Go to Top

The Timeless Politics Of Race And Sport

museum display featuring Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists at the 1968 Olympic Games
Exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California. Photo by Bill Abbott.

Week four of the National Football League season will be played Sunday with more attention directed to the pregame national anthem than to the matchups themselves. Meanwhile millions of fans long for sports to be free of racial and political issues, just like in the good old days of – never.

Despite much hokum about the unifying nature of athletics (which has been known to provoke occasional parking lot beatings and unmeasurable amounts of workplace trash talk), sports have always been embedded in the racial politics of the day, and they have seldom been unifying in the process.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved fists in a Black Power salute on the medalists’ podium at the 1968 Olympic Games. They bowed their heads in protest while the “The Star-Spangled Banner” played. They wore beads and scarves to draw attention to the country’s history of lynchings, and they were shoeless in recognition of widespread poverty in the African-American community.

Avery Brundage, the long-serving International Olympic Committee president who delivered the 1936 Berlin games to Adolf Hitler, promptly banned Smith and Carlos from the Olympic Village. He also demanded their removal from the American track and field team. When the U.S. Olympic Committee demurred, Brundage threatened to suspend the entire team. Smith and Carlos never competed in the Olympics again, although both went on to have brief careers in professional football.

Public and media reaction in America at the time was overwhelmingly hostile. Carlos later wrote that as the two bowed their heads, the crowd screamed the anthem “to the point where it seemed less a national anthem than a barbaric call to arms.” Time magazine wrote that “two disaffected black athletes from the US put on a public display of petulance that sparked one of the most unpleasant controversies in Olympic history and turned the high drama of the games into theater of the absurd.”

statue honoring Tommie Smith and John Carlos
San Jose State University. Photo by Noelle Gillies.

But today the protest by Smith and Carlos is remembered as one of the defining moments of the civil rights movement, a moment in which black citizens decided they would no longer concern themselves with the reactions of others to their demands for justice. Today there are museum exhibitions, murals and statues honoring Smith and Carlos. Even Australians fondly recall that their countryman Peter Norman, who received a silver medal along with Smith’s gold and Carlos’ bronze, supported their gesture and joined them in wearing a badge issued by the Olympic Committee for Human Rights.

When Smith and Carlos climbed that podium, there were still no African-American managers in major league baseball; it would be seven more years before future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson took over as player-manager of the Cleveland Indians for the last two years of his career.

A side note: New Englanders, who are often keen about removing Confederate memorials in the South, might want to reconsider their relationship with longtime Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, namesake of Yawkey Way next to Fenway Park. Thanks to Yawkey, the Red Sox were the last major league team to put a black man on the field. Pumpsie Green finally broke the Red Sox color barrier in July 1959, more than a dozen years after Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Thus when Smith and Carlos earned their medals, Boston sports had been integrated for less than a decade.

The same month as the 1968 Olympics, Marlin Briscoe of the American Football League’s Denver Broncos became the first African-American to start a pro football game at quarterback. Despite his success, he was later sidelined at quarterback and moved on to the Buffalo Bills – where he was converted to a receiver for quarterback Jack Kemp.

I remember when boxer Jerry Quarry was promoted as the “great white hope” in the 1970s heyday of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and George Foreman. Lingering white resentment of Ali undoubtedly contributed to Quarry’s financial success. Quarry never won a title, but he could take a punch. He took so many punches, in fact, that his brain ultimately turned to mush and he died a horrible and untimely death. In the boxing world since then, it has been overwhelmingly dark-skinned men taking beatings for the entertainment of largely white audiences. This has an uncomfortable echo in today’s NFL, where the player rosters are nearly 70 percent black and the evidence is becoming overwhelming that they are suffering widespread traumatic brain injury to provide the spectacle we crave.

The use of sports, and the mechanisms that govern and market them, to keep minorities in their supposed place dates back virtually to the dawn of athletics as an industry. Moses Fleetwood Walker was born in Ohio in 1857 to mixed-race parents; his father was a blacksmith turned physician. “Fleet” Walker and his brother Weldy attended Oberlin College (one of the few at that time to admit black students) and starred in baseball. Walker joined the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1883 to pay his law school tuition; when the Blue Stockings (later the Mud Hens, whose ball cap I have always wanted to own) joined the American Association in 1884, Walker became the first black man to play in a recognized major league. He played until 1889, at which time owners informally agreed to keep the sport open only to whites.

I doubt it was merely Walker’s skin color that prompted the adoption of the ban. Imagine what it must have been like, amid the racial attitudes of that era, to watch barely literate (or illiterate) whites play alongside a college-educated, law-school-trained, free-born black man. The spectacle would have provoked extreme cognitive dissonance, to say the least. And the reaction was “never again.”

