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50 years after Olympic protest, the activist message should not be commercialized

At what cost do we weaken social justice movement with advertising?


This week the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of one of the most iconic moments in U.S. Olympic history: the demonstration by Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the victory stand at the Mexico City Games.

Another significant moment unfolded on Oct. 18, 1968, when the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) ordered Smith and Carlos to leave the Olympic Village. Their expulsion marked the beginning of a decade-long trek in the wilderness, marked by alienation, personal tragedy and economic struggle.

On Wednesday, Smith, Carlos, several of their 1968 Olympic teammates and academic activists converged on San Jose, California, to help San Jose State University celebrate the 50th anniversary of the victory stand demonstration. As part of the anniversary, the university’s Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change hosted three panels that covered the past, present and future of athletic resistance and revolution.

There were a number of takeaways from the three-day event.

The first was that the USOC owes Smith and Carlos a long-overdue apology. The USOC is under attack, and rightfully so, for failing to protect dozens of gymnasts who were sexually abused by former USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar. The USOC also failed to take care of Smith and Carlos in 1968, when it rushed to judgment, yielded to pressure from Avery Brundage and the International Olympic Committee and sent two young black men on a path that nearly destroyed their lives. That all happened for exercising their right to free speech guaranteed by a flag and anthem that they protested. While Smith and Carlos have survived and prospered, the USOC has a hole in its moral soul that continues to widen.

The second takeaway is that the NBA owes Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf an apology as well. The USOC’s treatment of Smith and Carlos is well-documented. The NBA’s mistreatment of Abdul-Rauf is less well-known. Today, Abdul-Rauf is called the Stephen Curry of his generation, a deadly outside shooter and one of the best free throw shooters in league history.

The NBA is seen as the world’s most progressive sports league. But the league made a misstep with Abdul-Rauf that must be acknowledged, lest the league’s liberal facade be exposed as just that.

Beginning in 1995, Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” although his silent protest did not become news until 1996. He was suspended by the NBA in March 1996 and fined more than $31,000 per game for each game he missed. He eventually agreed to stand during the anthem but was allowed to look downward. Like Smith and Carlos, Abdul-Rauf was the target of threats and harassment. He was traded to Sacramento after the controversial 1995-96 season and stayed for two seasons. He began playing overseas in 1998 and returned to the NBA for one season in 2000, with Vancouver.

To say that his treatment was performance-based and had nothing to do with personal politics would be disingenuous and insulting.

“You don’t have to give me an apology,’ Abdul-Rauf said on Wednesday. “Just do something so this won’t happen again. But I wouldn’t hold my breath on it.

“Once my life is over,” he added, “if all that people can remember me for is ‘he had a mean crossover, or he had an amazing jump shot,’ I had a wasted life, and I don’t want that to be my story.”


I was part of a discussion that included Abdul-Rauf; Keith Harrison, chief academic officer for the University of Central Florida’s DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program; Toni Smith-Thompson, a former basketball captain at Manhattanville College who is now an organizer with the New York Civil Liberties Union; and Damion Thomas, sports curator for the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

The thread that connects Smith and Carlos with Abdul-Rauf in 1995, Smith-Thompson in 2003 and Colin Kaepernick in 2016 is an opposition to a system of oppression that marginalizes, exploits, co-opts and silences opposition.

Abdul-Rauf said that when he began his protest in 1995, he was not aware of what Smith and Carlos had done in 1968. However, Smith-Thompson said she was aware of Abdul-Rauf when she made her statement at Manhattanville College in 2003.

She said what drove her to demonstrate was the same hypocrisy, represented by the flag and the anthem, that drove Smith and Carlos to demonstrate in 1968 and would drive Kaepernick in 2016. War was being waged, and the freedom and liberty on which the country was built were being strong-armed away. People of color were merely a symptom of that slippage.

For three years, she stood as the anthem was played before games “even though I know I don’t believe in this, that I have no affinity for it, it’s actually in contradiction with how I was raised and my values.”

