It was Cinco de Mayo, the annual “Fifth of May” celebration of Mexican culture that, by the way, is a much bigger deal north of the border than it is in Mexico. So the gesture by the Phoenix Suns, to have their players wear “Los Suns” on their jerseys for last night’s NBA playoff game against San Antonio, easily could have been interpreted as nothing more than a neighborly nod toward diversity and historic regional ties.

Both teams, after all, come from states that were part of Mexico before they belonged to the United States. Yet it was clear Los Suns were joining the sports world’s spreading protests against Arizona’s contentious new illegal-immigration law.

At the suggestion of Suns owner Robert Sarver, his players voted to wear the Spanish wording in support of the Latino community, widely seen as targeted by authorities’ ability, under the Arizona decree, to demand suspected illegal aliens produce documentation of their status.

Michael Weiner, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, last week made the first forceful objection to the law; half of MLB’s teams hold spring training in Arizona and 27 percent of its players were born in Latin America. Rep. Jose Serrano (D-Bronx) called on MLB to move its 2011 All-Star Game from Phoenix, and public demonstrations have urged boycotts of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ games and merchandise. That an NBA team would sign onto the chorus of dissent hardly surprised Roger Abrams, the Northeastern law professor who has written extensively on sports and labor law.

“The NBA always has been the most progressive league, in terms of minority hiring,” Abrams said. “And I’m sure almost everyone on that team is a man of color. The black community, though it sometimes has had disagreements with the Latino community, understands discrimination.

$imageCaption

“These very tall, very rich, very talented athletes also realize what blacks had to deal with — the last time we asked for papers in this country was the freed slaves in the 1860s.”

advertisement | advertise on newsday

To Duke cultural anthropologist Orin Starn, the sports establishment’s building outcry “could be symbolic of a people-of-color coalition, because this is very much a question of skin color and the underdog and almost apartheid-like laws.

“Sports is a sleeping giant in the sense that it can have enormous clout in American society,” Starn said. “Most athletes don’t seem to pay a lot of attention to politics or social issues ... but when they speak out, they can have tremendous influence.”

On the one hand, Abrams said, “We can make a confident prediction that spring training will go on as scheduled; Arizona will blink or be forced to blink by the federal courts. There is absolutely no question that the statute is unconstitutional” — adding that his legal colleagues wonder “whether, in fact, anyone would actually try to enforce this thing.”

Baseball might be expected to protest, Abrams said, because it “has worked very hard to develop a relationship and patronage among Latino fans ... But this is not something that can be imposed from the outside, because there are risks involved. The latest information is that the majority of Arizonans support this law. Which tells us a lot about Arizonans.”

It could be argued, Starn said, that “sports sometimes seems to be out in front of society” — as with Jackie Robinson integrating baseball ahead of most American institutions. In the meantime, he said, “It’s refreshing to see athletes speak out.”