Joe Louis boxing against Max Schmeling
Joe Louis fights Max Schmeling in June, 1936.
Photo via the New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection,
courtesy the Library of Congress.

Skillful management and the unique circumstances of the 1930s gave heavyweight boxer Joe Louis a chance to break through and gain at least a measure of white acceptance. Louis’ knockout of Italian former champion Primo Carnera in 1935 put the “Brown Bomber” (trust me, this was the least offensive of the nicknames he received at the time, as well as the one that stuck) on the road to title contention and also established him as a counterpoint to the rise of fascism in Europe. A defeat at the hands of Germany’s Max Schmeling in 1936 was assuaged just weeks later by Jesse Owens’ triumphs at the Berlin Olympics. This set up Louis’ rematch with Schmeling in front of 70,000 spectators at Yankee Stadium in 1938. Louis had, by that time, taken the heavyweight crown from James J. Braddock, but it would take the thrashing he delivered to Schmeling in just over two minutes to cement his status as an American icon and African-American hero.

The brewing conflict with totalitarianism opened a door for Louis that the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, never had a chance to enter. Johnson held the title from 1908 to 1915. White fans demanded that a former champion, James Jefferies, come out of retirement to confront Johnson in the “Fight of the Century,” held in Reno, Nevada, in 1910. In an epic battle staged on Independence Day and captured on film, Jefferies threw in the towel in the 15th round. Boxing had an undisputed black heavyweight champion. And all hell broke loose.

Riots occurred in at least 25 states and 50 cities, with around two dozen reported deaths – mostly black ones. States and cities banned public display of the film of Johnson’s victory, and Congress stepped in to ban interstate distribution of prize fight films in 1912. (The ban was lifted in 1940, notably while Louis was champion and the Nazis were rampaging in Europe.)

The law went after Johnson, too. He was a flamboyant character, with unsavory connections to gambling and a penchant for dating white women, three of whom he married. Eventually he was convicted of transporting a purported white prostitute across state lines for immoral purposes, a violation of the Mann Act, and was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. Johnson jumped bail and fled the country for seven years before returning to serve his sentence in 1920.

Here the long-ago story of Jack Johnson intersects our modern politics. Documentarian Ken Burns profiled Johnson in 2004 and helped to launch a movement to gain him a posthumous presidential pardon. President George W. Bush declined to issue one, and so – despite intense public lobbying – did President Barack Obama. I have not heard whether anyone has approached President Trump about this. Maybe somebody should.

Sports and politics have always found it mutually beneficial to engage with one another. We don’t play the national anthem at the start of Broadway shows, but we play it at the start of NASCAR races, NBA games and NHL contests, despite the differences in their audience demographics. Prominent athletes have used their celebrity to endorse politicians as modern as Hillary Clinton (LeBron James) and as far back as Al Smith (Babe Ruth). These endorsements are not always done gracefully, but they are usually made in a heartfelt way. One of my favorite stories about Ruth is of a 1928 radio interview with his teammate Tony Lazzeri, the New York Yankees’ second baseman. “Hey Tony,” the Babe said as he put his arm around his buddy, “tell everybody who all the wops are going to vote for.”

Colin Kaepernick in 49ers gear
Colin Kaepernick. Photo by Mike Morbeck.

Colin Kaepernick touched off the current NFL controversy last season by kneeling as the national anthem was played at several games. Kaepernick said he was protesting police treatment of minorities. For reasons best known to himself, Trump chose to make a national issue of this one week ago, when he called on NFL owners to fire any “son of a bitch” who kneels during the anthem. As it happens, Kaepernick is currently unemployed, having opted out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers after last season.

Even before Trump spoke, there was widespread speculation that team owners blackballed Kaepernick because of his public stand. Much of that speculation overlooks the fact that San Francisco had the league’s second-worst record last year at 2-14, including 1-10 in the games Kaepernick started. Though his individual stats were decent, Kaepernick probably made some strategic mistakes in creating a media storm around himself amid such a striking lack of success on the field. My guess is that this made him about as welcome as Tim Tebow – a very different sort of media phenomenon – in football management circles.

But whatever the reason, the entire country will be watching the NFL this weekend to see which players opt to take a stand, or take a knee. Countless people will voice opinions about whatever happens, even if nothing happens. And I am reminded that, as in 1968, the way we respond today may not correspond to the way we look back on this episode in the future.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The views expressed in this post are solely those of the author. We welcome additional perspectives in our comments section as long as they are on topic, civil in tone and signed with the writer's full name. All comments will be reviewed by our moderator prior to publication.

, , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply