As African American athletes face censure for protesting during the national anthem, Richard Askwith looks back on a long history of sportspeople taking a stand
Fifty years ago, sporting greats sacrificed their careers, ruined their home lives and endured death threats to take a stand against political injustice. Will the recent protests by NFL footballers go the same way? By Richard Askwith
Many things can go wrong in the life of an elite athlete. Injury and loss of form are the most common hazards. But few things are so likely to wreck your career as an attack of political conscience. This strange truth is currently being demonstrated in a sporting drama that has been gathering momentum in the United States for the past five years.
It began in July 2013, with the controversial acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. The verdict spawned a new, broad-based US protest movement: #Blacklivesmatter. You do not have to endorse all that has been said and done under the hashtag’s shelter to appreciate the power of the underlying grievance. Millions of black Americans object to their country’s mass incarcerations that seem racially biased and, in particular, to policing methods that appear to place negligible value on their lives. In 2016, 169 unarmed black people were shot dead by US police officers; in 2015, there were 234.
Over the past five years, the causes célèbres have multiplied: Michael Brown, Kalief Browder Eric Garner, Jonathan Ferrell, Stephon Clark. Fuelled by social media, the widening groundswell of outrage has drawn in sportspeople. A college basketball player, Ariyana Smith, first linked the protest to the US national anthem, by lying down on court while it was played before a match in Missouri in November 2014. Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, introduced it to elite sport, kneeling through a pre-match anthem in August 2016. Within weeks, his teammate Eric Reid had joined him. Reid was upset by the killing of another young man, Alton Sterling, in his own home town: ‘This could have happened to any of my family members who still live in the area,’ he wrote in the New York Times.
Other black players felt similarly. The ‘take a knee’ protest gathered momentum. A backlash followed. Donald Trump led it. The gesture implied ‘total disrespect of our great country’, claimed the president, who later added that it should be met with the harshest response: ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field now! He’s fired!’
Many shared his view. TV ratings suffered; sponsors threatened to withdraw advertising. NFL executives were reported to be furious with Kaepernick, with one (unnamed) allegedly calling him a ‘traitor’. Other athletes who have supported the protest have felt the establishment’s anger. Several have had invitations to the White House rescinded, while the basketball player Lebron James, who has campaigned on this and other issues, was famously told by Laura Ingraham of Fox News to ‘Shut up and dribble!’
But Kaepernick is now paying the price that every athlete dreads. Since becoming a free agent in 2017, he has not been hired by another team. Reid, similarly, became a free agent at the end of last year and has not found a new team. With a new NFL season around the corner, there is little sign that the protests will cease – and every chance that others will join Kaepernick and Reid in tasting exile from the sport they live for. The conflict feels unprecedented. In fact, it echoes the struggles of an earlier generation of sporting heroes, whose no less controversial protests enthralled the world 50 years ago.
The world was awash with protests in 1968. From France to Brazil, Northern Ireland to Washington, DC, students, baby-boomers, hippies and revolutionaries, privileged and downtrodden alike, stood shoulder-to-shoulder against their governments. Today, their names are mostly forgotten. Yet we still honour the handful of sporting superstars who stood with them.
Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Peter Norman, Věra Čáslavská, Emil Zátopek, Muhammad Ali. Each had their own part to play in that year’s drama; each was motivated by a burning sense of political injustice; each was rewarded with long, soul-destroying retribution.
You’ll recognise a few of the images. The sprinters Smith and Carlos, heads bowed on the Olympic podium in Mexico, each with one black-gloved fist raised in salute; and perhaps also Čáslavská, the gymnast, scandalising two medal ceremonies with her brazen scowling at the Soviet anthem. Others played less visible roles. The long-distance running hero Zátopek, a decade after his last race, was merely a spectator at the Olympics that October, yet was followed all over town by Czechoslovak spies, while the world’s press tried to talk to him about the Warsaw Pact invasion that had crushed the Prague Spring six weeks earlier. (‘Hush, Emil, they’ll hear you,’ his wife Dana kept interrupting, when the British journalist Christopher Brasher tried to interview him.) Yet there were iconic photographs of Zátopek, too, rallying protesters in Wenceslas Square as he denounced the Soviets as ‘the gangsters of the world’.
