Political Protest In The Modern Sports Venue

Marc Elliott

ST. PAUL… As a young teenager in the summer of 1968 I had witnessed on live TV one of the most iconic sports protest moments of all time. It was during the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City. On the Medal podium after the conclusion of the 200m Finals, American Tommie Smith had won Gold, Australian Peter Norman won the Silver and another American John Carlos won the Bronze medal. Per the normal procedural process the American National Anthem would be played as the athletes took to the podium in recognition of the winners country. Smith and Carlos donned black gloves and as the anthem began, raised their gloved fists skyward in a salute to, and in recognition of Black Power. Norman wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in support of the two. 

Carlos also had on a necklace of beads in support of all blacks who were lynched, killed, hung and tarred for which “no one said a prayer for” in America. He had his track suit unzipped so it would be visible. Prior to the Games prominent American Sociologist Harry Edwards had urged black athletes to boycott the games in light of the struggle at home for civil rights and racial justice. After the event IOC President Avery Brundage declared the display unfit for the ideals of the Olympics and stated that it was a domestic political matter better suited for the American, not the International stage. He ordered that Smith and Carlos be suspended from the USA Team and banned from the Olympic Village. The USOC refused the request, but when Brundage came back and said he would then ban the entire American team, they stepped back and suspended the pair. 

In a side note of at least some hypocrisy, Brundage who as USOC President in 1936 for the Berlin Games did not protest the Nazi Salute utilized by German athletes, stating that it was a “National Salute” and was acceptable in a competition of Nations, declared the Smith and Carlos salute unlike that and therefore not acceptable or suited for the Games. After WWII commenced, Brundage was labeled as a Nazi sympathizer and his removal from the Olympic Games became one of three objectives the OPHR had hoped to achieve. He continued forth as IOC President until after the 1972 games at which time he retired. If you were to read about the life of Brundage and his many idiosyncrasies you could certainly gain some insight into the world of high level amateur sports management and their and it’s eccentricities. It has been of no surprise to me that we have seen recklessness and corruption at the top of the chain here. I don’t think Brundage was a corrupt individual, but held viewpoints on many issues that weren’t the norm. 

Upon returning home from the Games Smith and Carlos were subjected to death threats, intense derision and negative national debate. Norman received some conservative media criticism when he returned to Australia but was not ever officially suspended. Oddly though, in spite of qualifying for the 1972 Games on 13 occasions, Norman was not selected to be on the team, and in fact, Australia sent no sprinters to the competitions that Olympic year, the first time that had ever occurred in the Modern Olympic Games. 

Norman passed away in 2006, and his family insisted that Smith and Carlos attend his services and serve as pall bearers. From the Mexico City Games forward the trio was linked forever. In Sydney, a homeowner there allowed the side of his home to be used for a mural depicting the event. Norman got to see it before his passing and was said to be quite pleased with it. Smith and Carlos continued on with athletic pursuits, both tried out professional football with mixed success and continued to dabble in track and field. Both have worked in the educational field as teachers and counselors and have coached track athletes as well. And both, it would go without saying, have continued to work for and support racial equality and justice. This is a very important story and I would urge you to look into it as there are many more details to explore then I can outline within this space.    

FAST FORWARD TO TODAY. We still have a substantive number of citizens here in the United States that hate others simply for the color of their skin, ethnicity or religion. 
In my book these are intellectually deficient people. They have been taught to hate since no one is born with a proclivity to do so, and even when becoming of age to think for ones self, continue to cling to it. To be certain, these persons are in the minority, but they are here and they are loud. And sadly they get way more attention then they deserve. Even more sadly is that they have a new cheerleader. This new cheerleader much to my chagrin also has a rather large podium to operate from. This new pom pom shaker is The President of the United States. His speech and rhetoric have given rise to a new level of hate, seemingly sanctioned by the highest office of our land, if not the world. When called on it, he will state otherwise, but his actions, his family history and background reveal the truth. This person is an out and out bigot. 

Taking time out over the weekend from stirring the boiling kettle of world events to focus on domestic issues, he decided it would be a good time to go after the sports world and their version of political activism. When NBA Champion Steph Curry stated that he wouldn’t go to the White House for a Championship recognition ceremony, the POTUS took to Twitter to announce that he was pulling back the invite. At a political rally Friday eve, attended by members of his rabid base, he stated that any NFL player taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem should be fired. He said that “NFL owners who see players disrespecting the flag should say get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired”. 

Oy vey. When IS the right time to protest an issue? When no one listens to you anyway sometimes drastic measures are required. Is this proper to do in the workplace? Well, my workday doesn’t begin with the National Anthem, but if it did, and for an absolute variety of reasons, I think I’d be taking a knee right about now too…. PEACE