Olympics & the NFL: Games turn from contests to justice conversations

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Above: Extending gloved hands skyward in racial protest, U.S. athletes Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos stare downward during the playing of the national anthem after Smith received the gold and Carlos the bronze for the 200 meter run at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City on. Australian silver medalist Peter Norman is at left. (AP Photo/File)

By Ralph E. Moore Jr.
Special to the AFRO

Those of us of a certain age remember 1968 as a tumultuous year with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Some will remember the iconic protest at the Olympics in the fall of that year when Tommie Smith and John Carlos accepted their winning medals with gloved fists raised above their heads during the Star-Spangled Banner in Mexico City’s Olympic Village, the site of the games.

Tommie Smith received a gold medal (first place), John Carlos got a bronze (third place) but “little known nor long remembered” was Peter Norman, a white Australian, who took home the second-place silver medal.  

Fascinating facts surround their powerful but ill-fated demonstration for civil rights and justice for the world: they were boorishly booed inside the stadium as they stood on the podium, each man sharing a single black glove from the same pair. Carlos covered the USA identifier on his chest and both Smith and Carlos took to the steps of the podium wearing no shoes to symbolize world poverty.

Theirs became a gesture seen around the world and the two men paid heavily for it. The Olympic Committee evicted the two San Jose State students immediately and banned them from future Olympic competitions. Norman, the Australian who stood with the two Black men, lost his athletic career. And similarly, Carlos and Smith lost jobs, suffered broken marriages and were ostracized for years after their iconic protest gesture. Yet, both men recovered enough to play briefly for the NFL: Smith with the Bengals and Carlos for the Eagles.

Few may be aware that a likely influencer of the Smith-Carlos protest was a student demonstration in Mexico City just 10 days or so before the Olympics began. Tens of thousands of students showed up to a call to protest after Mexican soldiers killed several National Preparatory School students with a bazooka blast to the school’s main door. In the struggle that followed, soldiers spent two hours shooting into student protest crowds, killing by some unofficial estimates as many as 3,000.

Carlos and Smith were internationally focused with their protest. What happened in their host city had to be on their minds (along with racial injustices at home) when they decided to protest. They were vindicated when President Barack Obama honored the two Olympic Committee Ambassadors at the White House in 2016. “Their powerful silent protest in the 1968 Games was controversial but it woke folks up and created greater opportunities for those that followed,” said Obama.

Another famous sportsman-protester in more recent times is Colin Kaepernick, formerly quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. He knelt down on one knee in 2016 during the playing of the national anthem before a game in opposition to police brutality and social injustices. Kaepernick also suffered repercussions from his bold gestures. He too was booed by fans and he suffered a job loss because all of the NFL owners refused to hire him despite his relative youth and superior talent.

Kaepernick’s last NFL game was at Levi Stadium on Jan. 1, 2017. The 49ers lost to the Seahawks 25 to 23. Since then he has devoted his life to protesting injustice and inspiring other sports figures to do so particularly following the death of George Floyd in 2020. Despite NFL owners’ obstinance, Kaepernick has received the Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award, the Ambassador of Conscience Award from Amnesty International, an ESPY Award and an award from the ACLU along with a lucrative NIKE contract.

Kaepernick is inspiring others as he was moved to action. That’s the way it works best.

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