When John Carlos and his fellow sprinter Tommie Smith raised their fists at the 1968 Olympics in solidarity with the black liberation movement in America, the backlash was swift and intense.
Carlos and Smith were banned from the Olympics for life. Brent Musberger, now a widely-known sportscaster but then a columnist for the Chicago American, called Smith and Carlos “a pair of black-skinned stormtroopers” and wrote that “perhaps it’s time 20 year old athletes quit passing themselves off as social philosophers.” In the New York Times, Arthur Daley wrote, “Smith and Carlos brought their world smack into the Olympic Games, where it did not belong.”
If you’re thinking that you’ve heard somewhat familiar echoes of those words in the past couple days, you’re not wrong. On Saturday morning, the San Francisco Chronicle‘s sports editor, Al Saracevic, chided San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick after Kaepernick explained that he would no longer stand and salute “The Star Spangled Banner” because he didn’t want to celebrate “a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
“Oh, Colin. … It was a noble thought,” Saracevic lamented. “But not the right place for it.” Later, he described a tweet Kaepernick sent as “naive analysis you might expect from a college freshman.”
Yet, despite the vitriol that greeted their act of political defiance, Carlos and Smith are now widely admired as heroes. On the 40th anniversary of their salute, the two took the stage at the ESPYs to receive the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, given to “individuals whose contributions transcend sports.”
Kaepernick—well, not so much. Though he certainly has his champions, he also has many critics arguing against him.
When I spoke to John Carlos earlier this month, he said that anyone who followed in his wake needed to make sure they were prepared to withstand the inevitable criticism they would receive.
“Once they go out and start making statements about social issues, they will be confronted from various entities,” he said. “And you have to be able to expound upon what you’re saying, why you’re saying it, and how you feel before and after you said it.”
Kaepernick is now experiencing the very environment Carlos was talking about. What will his legacy look like in twenty, thirty years? If history tells us anything, it will look like a lot like the legacy of Carlos, of Tommie Smith, and of so many other athletes that have risked their money and their reputations in order to say what they believe is right.
This is how we know it goes for people who take a stand in the name of justice. First, they’re excoriated; then, there’s silence; and finally, they’re championed as heroes. Kaepernick’s still at stage one, but he’s far from the only athlete to make this journey. Here are a couple others.
When the legendary boxer passed away earlier this year, the world was awash with lavish praise for Ali’s revolutionary politics in the 1960s. The spirit embodied in his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War—”Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” he memorably said—was praised by figures like George W. Bush, who recalled Ali’s “beautiful soul.”
You might never know that, when he actually made that choice, there was a mountain of ugly rhetoric spewed at Ali.
Red Smith, in the New York Post, wrote, “Squealing over the possibility that the military may call him up, Cassius makes himself as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war.”
David Susskind, a television host, declared that Ali was “a disgrace to his country, his race, and what he laughingly describes as his profession,” and went on to call him a “simplistic fool and a pawn.”
Sports Illustrated wrote that “without his gloves on, Ali is just another demagogue and an apologist for his so-called religion, and his views on Vietnam don’t deserve rebuttal.”
Compares that to how Sports Illustrated lionized Ali upon his death.
Abdul-Jabbar, the former Lakers legend, is one of the greatest basketball players of all time. In 1967, he sat Ali with a collection of other prominent black athletes as Ali announced his decision not to enter the draft to a collection of assembled media members. The risks for Abdul-Jabbar were obvious.
“A lot of people don’t understand that when we decided to have the meeting with Muhammad Ali about going into the service and brought him to Cleveland, all of us could have lost our jobs,” Bobby Mitchell, an athlete standing alongside Abdul-Jabbar, told ESPN. “All of us. But it’s again standing up. As we said to Muhammad, ‘If you are saying that you can’t do this, you can’t go in the service, it’s against your religion, then we’ll back you no matter what happens to us.'”
Like Carlos, Abdul-Jabbar also made a public stand in the 1968 Olympics, refusing to even play because he didn’t consider the United States “his country.”
‘‘Well, then there’s only one solution,’’ Joe Garagiola, on the Today show, told Abdul-Jabbar. ‘‘Maybe you should move.’’
Today, Abdul-Jabbar is widely celebrated for his activism, and writes regular columns for Time Magazine.
Nearly 50 years later, we have Colin Kaepernick echoing the actions of Carlos, Ali, and Abdul-Jabbar.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL.com. “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 from fellow NFL players, a smattering of journalists, and the public at large has been largely unforgiving.
Much of the criticism surrounding Kaepernick focuses on what critics see as an explicit rebuke of the United States’ military service, even though Kaepernick never once mentioned referenced the military in his justification for sitting out the national anthem.
“That flag obviously gives (Kaepernick) the right to do whatever he wants,” Kaepernick’s former teammate Alex Boone told USA Today. “I understand it. At the same time, you should have some (expletive) respect for people who served, especially people that lost their life to protect our freedom.”
Other former players and coaches had the same kind of thing to say:
Just like Carlos, Ali, and Abdul-Jabbar, Kaepernick knew the ramifications of making his views public, and he was prepared. On Sunday, he sat down for an 18-minute press conference and answered every single question.
The NFL regular season hasn’t even started; surely, Kaepernick, as long as he continues to sit for the anthem (which he intends to do), will continue to get this reaction. He can be comforted by the fact that, over the long arc of history, he’ll be the one to come out on top.