OPINION – In 1968, Olympians John Carlos and Tommie Smith stood on the winner’s platform, awaiting the playing of the national anthem.
They had just sprinted to gold and bronze in Mexico City.
It was the culmination of years of intense training with little, if any, reward.
As the first notes of the anthem played, they raised gloved hands in protest of the racial unrest and violence that boiled over in the United States as cultures clashed over equality, a senseless war, and violence that had permeated the nation.
Segregationist George Wallace and his “war hawk” running mate, Gen. Curtis LeMay, were running for the White House; racial tensions were running high; and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been gunned down months earlier.
A curtain of violence and political upheaval had fallen upon the nation, resulting in people taking to the streets in protest of a culture unhinged.
Carlos and Smith were pretty much finished after their protest.
Although counterculture heroes, the lucrative mainstream looked the other way and there were no shoe contracts, TV commercials, or other endorsements that could have set both men up for life after their incredible performance on the track. Their Black Power salute earned them immediate censure. International Olympic Committee IOC president Avery Brundage said the political statement was unfit for the supposedly apolitical Olympic Games. He ordered Smith and Carlos suspended from the U.S. team and banned them from the Olympic Village.
A year earlier, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship title and sat idle for four years when he refused induction into the U.S. military as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.
He was in his athletic prime, at the height of his career, but he sacrificed it all for his beliefs.
That’s why it is surprising to see some modern-day athletes with the courage to go very public on issues that are sure to displease many.
The NBA’s Derrick Rose and LeBron James stepped from athletes to social commentators last week as nationwide protests over the deaths of two young black men at the hands of police grew. On Thursday, James spoke about the current racial climate in the United States. Saturday night, Rose wore a warm-up T-shirt with the words “I can’t breathe” written across the front. It was a reference to the pleas of a young black man in New York who died from injuries sustained after he was placed in a chokehold by a police officer.
In the NFL, five members of the St. Louis Rams took the field against the Oakland Raiders in what has been termed the “hands up, don’t shoot” posture used by those protesting the death of a young Ferguson, Missouri, man.
It’s been awhile since we’ve seen such political-social displays from professional athletes or, for that matter, anybody with a high public profile.
It’s not difficult to understand why.
There are just too many dollars on the table for them to risk the disfavor of fans or, more importantly, the agents who hand out the big bucks for lucrative endorsements for everything from tennis shoes to automobiles.
There’s just too much at stake as more athletes these days are more interested in making the cover of the Wheaties box and scoring a seven-figure commercial deal than taking a stand.
Now, I would be the first to caution against blindly following anybody, whether they are a professional athlete, rock singer, politician, actor, church leader, or any other highly public figure.
They all have an agenda.
No, make that: We all have an agenda.
You have one, I have one, the guy next door has one. It’s human nature.
That doesn’t mean we should ignore those folks. We can use their actions and opinions to start a discussion, hopefully peaceful, about the human condition and, perhaps, fix some things.
Unfortunately, not everybody embraces that stance.
In fact, few people do because it’s easier to attack than discuss.
Trust me on this.
It’s far easier to dismiss somebody’s opinion just because they come from the left or right; just because of their race or creed: or, in some cases, just because.
There have been some comments I’ve read hammering these guys for their actions, without understanding the courage it took for them to do what they did or, more importantly, trying to understand exactly what happened and why.
We may be uncomfortable with their actions, we may not be able to relate to their concerns or frustrations, but that does not lessen the importance of what they have to say.
Thirty-four years ago yesterday, we lost a leader of a youth culture that was reeling.
John Lennon spoke out against war, stood up for women’s rights, asked us to challenge our conventional thoughts.
There were times when he was one of the most unpopular men on the planet.
His comments about Christianity, which remain fairly mainstream today, resulted in a firestorm of anger and hatred directed at The Beatles.
Angry mobs gathered to burn Beatles records, the band was banned from a number of radio stations, and suddenly the lovable moptops were persona non grata.
Except, of course, by those who listened closely and engaged in conversation.
Lennon was a man of many faults, to be sure. But, he also was a man of many thoughts, some of which were quite noble, particularly when he preached in behalf of peace.
It nearly got him deported.
But, eventually, the anger subsided and we were able to talk about a lot of his idealistic musings in a different light.
Let’s hope the actions of these professional athletes in question don’t sit dormant too long before we decide that we really need to talk about the things that divide us, whether culturally, politically, or otherwise.
We’re broken, folks, and need to put the pieces together.
But, sometimes, we have to take some rather different, and not always popular, paths to find those pieces.
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Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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