Sports Have Always Been Political and That’s the Way it Should be.
What Drs. John Carlos and Tommy Smith taught future generations of politically conscious athletes
42 years ago today, Drs. John Carlos and Tommy Smith raised their fists in protest of the Vietnam War and race relations in America while standing on the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Beside them, Australian sprinter Peter Norman, who won a silver medal in the men’s 200-meter, wears a patch from the Olympic Project for Human Rights in solidarity.
1968 was one of the most tumultuous years in American history. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, the Vietnam War was killing over 500 Americans per month, there were riots outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago, and race relations were at an all time low.
In what is now known as one of the most iconic protest images in sports history, Drs. Carlos and Smith bound themselves to the spirit of their time without saying a word. They were tired of being treated like second-class citizens. They were tired of riding in the back of the bus. And they were tired with staying quiet.
“How many times in your life have they really expressed to you what that protest was all about?” Dr. Smith asked in an interview with SportsNet. “They have it in the history books with no explanations whatsoever. Nothing about how they did it, why they did it, or why it matters.”
To Drs. Carlos and Smith, the protests were about much more than making a simple statement. Their clenched fists symbolized a passing of the baton to the next generation of leaders fighting to create a more perfect union. They went to the Olympics with the intent of doing a service for humanity.
“It wasn’t a protest to show Black power, or Black pride. We were concerned for all humanity, all mankind,” Dr. Carlos said.
And this concern hasn’t waned. Instead, athletes from Curt Flood and the Syracuse 8 to modern heroes like Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James have continued the long march toward freedom.
Still unchanged, however, is the vitriol directed at athletes that use their platform to protest. Recall Gertrude Ederle, whose coach attempting to sabotage her first attempt to swim across the English Chanel, students at the University of Missouri threatened to kill New York University’s fullback Leonard Bates for daring to travel with the team to an away game, and Kathrine Switzer, who was physically attacked for running the Boston Marathon faster than many men.
Contemporarily, Fox News’ Laura Ingraham famously told LeBron to “shut up and dribble,” San Francisco 49er fans burned Kaepernick’s jerseys while league owners blackballed him from finding work, and Conservatives on Twitter vowed to stop watching the NBA , NFL and MLB allowed their athletes to express solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives by wearing insignia and slogans on their jerseys.
Yet, no matter how often the faces or places change, the message Drs. Carlos and Smith wanted to send to future athletes was received loud a clear: Sports have always been political, and that’s the way it should be.
History in the Making
Sports, like politics, is not a contemporary phenomenon.
The Greeks, considered by many to be the muse of America’s founding fathers, played games including running, long jump, shot put, javelin, boxing, pankration, and equestrian events because they believed a healthy body was the key to vitality.
Public gyms were places where people relaxed and trained. Oftentimes, philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle used gyms to both train and work out their political theories.
Before the Greeks, the Egyptians would run races at the sed-festival dedicated to the fertility god Min. Winners were seen as having the blessing of the Pharaoh.
The Maya played a ballgame in their city centers stretching between Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize. The game symbolized the city’s size and power. Losers were sometimes decapitated and the removed appendage was used for future games. The blood spilled by the loser was seen as a sign of fertility.
And while many sanguine themes from sports history have vanished in the modern era, several researchers believe sports still serve an important social function.
Psychologists consider elements of sports such as self-sacrifice, competition, and goal-orientation as positive individual benefits of organized sports.
On a macro level, sports can also assist in the development of communities.
A recent article in the Journal of Legal Issues of Sports argues that “Professional sports are intricately embedded in their communities, arguably more dependent on consumer and government support, with greater influence on culture and more power to improve community well-being.”
By combining elements of personal development with the corporate social responsibilities such as charitable giving and activism that many professional sports organizations share, “these facts lead to the expectation that professional sports will contribute more to society than just exciting exhibitions,” author Brendan Parent of NYU argues.
Sports as an Olive Branch
With the history of sports in mind, it’s easy to see why American politicians are wont to use sports as an olive branch for political gains.
In 1936, while the country was furiously debating what to do about Hitler in Germany, President Franklin D. Roosevelt supported sending US athletes to Germany to participate in the Olympic games because 23-year-old Jesse Owens represented an opportunity to dispel the myth of Aryan supremacy.
“It would seem that a move of this kind would be a Master stroke for many obvious reasons — politically and otherwise…This should please the negro race because of Jesse Owen[sic] and the other colored Americans…I believe that the most extreme Southerner would laud you for this very discreet and timely move,” FDR wrote in a telegram.
However, after Owens returned, FDR refused to meet with him and the other 18 Black athletes who won medals at the Olympics because he did not want to be seen as “soft on the Negro issue.” Nearly 70 years later, President Obama gave the athletes the celebration they deserved.
Similarly, President Nixon sent the US table tennis team to play the Chinese national team in Beijing in 1972 because he wanted to soften trade relations between the countries. This event became known as ping pong diplomacy.
President Carter threatened to withhold the US hockey team from the 1980 Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He eventually reversed course, and the US team won the gold medal against the Soviets in what’s now known as The Miracle on Ice.
Today, President Trump has rescinded that olive branch by consistently vilified athletes who protest, famously telling a crowd in Alabama that NFL owners should “fire those sons-of-bitches.”
This is why many NFL players feel conflicted about wearing patches saying “It Takes All Of Us” or “End Racism” when 90% of the cash their team owners spend on politicians have gone to the Republican Party, headed by Trump who recently refused to denounce white supremacy.
The Ethics of Loss and Hope
Maybe the most powerful lesson Drs. Carlos and Smith taught today’s athletes concerns the ethics of loss. Not simply how to graciously lose a game or a race, but what it means to have the courage to speak up about injustice even when threatened with losing their job or violence.
Today’s athletes are more wealthy and powerful than at any point in history. The MLB, NFL, and NBA combined revenues exceed $30 billion and many athlete contracts are fully-guaranteed. With this much money on the line, it’s easy to see why some athletes stay silent about their political beliefs.
“The big thing is a person of conviction like [Carlos and Smith] who doesn’t take the moment to speak up about injustice, they have a harder time living with themselves than they do from the ramifications of speaking up,” Hall of Fame CFL player Michael Clemons told SportsNet.
“What can never be counted is the number of people who found hope in knowing a world champion cared about them.”
While hope has yet to pay the light bill or rent, it is a powerful force for change. It is the belief that circumstances will improve, a steadfast determination to make the world a better place.
In the end, hope is the essence of politics. Without it, there is no reason to fight, no reason to try, and moreover, no reason to win. It is hope that Drs. Carlos and Smith thrust into the air inside of their clenched fists, one that endures to this day.