During her senior year at Manhattanville, Smith-Thompson said enough is enough. She realized that her participation, even in something as innocuous as standing at attention, was condoning what she saw as a toxic form of nationalism.

“I was coming into my own activism and was telling myself, ‘I’m an activist. I believe in justice. I really want black liberation.’ ” Protesting during the anthem, she said, “was the first test for me to act in accordance with who I said I was.”


The San Jose State anniversary event also underscored the notion that controlling the message is essential and that protest must be taken out of silos.

A 1968 headline on the front page of The New York Times reporting that Smith and Carlos had been removed from the Olympic Village announced: “2 Black Power Advocates Ousted From Olympics.”

In fact, the Smith and Carlos demonstration was about human rights. A lot of people in a lot of places were being crushed and squeezed by those in power who wanted to violate human rights, eliminate justice, wage war and expand the American empire.

As the panel wound down, the subject of the recent Nike ad featuring Kaepernick was raised.

The perspectives expressed underlined the challenges facing contemporary athletes at a time when protest has become sexy and potentially profitable.

“I think Colin should be celebrated for not only what he has done but continues to do,” Abdul-Rauf said. But he added, “When you look at corporations like that, I’m skeptical. Sometimes those types of things can tend to soften you if you’re not careful.”

Smith-Thompson said that when she first watched the ad, “The first thing I asked myself was ‘What is this commercial selling?’ ” She noticed in the ad that each athlete, except Kaepernick, was depicted in the role that inspired his or her presence: Serena Williams was depicted as a mother and LeBron James for his work with his school. Kaepernick was not shown kneeling during the national anthem, which is what he is known for.

In Smith-Thompson’s view, the Nike ad “is not selling activism, not selling challenging the systems of power. It’s selling inspiration, going beyond limitations, beating expectations. That’s not the same as challenging systems of power.”

But Harrison said he appreciated the ad’s message of inspiration.

Thomas, the curator of sports at the NMAAHC, said that in a highly commercialized era of shifting allegiances, you take partners where you find them. He acknowledged that Nike was a significant donor to the museum.

“Sometimes you have to think about the partners who are available to you,” he said. “You have to develop partnerships not only with people who are 100 percent in line with you. Sometimes you have to make partnerships with people who will allow you to articulate part of your ideas.”

The energy, idealism, courage and recklessness of youth are vital to protest and resistance.

At the event, there was a mixture of activist athletes in their 60s and 70s, young activists and academics in their 30s and 40s. How do sages and elders prepare young athletes to navigate the complicated waters of finance and power and teach them to use their platforms to call attention to social justice issues?

The energy, idealism, courage and recklessness of youth are vital to protest and resistance. Smith and Carlos were 24 and 23 years old when they demonstrated in Mexico City in 1968; Harry Edwards was all of 25 when he founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights and orchestrated the Olympic boycott. Abdul-Rauf was 26 years old when he began his silent protest in the NBA, and Smith-Thompson was 21 in 2003 when she demonstrated at Manhattanville.

Harrison says he constantly asks himself: “How can I broaden the identity of these athletes so they can use their platforms to make society better and not just ball out, buy stuff and be super materialistic?”

The more cogent question is how do sports leagues with young athletes, many of color, react to the inevitable protests to come? How will Major League Baseball deal with its 33 percent Latino presence when it is finally pushed to the brink by a hostile immigration policy? How will the NFL and the NBA — yes, the NBA — deal with an increasingly boisterous black presence? With an iron fist? With the threat of economic retaliation?

Tommie Smith and John Carlos landed on the right side of history. The USOC did not and continues to be on the wrong side.

“We wanted to do something that would be profound and yet still nonviolent that would radiate throughout society,” Carlos said Wednesday. “I think, 50 years later, we hit the nail on the head.”

Indeed they did, as did Abdul-Rauf.

Time and current circumstances have proven them all right.

In this 50th year of celebration, they deserve an apology.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.