Ali wasn’t at the Mexico Olympics: his passport had been confiscated. The greatest boxer of all – who famously appeared on the cover of that April’s US Esquire in the guise of a martyred saint – had been stripped of his licence and his world title the previous year for refusing to go to war in Vietnam; 1968 should have been his best year yet, but he didn’t fight once. His absence – and appeal against his jail sentence – overshadowed the sporting world. Ali’s was one of four causes cited
by Smith and Carlos in September 1967, when, as part of the newly formed Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), they called for a boycott of the Mexico Games. That campaign fizzled out when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) withdrew its invitations to apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia to compete, satisfying one of the OPHR’S demands. The remaining three – restoring Ali’s title, hiring more African American coaches and sacking the controversial Avery Brundage as president of the IOC – weren’t enough to sustain a boycott movement. So Smith and Carlos decided to make their point on the medal podium instead.
Neither doubted that they would get there. Smith, a 24-year-old Texan, was the world recordholder for 200 metres; Carlos, his 23-year-old training partner, seemed his only plausible rival. In fact, Peter Norman, a white Australian, pipped Carlos for silver with a run that remains a national record, 50 years later. Smith took gold with a world record of 19.83s. When Smith and Carlos shared their plan with Norman, he told them: ‘I’ll stand with you.’ He did.
Smith and Carlos’s gesture was complex in its symbolism but devastatingly simple in its impact. They walked to the podium in black-socked feet, to symbolise black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf to symbolise ‘black pride’; Carlos’s string of beads symbolised lynchings. The black glove on Smith’s right fist represented ‘the power of black America’; that on Carlos’s left, ‘the unity of black America’. Each wore an OPHR badge. It was, said Smith, about ‘black dignity’.
It was also about courage. Six months earlier, Martin Luther King had been murdered in Memphis; Robert F Kennedy, the civil rights movement’s most powerful champion in Washington, was gunned down two months later. Days before the Games, an untold number of demonstrating students – the death toll is usually reckoned in the hundreds – had been massacred in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco district by security forces. Smith wrote later that, as the US anthem played, ‘My head was bowed, and inside that bowed head, I prayed – prayed that the next sound I would hear… would not be a gunshot.’
Instead, there was shocked silence; then some booing; then, within hours, the backlash. Smith and Carlos were expelled from the US team, banned permanently from international competition and, after two days, forced to leave Mexico. Brundage denounced them for having ‘violated one of the basic principles of the Olympic Games: that politics play no part whatsoever in them’ – which was rich coming from a man who had made Nazi salutes at the 1936 Berlin Games. Some expressed sympathy: ‘The American Negroes are right to protest,’ said British marathon runner Jim Alder. ‘They may be Americans here, but they are n—s back home.’ ‘Why run in Mexico and crawl at home?’ asked a spectator’s placard. The media took Brundage’s side. Smith and Carlos were denounced as ‘black-skinned storm troopers’ who were ‘contemptuous of the United States’. It would be years before the death threats subsided. Norman fared little better. A devout Christian, he too had worn an OPHR badge on the podium, no bigger than his silver medal. He never ran for Australia again. ‘It was a life-changing moment for him,’ says his daughter, Janita. ‘But he wasn’t prepared for the aftermath.’ He ran the 200m qualifying time for the 1972 Olympics 13 times, yet he was not selected. The Australian Olympic Committee insists that he was not blackballed, yet it is hard to imagine another explanation. ‘I would have dearly loved to go to Munich,’ said Norman towards the end of his life, ‘but I’d earned the frowning eyes of the powers that be.’
