NEW YORK — What was supposed to be a low-key affair Tuesday to honor John McEnroe transpired into an inner Beltway-worthy political discussion in Cartier’s Fifth Avenue flagship, of all places.

In atypical form, the 17-time Grand Slam winner tried repeatedly to diffuse questions about the fallout pro-athletes and the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation — the nonprofit group feting him — are facing because of the Bush administration’s aggressive stance against Iraq. Fellow academy members Boris Becker and Edwin Moses tried to help bail him out, but to no avail. Toward the end of the unintended, extended press conference, Becker said, "This is a celebration of our new member, it’s not about politics."

McEnroe described the Laureus World Sports Academy, which lists Michael Jordan, Pele and Nadia Comaneci among its members and promotes sports as a means to social change, as an attempt to create an "Academy Awards for sports." But that was the extent of the festivities at Cartier, a sponsor of the awards.

McEnroe’s passing remark about Nelson Mandela, a LSFG supporter, being "the most exciting and beautiful person" he had ever met touched off a series of war-related questions from the handful of reporters.

"The beauty of this country is that we can agree to disagree. But when push comes to shove, we’re Americans," McEnroe said. "Certainly as Americans, the hope is we’re all in this together — whether we support it or we don’t support it. I do feel we should be sticking together in these uncertain times."

As for choosing not to participate in national competitions such as the Davis Cup, McEnroe said, "not playing sports because you disagree with politics is hollow, but they just say they hurt their knee — we don’t even get that far."

Regarding another recent sports headline — Manhattanville College basketball player Toni Smith’s decision to turn her back on the flag during the national anthem — he said, "There are better ways to express yourself."

"We’re professional athletes, not professional politicians. I don’t think our job is to mix sports and politics," he said. "We’re trying to use sports in a positive way. We’re trying to allow kids to be kids, and part of that involves being able to run outside and kick a soccer ball or hit a tennis ball."With 17 projects worldwide and at least one on every continent, the LWSF is exploring one in Afghanistan. David Butler, the group’s manager said, "These guys do not deal with politics. They stand above it. But they can use their status insports. Sports can speak louder than any politics because sport is a universal language."

McEnroe was more forthcoming about his views after the event, downplaying a question about any concern about traveling to Wimbledon, with "Are you worried about going to the Garden? To me, that’s what it feels like going to Wimbledon."

Unfazed by all the politico talk, Stanislas de Quercize, president and chief executive of Cartier, said afterward, "If times are tough, there’s a call to raise more money and do more [for the foundation.]" He also said he has not seen any changes in store traffic related to France’s antiwar stance. "We have the three flags flying," referring to the American, French and British flags flapping outside the store.

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