By John Mehaffey
U.S. President Donald Trump’s attacks on professional football players who have protested during the national anthem against racial injustice and police brutality tap into a toxic racist well depressingly familiar to generations of black American athletes.
During the national anthem before the start of games, when many fans and athletes stand with hand on heart, some National Football League (NFL) players have knelt, raised their fists or locked arms to demonstrate solidarity with victims of racial injustice.
After defending the right of violent white supremacists to march in Virginia, Trump has condemned the peaceful protesters as unpatriotic, privileged millionaires.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who initiated the protests last year, is now unemployed, a fate once shared by two men who stood on a victory podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, their heads bowed and black-gloved fists raised in a Black Power salute.
“I thought every gun in the world was pointed at me.”
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of a ghastly year in American history when Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were shot dead, the Vietnam war raged, students rioted on the streets and cities burned. World heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali was in sporting limbo, stripped of his titles after refusing induction into the U.S. Army.
Ten days before the Olympic opening ceremony, Mexican riot police shot and killed a still unconfirmed number of political demonstrators.
After winning the men’s 200-meters title in world record time, Tommie Smith and his third-placed American teammate John Carlos bowed their heads on the victory podium while their national anthem was being played, and raised their fists.
“I prayed, prayed that the next sound I would hear in the middle of the Star Spangled Banner would not be a gunshot, and prayed that the next thing I felt would not be the darkness of sudden death,” Smith wrote in his autobiography. “I thought every gun in the world was pointed at me.”
Before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Smith revealed that the pain he felt when he strained an abductor muscle in the semi-finals was so sharp that he believed initially he might have been shot.
The pair were ordered to leave the Olympic village and sent home. They paid a bitter price for their protest. Carlos’s wife committed suicide, Smith’s marriage collapsed and two intelligent, talented men struggled for years to make a living.
Giving America shock treatment
A generation earlier, Jackie Robinson, the first black player to sign for a Major League Baseball team in the 20th century, endured vicious verbal attacks when he represented the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Jesse Owens, winner of four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and trumpeted as a living refutation of Adolf Hitler’s murderous racial polices, was reduced to racing against cars, motorcycles and horses to make a living.
In 1910, Jack Johnson, a black heavyweight, sparked racial riots throughout the United States in which least 20 people died when he defeated James J. Jeffries in the so-called Fight of the Century.
Statues of Smith and Carlos now stand on the San Jose State University campus. Nearly half a century on from their iconic protest, the struggle goes on as Carlos noted last year when he said Kaepernick had focused attention on burning issues.
“And how did he bring attention to them? The same way we did 48 years ago in terms of giving America shock treatment. That’s the only way they move, man: is when you shock them,” Carlos said.
John Mehaffey worked for four decades as a journalist in New Zealand, Australia and Britain, including 33 on the Reuters Sports Desk covering seven summer Olympics plus World Cups and world championships in athletics, soccer, cricket, rugby, amateur boxing and gymnastics. He wrote extensively on sports news including drugs in sport, the readmission of South Africa to international sport and corruption in cricket. He was appointed Chief Sports Reporter in 2001.