For USOC, silence wrong road to follow after Coulter slur of Muslim Olympian

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The United States Olympic Committee is deservedly proud for having been named last week as one of this year’s business diversity leaders by Profiles in Diversity Journal, honoring the USOC’s commitment to diversity and inclusion as “a means to achieve business success.”

For the USOC, that commitment can refer to both the athletes who represent the United States at the Olympics and Paralympics, their coaches and the organizational staff hired to support them - in the case of this award, specifically Jason Thompson,  the USOC director for diversity and inclusion.  Athletes, coaches and staff combine to help create the success measured in medals and other noteworthy performances in winter and summer Games.

That’s why I wish the USOC had done itself even prouder by calling out Ann Coulter for her hateful, bigoted tweet related to Ibtihaj Muhammad, a black, Muslim woman emblematic of the rich diversity on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team.

Not only was Muhammad the first U.S. athlete to wear hijab while competing at the Olympics, she also was part of the U.S. saber fencing team that won a bronze medal.  In the process, she showed young girls, especially Muslim American girls, that achieving excellence and remaining faithful to beliefs do not have to be contradictory.

Mattel understood the impact of that message.  The iconic toymaker announced last week it was honoring Muhammad with a 2018 Barbie “Shero” doll in her competitive likeness, dressed in hijab and holding a sword.  It is the first Barbie in hijab.

In response, Muhammad tweeted, “I’m proud to know that little girls everywhere can now play with a Barbie who chooses to wear hijab!”

The same day as the Mattel announcement, Coulter tweeted, “JIHAD BARBIE!  ISIS Ken sold separately.”

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Muhammad has chosen to ignore that ugly reaction, knowing anything she said would have made her the target of Coulter’s 1.78 million Twitter followers, most of whom probably share Coulter’s troglodytic, xenophobic world view.

The USOC feels it was taking the high road by choosing not to respond.  The argument for that would be, “Why give the vile ideas of Coulter and her ilk any more exposure?”  The counter to that argument is two-fold: 1) Everything Coulter says already gets wide exposure; and 2) Silence can be seen as tacit agreement.

The USOC response to Coulter could have been measured and relatively anodyne, something along the lines of, “Proud to see Mattel honor Ibtihaj Muhammad with a doll recognizing her achievements and her faith.”  That would have been enough to show support of her and rejection of intolerance.  The USOC didn’t even have to mention Coulter directly or be a Twitter reply to her, even though that would have made a statement more powerful, given the 1.91 million @TeamUSA followers.

Could there be any toy longer associated with American little girls than Barbie?  Could there be anyone more American than Ibti Muhammad, born in the USA, proud to represent her country?  And she is an American whose religion encourages physical activity, as Islam does in accounts of the Prophet Muhammad’s words and actions known as hadiths?

Ibtihaj Muhammad, Mariel Zagunis, Monica Aksamit, and Dagmara Wozniak (L-R) celebrate wit Old Glory after winning a bronze medal in team saber at the 2016 Olympics.  (Getty Images)

Ibtihaj Muhammad, Mariel Zagunis, Monica Aksamit, and Dagmara Wozniak (L-R) celebrate wit Old Glory after winning a bronze medal in team saber at the 2016 Olympics.  (Getty Images)

 “Sports is such a big part of American life,” Muhammad said at the USOC media summit in March 2016.  “When I look at the Muslim community, sport is not always encouraged among the young women. I would love for it to be part of their daily lives not because I want everyone to be a fencer but because it is a tenet of our faith.”

The USOC had plenty to celebrate in terms of diversity, especially female diversity, at the Rio Olympics.  Goalie Ashleigh Johnson, the first black woman on a U.S. Olympic water polo team, backstopped the team to gold.  Simone Manuel became the first black woman to win an individual gold medal in swimming.  Sarah Robles, a Latina Mormon, because the first U.S. weightlifter to win an Olympic medal since 2000.  Women won more than half of Team USA’s medals.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s calls for Muslim travel bans during his presidential campaign, Muhammad would be the most visible of those ground-breakers.

She would never miss a chance to press for the end of misconceptions about Muslims, especially Muslim women, in the six months between qualifying she had qualified for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team and competing in Rio.  Speaking out against stereotypes was a heavy load she never shirked.

“I don’t feel that any part of this journey of mine has been a burden,” she said after the disappointment of losing in the individual round of 16. “I feel like it’s a blessing to be able to represent so many people who don’t have voices.”

That’s why the USOC should have been heard, loud and clear, when Coulter unconscionably (for anyone but her) shouted her disdain for the honor Mattel has bestowed on Muhammad.

The USOC has decried and made up for its own past lapses of not supporting just causes, and it has decried intolerance like that expressed by Coulter.  It needs to keep up that mission at every opportunity.  There still is time to seize this one.