Ten days after the Black Power salutes, the Communist bloc got its own podium scandal. Věra Čáslavská – like Ali in boxing and her compatriot Zátopek in endurance running – was much more than a champion in her sport. She had taken women’s gymnastics to a hitherto unimagined level. Like Zátopek, she had publicly identified herself that summer with the Czechoslovak reformists’ cause of ‘socialism with a human face’. When the Warsaw Pact invaded on 20 August, she went into hiding, finishing her Olympic preparations by swinging from trees on a remote mountain. In Mexico, she won medals and hearts with equal ease. But the ease disguised a furious ambition: she was, she said later, ‘determined to sweat blood to defeat the invaders’ representatives’. But the Soviet Union was equally determined that its gymnasts should not be humiliated by a clean sweep of Czechoslovak golds. Bizarre late judging decisions resulted in Čáslavská missing out on one gold medal and sharing another. (That still left her three of her own.) Twice, on the podium, she listened to the Soviet anthem; twice she used her powers of physical self-expression to make her disgust plain for anyone to see.
‘I prayed the next sound I would hear would not be a gunshot’
The Communist authorities said nothing. Only many months later did her fate become known. Čáslavská would not be representing her country again. She was banned from foreign travel. Nor, for many years, was she allowed to coach. For a while, she earned her living as a cleaner. She later confessed that, within 12 months of winning them, ‘I started to hate my medals.’
Emil Zátopek, once he too had been ushered back behind the Iron Curtain, became similarly unobtainable. (He had been allowed to go to Mexico, under supervision, for fear that keeping him at home would cause a greater scandal.) The greatest distance runner the world had seen – as celebrated in his prime as Ali in his – was stripped of his role in sport, expelled from the army and prevented from working in Prague. Instead, he became an itinerant rural labourer, far from his beloved wife and, increasingly, drunk and depressed. Approached by an admirer in the early 1970s, he warned him sadly: ‘I am not the Zátopek you used to know.’
You would expect such vindictive treatment of dissent in a communist tyranny. It’s the matching persecution from the sporting establishments of the West that still shocks. Yet history’s verdict on the protest martyrs made a nonsense of both responses. Ali, forced to miss four years of what would have been his sporting prime, was the first to shake off pariah status. His licence was restored in 1971. By 1974 he was world champion again. Thereafter he was venerated as a beacon of moral as well as sporting greatness – the kind of celebrity with whom presidents and sports administrators were soon eager to associate themselves.
Others waited longer. Čáslavská and Zátopek were fully rehabilitated in the 1990s – although only after a revolution had overthrown Soviet-led communism. Both were scarred by their punishment. So were Smith and Carlos, who struggled for years with poverty, intimidation and exclusion. In 1977, Carlos’s wife took her own life. Yet by 2005 the two men had been rewarded with statues outside San José State University, their alma mater. The pose depicted – heads bowed, fists raised – was unmistakable. In 2016, Time magazine named John Dominis’s shot of the Black Power salutes as one of the 100 most influential photographs ever taken.
Even Peter Norman had been rehabilitated by then, albeit posthumously. Australia’s greatest male sprinter died in 2006, still snubbed by his nation’s sporting powers. There had been no place of honour for him when Sydney hosted the Olympics in 2000 – he attended as a guest of the US Olympic Committee. Yet the wider world was starting to acknowledge his stature.
While Smith and Carlos flew to Australia to be his pall-bearers, the US Olympic Track and Field Federation declared the day of his funeral Peter Norman Day. Nonetheless, says Janita, ‘I don’t think he was happy in later life. He never regretted his decision, but he came back from Mexico a different person.’
In 2012, Australia’s parliament formally apologised for the nation’s treatment of Norman. This summer, the Australian Olympic Association awarded him a posthumous Olympic Order of Merit. ‘He’s always been embraced by social activists,’ says Janita. ‘But now he’s almost moved into the mainstream.’
Has the world changed? Perhaps. ‘There’s an innate decency in Western democracies,’ argues Harry Edwards, the athlete-turned-academic who founded the OPHR, and who is now professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. ‘People may find a message hard to accept at first. But when you are right, morally and politically, people come around and understand.’ Another view is that the passage of time has made the podium protesters of 1968 seem safe. Rawer versions of their messages remain unwelcome. When the Australian Rules footballer Adam Goodes drew attention to discrimination against Australia’s indigenous peoples in 2015, he was booed for an entire season.
