Every Sunday night I go out to my favorite club to engage in lively conversation and enjoy some adult companionship. In the summertime, this often includes taking in ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. This Sunday however, the Red Sox-Angels game was scheduled two hours earlier than the usual 8:00 PM start so that the network could air its annual ESPY Awards show in prime time.
Held captive by the dictates of our friendly bartender, my friends and I were forced to endure the entire two-plus hour event. I say endure because, as any adult who watches ESPN without the protection of the mute button knows, the audio assault that issues forth from the Bristol, CT studios is often unbearable.
I have in times past wondered exactly when the world of sports became infested with the cacophonous din of rock, rap and other forms of what are popularly considered to be “music,” but have long since ceased to care. I have also given up wondering when sports — which used to be a way to encourage young men away from more dissolute pursuits — has now embraced all that is debased in our modern culture; the objectification of women as sex toys, vulgar language, egotism, and violence.
As was to be suspected, all of this was on full display in the ESPYs telecast. From the crude, juvenile humor and other lame attempts at entertainment by host Justin Timberlake and other current celebrities, to the bevy of babes busting out of their decolletage, viewers looking for any real sports content were once again left on the sidelines. All of this proved to be merely an annoying distraction until the Arthur Ashe Courage Award was presented to John Carlos and Tommie Smith. That’s when I blew my top.
FOR THOSE OLD ENOUGH to remember, Smith and Carlos were track stars who, when they won the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meters at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Games, lowered their heads and gave the Black Power, gloved-fist salute during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. To hear the sycophants at ESPN tell it, theirs was a tale of tremendous courage and the epitome of self-sacrifice.
Except that it wasn’t, exactly. Smith and Carlos were founding members of a group called the Olympic Project for Human Rights, whose initial aim was to have black athletes boycott the Games in protest that they were only tools of the American white establishment, that winning any medals for such a country was only “a carrot on a stick.” The OPHR’s quasi-socialist manifesto included the following:
We must no longer allow the sports world to pat itself on the back as a citadel of racial justice when the racial injustices of the sports world are infamously legendary…any black person who allows himself to be used in the above matter is a traitor because he allows racist whites the luxury of resting assured that those black people in the ghettos are there because that is where they want to be. So we ask why should we run in Mexico only to crawl home?
But Smith and Carlos failed to get any athletes to stay away from Mexico City and in the end, neither did they. These two self-proclaimed “traitors” crawled home to an America which had paid their way to compete at the Olympics and whose uniform they hypocritically wore in competition, thus giving them the international platform they so badly sought to air their grievances. An America where, by way of their outstanding athletic ability, they received college scholarships, most likely funded by “racist whites,” at a time when most of their fellow young men were at risk of being sent overseas to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
While Smith and Carlos did experience a backlash after the Olympics, it wasn’t all to their detriment. Indeed, Smith felt that he was blessed by the fallout following his actions in Mexico, in that he had been discharged from the ROTC for “un-American activities:” “I was going to ‘Nam, I could see myself in rice paddies. I believe there’s a God. Sixty-eight had its downfall, but it had its protection for me. I might not be alive.” Many of his fellow African Americans couldn’t say the same.
In trying to understand the resentment that I and many of my fellow Americans felt toward Smith and Carlos, you must remember that at that time, men like Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis and Jesse Owens were still alive, and so were the people, white and black alike, who loved and respected them. Yet, the Black Power movement derided these men and others like them.
It should come as no surprise that, when told that the OPHR had called him an “Uncle Tom,” Owens — who, at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin showed just how to defeat true white supremacists — responded as a true gentleman: “I’m old enough to be their uncle, but I’m not their Tom. We don’t need this kind of stuff. We should just let the boys go out and compete.” And it was Jackie Robinson who said, “Stokely Carmichael’s version of Black Power can only get us more George Wallaces elected to office.”
Are Smith and Carlos to be commended for speaking out against what they perceived to be injustice? Yes, but to treat them as heroes without an acknowledgement of the harm done by members of the Black Power movement to racial harmony in this country is intellectually dishonest. Most of these groups intentionally fomented a climate of racial hatred and cultural separation that sadly still exists today; even in sports.