My Sportsman Choice: Thierry Henry

By Richard Deitsch, Courtesy
Updated: November 30, 2005

NEW YORK, My Sportsman Choice: Thierry Henry.If the name above is unfamiliar, we understand. This is America, after all, and Thierry Henry plys his trade across the Atlantic. Of course, if you are a fan of European soccer, you know all about Henry.

You know he is French and plays for the London-based Arsenal soccer team, where he has scored more goals than any other player in that club’s storied history. You know he is regarded by many as the best striker in the world. You know he does not merely score goals. He creates moments. Commentators describe him using words reserved for people such as Maria Callas, Etta James and Lena Horne: incomparable.

Am I nominating Henry for SI’s Sportsman of the Year based on his performance on the pitch in 2005? Not at all. Henry’s year ranks behind Lance Armstrong, Bode Miller, Annika Sorenstam and a host of other athletes. But he stood up in 2005 against a much bigger foe than Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United.

Professional athletes today, especially in America, are decidedly apolitical. Dissent and protest these days comes in the form of a wide receiver upset with a $48 million contract. I don’t blame them. There is too much money at stake in an age where every public comment is spun and analyzed through the blogosphere. Talking sides can be costly. Suns guard Steve Nash was criticized for wearing a T-shirt to media day during the 2003 NBA’s All-Star weekend that read “No War. Shoot for Peace.” Neutrality is bland — and profitable. Famously, Michael Jordan refused to endorse the black senatorial candidate in his native North Carolina, Harvey Gantt, in a race against Jesse Helms. Air Apolitical, indeed.

This is why the 28-year-old Henry deserves your respect. Black soccer players in Europe are often treated despicably. Fans chant racial epitaphs and make monkey noises when they have the ball.

DaMarcus Beasley, the U.S. national player who plays for PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands, told in October that “racism exists in soccer. It sucks but it does. It’s weird: You have guys on your team that are African-American and you are booing me.”

The incident that ultimately prompted Henry to become a European symbol against racism was not from a beer-soaked lout in the crowd, but rather a man in charge of some of the best players in the world. In an attempt to motivate Jose Antonio Reyes, who plays with Henry at Arsenal, Spanish national coach Luis Aragones told Reyes during a training session that he was better than that negro de mierda [black s—]. His comments were picked up by television cameras.

At the time, Henry stayed silent. He expected football officials would use the occasion to take a stand against racism. They did not. That was followed one month later by racist chants against the black players on England’s national team during a “friendly” against Spain in Madrid. Henry had enough. “After all these things happened, I realized that footballers have a duty to defend important values, and use their media exposure to deliver messages when the occasion presents itself,” Henry told Time Europe in October.

Enraged by soccer’s collective silence, Henry took action. Last January with the help of his sponsor, Nike, he launched an awareness campaign (Stand Up, Speak Up) and became the public face against racism in soccer. In the same way Armstrong’s yellow wrist bands (LiveStrong) have become an iconic symbol against cancer, Stand Up has raised awareness and funds by selling intertwined black and white interlocking bands for two euros each. The proceeds from sales of the wristband (five million have been produced and distributed) are being distributed by the independent King Baudouin Foundation to support anti- racism campaigns across Europe.

The campaign, I predict, will ultimately provide a bigger legacy for Henry than his marvelous achievements on the pitch. I’d like to meet Henry and tell him how much I admire what he’s done but I doubt our paths will ever cross. Instead, I’m sending Stand Up, Speak Up a check, and a four-word note — Sportsman of the Year.