In fact, for most of the half-century since 1968, political gestures by sportspeople have been relatively rare. The Black Power movement ran out of steam; no easily grasped successor concept took its place. The rise of cable television saw sport flooded with money. Athletes were changed as a result. Super-rich superstars such as OJ Simpson and Michael Jordan were known for their lack of engagement with social issues. Today, says Stephen Wagg – professor at the Carnegie School of Sport at Leeds Beckett university and co-editor of Sport, Protest and Globalisation – ‘top sportspeople are less likely to identify with the dispossessed and downtrodden because they no longer fit that description themselves’. Occasionally, an athlete who feels strongly about a cause may use his fame to draw attention to it. Think of Robbie Fowler’s support for striking Liverpool dock workers in 1997: or, more recently, of the attempt by Ognjen Vukojević, a coach for Croatia at this year’s football World Cup, to draw attention to Russian interference in Ukraine. Such gestures are swiftly snuffed out. ‘Elite sport is increasingly a television show,’ says Wagg, ‘with television delivering audiences to advertisers. That process is jeopardised if there is a boatrocking protest. Advertisers don’t want that kind of unpleasantness.’ Nor, as a result, do sporting employers. (Fowler was fined; Vukojević was both fined and sacked.)
Sometimes, however, there is a counterforce, and that explains what is happening in the US today. Popular support for #Blacklivesmatter cancels out fear of enraging the sporting establishment. ‘Athletes get their courage from people protesting in the streets,’ says Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation and co-author (with Carlos) of The John Carlos Story. ‘They know they have an audience that’s going to support them.’
Edwards, who also works as a consultant to the 49ers, warned his then colleague Colin Kaepernick that taking the knee would have negative consequences. ‘I told him, “There’s always a price to be paid. You know that the death threats are coming in. You know that the NFL is going to seek to retaliate against you.” Yet even when these athletes know this, they still step up.
‘Colin Kaepernick is one of the brightest and most articulate, committed and courageous young men that I have ever encountered, as well as being a world-class athlete. I put him right in the same category as Ali, Smith and Carlos.
‘These young men aren’t disrespectful of America,’ says Edwards. ‘What they’re saying is: “We, the people, are better than this.”’
According to Reid, American values are worth paying a price for: specifically, the ideal of ‘equality for all Americans, no matter their race or gender’. Martin Luther King, in his most famous speech, spoke of the need for the US to ‘make real the promises of democracy’. Kaepernick echoed the thought last year. ‘This country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all,’ he told The New Yorker. ‘And it’s not happening for all right now.’
As the world marks the 50th anniversary, this month, of the crushing of the Prague Spring and, in October, the 50th anniversary of the podium protests that defined the Mexico Olympics, we will honour the athletes of West and East who exchanged glory for opprobrium. It seems sadly ironic that, as we do so, the sporting establishment is exacting a similar price from their modern counterparts: especially if, as some fear, the coming NFL season brings out the worst in an already polarised United States.
We can already hear the rumblings of anger. We can only hope – echoing Tommie Smith’s prayer – that the next sound we hear will not be something worse.
‘There is always a price to pay. The death threats come in’
2018 Former San Francisco 49ers players Colin Kaepernick (centre) and Eric Reid (far right) were the first to kneel during the national anthem prior to NFL matches, as seen here last year; they now find themselves without a team
Muhammad Ali at his home in Chicago, February 1968, the year after his licence to box was revoked
Czech athlete Emil Zátopek protesting about the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in Prague, August 1968
Activists rally in support of NFL player Colin Kaepernick in New York, August 2017
Miami Dolphins fans in opposition to Kaepernick’s kneeling protests
Top Liverpool footballer Robbie Fowler in 1997. Above Croatian soccer coach Ognjen Vukojevic (left) posted a pro-ukraine video on social media last month