I’m old enough to remember the moment in the simmering summer of 1968 when America’s John Carlos and Tommie Smith stood on the medals podium at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, bowed their heads, and raised black-gloved fists in a silent protest against inequality.
Even a kid could see the trouble coming.
Carlos and Smith were suspended from the U.S. team and became pariahs in their own country for decades.
The current protests by some NFL players during the playing of the national anthem has angered fans who say it’s disrespectful, inappropriate and unpatriotic. It began with Colin Kaepernick, a popular NFL star celebrated for the Bible verses tattooed on his arm, until he started a one-man crusade against racism.
Now, the same quarterback who came within a play or two of winning the Super Bowl is jobless, a hard reminder that freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences, even if it’s for what you think is a good reason; even in a game in which winning can cover a multitude of sins.
Some fans in Ohio are furious that 12 Cleveland Browns players — black and white — knelt in prayerful protest during the “Star Spangled Banner” prior to last week’s preseason game.
Are people kidding? Is there any team in the NFL that needs prayer, more?
If Cleveland played the 12 Apostles, the fishermen would beat the point spread.
Let’s just say that as miracles go, an 8-8 season would be slightly one notch down from the parting of the Red Sea.
180 degrees in Boston
Fans opposed to such demonstrations argue that the reason they watch sports is precisely to escape from such things. When you drop $150 on a ticket, $99 for a “throwback” jersey, and $12 for a “light” beer, the feeling is you ought to get what you paid for, without controversy and distraction.
But politics and civil rights issues have always elbowed their way onto our playing fields.
Jackie Robinson only needed to be Jackie Robinson to make some people spitting mad.
The Boston which recently demonstrated en masse against white supremacy, is 180 degrees from the Boston where invectives rain down on minority players in Fenway Park.
In 1934, Detroit Tigers star Hank Greenberg caught flack over his refusal to play baseball on Yom Kippur. In 1938, as Greenberg closed in on Babe Ruth’s home-run record, he was walked by several pitchers at season’s end, it’s suspected, to prevent a Jew from breaking it.
It was done instead by Hank Aaron, who needed FBI protection against a tsunami of death threats.
In the 1969, