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Curt Schilling and 9 Other Professional Athletes Who Felt the Need to Comment on Politics

Former MLB star Curt Schilling posted controversial tweets about Muslims Tuesday. But he's not the only professional sports star who's dabbled in provocative topics.

Former US NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman (C) speaks to members of the media as he makes his way through Beijing's international airport on December 19, 2013.  Rodman is on a visit to North Korea from December 19 to 23.    AFP PHOTO / WANG ZHAO        (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)
Former US NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman (C) speaks to members of the media as he makes his way through Beijing's international airport on December 19, 2013. Rodman is on a visit to North Korea from December 19 to 23. AFP PHOTO / WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)

When former baseball star Curt Schilling tweeted a meme comparing Muslims to Nazis on Tuesday, ESPN quickly suspended him from participating in coverage of the Little League World Series.

Schilling has never shied away from advertising his personal and political views. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when he was pitching for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Schilling wrote an open letter to Americans about why he thought continuing to play baseball was important for the American spirit. And in 2004, the morning after he led the Red Sox to victory in their first World Series win since 1918, he very publicly endorsed George W. Bush for a second presidential term.

Tuesday’s tweets, however, not only dabbled in international politics but also struck a remarkably offensive tone. After ESPN announced his suspension from going on air, a spokesman for the network told the Washington Post the tweets were “completely unacceptable, and in no way represents our company’s perspective,” adding that ESPN “made that point very strongly to Curt.”

Schilling later deleted the tweets and posted an apology for what he called a “bad decision.”

But no matter whatever minor punishments or push-back athletes face for publicizing their views on international politics, it doesn’t seem to stop others from doing the same.

Foreign Policy has compiled a short list of examples of when athletes took their political views outside of the locker room, for better or for worse.

— Magglio Ordonez, a Venezuelan baseball player who openly endorsed controversial former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, was booed by fans who opposed the slugger’s support for the socialist leader. Then-Vice President Nicolas Maduro took over the presidency after Chavez’s death in 2013, and Ordonez has vocally supported him as well. After retiring from baseball in 2012, Ordonez returned to Venezuela, ran on the socialist ticket for mayor of his hometown of Sotillo, and won. He still holds office today.

— Last year, former NBA superstar Dennis Rodman organized a celebrity basketball game in North Korea, befriended North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, and serenaded the dictator for his birthday. Rodman’s documentary, Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang, documents his controversial organization of the game, which was highly criticized considering North Korea’s human rights record and Washington’s strained relationship with Pyongyang. Here’s a clip of him singing the happy birthday song to Kim:

— In 2014, Dion Waiter, then of the Cleveland Cavaliers NBA team, refused to stand for the American national anthem. When pushed on why he didn’t leave the locker room for the patriotic song, Waiter, a practicing Muslim, reportedly cited his religion. He later contradicted those reports, and claimed his pre-game routine just took longer than usual. In 1996, another Muslim player, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, then of the Denver Nuggets, refused to stand for the anthem and was suspended before agreeing to stand, so long as his eyes were shut and his head was bent in prayer.

— After the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, then-Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall used Twitter to criticize those who celebrated bin Laden’s death, claiming Americans only knew one side of the story. “What kind of person celebrates death?” he wrote. “It’s amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We’ve only heard one side.” But what really sparked controversy was his skepticism that two planes took down the World Trade Center on 9/11. “We’ll never know what really happened,” he wrote. “I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition style.” He later deleted the tweets, and the Steelers responded by saying they did not understand the nature of his comments but are proud and supportive of the U.S. military. Mendenhall later stated that the tweets were a reaction to the celebration of death, and were not intended to be a political statement. Today, Mendenhall writes for HBO’s “Ballers,” a TV show starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a professional football player who retires and becomes an agent.

— In 2014, Russian NHL players Alex Ovechkin and Semyon Varlamov got themselves wrapped up in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Ovechkin was photographed holding a sign that implied the Russian invasion of Ukraine would save children from fascism. Varlamov posted a photo on Instagram where he proudly displayed a t-shirt emblazoned with a portrait of Vladimir Putin and the words “Crimea is Ours” written in Russian.

But there will always be the pacifists.

— Retired NBA superstar Steve Nash, a Canadian who was playing for the Dallas Mavericks when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, warmed up in a t-shirt “No War. Shoot For Peace.” Speaking to reporters, he said he thought the U.S. was overstepping by invading Iraq:

“I believe that us going to war would be a mistake,” he said. “Being a humanitarian, I think that war is wrong in 99.9 percent of all cases. I think it has much more to do with oil or some sort of distraction, because I don’t feel as though we should be worrying about Iraq.” Nash played much of his career in Arizona, and has repeatedly spoken up against laws he thinks indiscriminately target the Latino population living there. Doing so, he said in 2010, “opens up the potential for racial profiling and racism.”

— And in 1967, Muhammad Ali lost his heavyweight boxing title after refusing to join the U.S. Army and go to war in Vietnam. After renouncing his induction, Ali famously said “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.” An appeal helped him wiggle his way out of a five-year prison sentence, but he was fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years.

WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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