Forty-eight years ago, in the stands at the Mexico City Olympics, I felt a twinge of disappointment when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists on the medal podium as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played over the stadium PA. Is that all there is, I thought? It seemed such a mild gesture in a year of riot and murder.
That gesture turned out, of course, to be one of the defining moments in American sports, if not the ’60s. Responding to what it saw as a challenge to authority, the U.S. Olympic Committee drove Smith and Carlos out of Mexico, and the sports establishment back home made sure their careers as athletes and coaches were crushed.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit for the national anthem these past few preseason NFL games seems at first another mild gesture in a turbulent time, something of a stealth move for a quarterback who ostentatiously kisses the “To God the Glory” tattoo on his right bicep after a touchdown.
It also represents the boldest display of athletic activism since that 1968 black-power salute in Mexico, especially considering Kaepernick’s subsequent manifesto. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said on Friday. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
The response on Twitter and Facebook has been mixed, much of it harsh even from other players. Kaepernick, coming off injuries and mediocre stats, will likely start the season as the 49ers’ backup quarterback, if he’s on the roster at all. In a league with its share of Trump-ish dumb white men, some of them owners, he risks his career, as did Smith and Carlos. On the other hand, for younger fans, an athlete who is not politically engaged with the major issues of our day may have no relevance. Why buy his shoes?
The Olympians and the quarterback aren’t just connected by the national anthem. Harry Edwards, the former sociology professor who mentored Smith and Carlos in 1968, has been a longtime adviser to the 49ers. Edwards, rarely shy but ever crafty, told me on Monday he didn’t want to talk about his involvement with Kaepernick right now because “I do not want to take any of the spotlight away from Kaep or to get out in front of the 49ers organization and [Coach] Chip Kelly on this issue.”
Edwards’ prediction over the past few years that activism would return to the arena sometimes sounded like the lonesome cry of a ’60s-era relic, an old athletic revolutionary fighting a losing battle in the Michael Jordan era of shoe sales being as much a gauge of winning as championship rings. Jordan’s alleged, possibly apocryphal dismissal of a request to support a progressive black candidate against a racist—“Republicans buy sneakers, too”—was applauded as pragmatism as much as it was derided as selfish greed.
Activism never gained mainstream traction in Sportsworld, but it also never stopped. Many recent battles—including the former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon’s antitrust suit against the NCAA rule prohibiting schools from compensating athletes for use of their images, as well as the attempt by a group of former Northwestern University students to form a collegiate athletes’ union—have been about fairness in the marketplace. But more and more protests have centered around issues outside the arena. The Phoenix Suns wore “Los Suns” jerseys to protest Arizona’s immigration policies, and the Miami Heat wore hoodies to protest the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. The NBA has always been the coolest, most progressive league.
The first real signs of a Jock Spring—setting the stage, according to longtime activist Richard Lapchick, for Kaepernick’s sit-down—cropped up last month. A startling, half-century-old black-and-white photograph appeared on Carmelo Anthony’s Instagram page. A dozen young black athletes in suits and ties posed at a summit meeting of stars. The front row was a sports Mount Rushmore: Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Muhammad Ali, whose banishment from boxing they had come to protest.
Anthony’s attached message called on:
all my fellow ATHLETES to step up and take charge. Go to your local officials, leaders, congressman, assemblymen/assemblywoman and demand change. There’s NO more sitting back and being afraid of tackling and addressing political issues anymore. Those days are long gone. We have to step up and take charge. We can’t worry about what endorsements we gonna lose or whose going to look at us crazy. I need your voices to be heard. We can demand change.
From Anthony, the Knicks’ superstar best known for hogging the ball, it was a powerful statement. A few days later, he joined fellow NBA stars Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, and LeBron James to open ESPN’s annual self-congratulatory ESPYs awards show. It was a contemporary summit. LeBron declared:
It’s not about being a role model, it’s not about our responsibility to the tradition of activism. I know tonight we’re honoring Muhammad Ali, the GOAT [greatest of all time], but to do his legacy any justice, let’s use this moment as call to action for all professional athletes to educate ourselves, explore these issues, speak up, use our influence, and renounce all violence.
Even Jordan was moved to make a statement supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and decrying violence, including the murder of police officers. He donated $1 million each to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Institute for Community-Police Relations. Skeptics might snark that cops buy sneakers, too, but it resonated as a positive gesture.
At the moment, all we have are gestures. The NBA stars didn’t exactly offer a playbook, and we’ll have to wait to see where “use our influence” leads. Will a pro basketball team refuse to play until a cop who shot an unarmed black kid in its city is indicted?
Kaepernick is a bit vague on action details, too. He said:
People don’t realize what’s really going on in this country. There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust. People aren’t being held accountable for. And that’s something that needs to change. That’s something that this country stands for: freedom, liberty, and justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.
Splendid words, but only words and a gesture at the moment, not exactly standing in front of a tank on Tiananmen Square. But in this distracted Sportsworld, maybe you need to sit out the anthem to get white people—especially the white teammates whose support will be crucial—to pay attention to racial discrimination. Kaepernick is no reigning superstar like the NBA four, glamorous heroes in a black league, and he’s being daringly confrontational for a man so vulnerable in his job. I hope Kaepernick has learned from Professor Edwards about the steep price Smith and Carlos paid for raising their fists. Kaepernick should know just how determined the other team’s defense can be.