“We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard.”
I always get Marv Albert and Brent Musburger mixed up. It’s the voice, you see, they sound somewhat similar. Listening to the color commentary as Washington and Chicago played tonight, I was again reminded of Musburger but this time it was alongside commentary concerning today’s banishment for life handed down by Commissioner Silver against LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling. And the two combined-the exile and the memories of Brent-have their own significance.
In 1968, during the Summer Olympics held in Mexico City, 200 meter sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith strode to the winners podium to take their well-earned first and third places. And while the national anthem played, they each thrust a black-gloved fist into the sky in protest against the state of affairs existing in America at the time.
They were shoeless, among other things, to signify the disproportionate poverty that existed for African-Americans in the late 20th century United States. Their impromptu protest, an act of conscience, took the crowd of 800,000 by surprise. Boos and catcalls replaced cheers of praise and once the medal ceremony was over, the two were kicked off the Olympic team, evicted from the Olympic village and unceremoniously sent packing home.
Stateside, the two found that their stance was no more welcome there than in Mexico. Dubbed “black-skinned storm troopers” by Brent Musburger, then a reporter for the Chicago American newspaper, they were ostracized and never afforded the fame and fortune, or opportunity to compete, handed other returning Olympic heroes.
As I listened to everyone weigh in on the demise of Donald Sterling and how necessary it is for the health of the league, I thought about that singular act of courage, standing up for what you believe in; and how often times doing so brings to bear its own set of hazards. In the case of Carlos and Smith, the unpopular stance that they stood up for-equal rights and opportunity for blacks-cost them very much indeed and they lived with those consequences, personally and professionally, for over 40 years.
But the players taking a stand today against the Clippers owner will suffer no barbs for their actions. Unlike Smith and Carlos, they won’t feel the pinch of America as she slights them, punishes them and prevents them from making a livelihood in their sport.
I can’t help but think that it’s those causes, the ones which hurt, that just might be the ones that mean so much and make the most impact. Even today, when one looks at that iconic picture from 1968, you can’t help but get a lump in your throat as that shiver edges down your spine. It’s still that powerful. Imagine then how it galvanized a nation back then, a world even, to look inside itself and make change.
There’ve been many instances lately that would’ve allowed these same athletes to stand up, throw a clenched fist in the air and say, No more! We won’t take that! But sadly, such protests didn’t come when the deeds were perpetrated at the time. But rest assured unfortunately there will be other watershed moments that will afford these young men the opportunity to galvanize themselves, their communities and the world for change.
Whether or not, it truly is a return of the black-skinned storm troopers remains to be seen. The actions of the many this past week has shown exactly what can be accomplished when everyone puts their mind to it. On the other hand, will they put their mind to the tasks or causes that can injure them?
That’s the true sign of a real return.
Special Note: Australian Peter Norman wore a badge from the Olympic Project for Human Rights in solidarity with Smith and Carlos. It was his idea that the two share a pair of gloves. He too was ostracized in his homeland when he returned. Efforts are underway to hopefully afford him his rightful place in Australian history.