan Martel, president of the United States Bridge Federation, the nonprofit group that selects teams for international tournaments. “There isn’t any question that private organizations can control the speech of people who represent them.”

Not so, said Danny Kleinman, a professional bridge player, teacher and columnist. “If the U.S.B.F. wants to impose conditions of membership that involve curtailment of free speech, then it cannot claim to represent our country in international competition,” he said by e-mail.

I look at it this way: If you think these women are representing all US bridge players, then I’d agree they were out of line. If this had occurred in 2002, with someone holding up a sign that said “9/11: Have You Forgotten?” superimposed over a map of Iraq, I’d have been mighty pissed if I felt they were somehow speaking on my behalf. If that’s your view, that the USBF team represents all of us, then sanctioning them is appropriate.

This view isn’t crazy. You hear Olympians talk all the time about “representing their country” and how proud they are to do so. But it seems to me that if you are representing your country, then as Ronald Reagan used to joke about, one of the ideals you’re also representing is the right to criticize its leaders openly and publicly. That doesn’t immunize you from criticism of your actions, of course, but it is something that the sponsoring organization, in this case the USBF, should respect and leave alone.

So put me down as someone who thinks these women should not be made to issue any perfunctory apology, or to be suspended from international play. It’s the USBF, and not the individual team captained by Gail Greenberg, that represents me in some sense, and as such I’d prefer they butt out and let the ideal of free speech speak for itself. Link via Jon Swift and The American Street, who has an amusing alteration of the sign.

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2 Comments

  1. Kevin Hayden says:

    The more I’ve read, the more it sounds like it was not a direct attempt to put down Bush, but simply a moment of levity to put an end to the endless times other participants asked them the question.

    Thus it wasn’t even political. Beyond an official tut-tut, perhaps, they should face no consequences.

  2. Paul Burka says:

    Great post. As a serious tournament player myself, my view is that I don’t care what they say, so long as I am not a captive audience, such as has occurred on the Academy Awards in the past. My Bridge World magazine arrived today, and here is their take:

    At the victory banquet of the world championships in Shanghai, a member of the winning American team in the Venice Cup held up a sign, ostensibly representing a sentiment of all the players on the team, announcing that they had not voted for President Bush. Was this an appropriate explanation to residents of other countries or an inappropriate intrusion of one domain on the territory of another?”

    “We’d say not exactly either. Unlike, for example, the black power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games, the sign was not a specific socio-political announcement, but it alluded to activities not specific to bridge. We interpret the message not as an aggressive political statement but as a defensive PERSONAL disclaimer, one aimed at deflecting any thought that the individuals involved might bear responsibility for actions that have made America a bete noire on the world state.”

    “However one classifies it, the Shanghai sign was a sad commentary on our inability to keep political matters out of other affairs, both organizational and personal. We’d prefer that even such mild external references did not appear unless they directly involve bridge. What we should be saying to politics is, ‘Stay in your own backyard!; That message can be sent more powerfully if we stay in ours.”

    I don’t think that the Bridge World’s parsing of aggressive political statements and defensive personal disclaimers sheds much light on the situation. I think bridge players should stick to bridge.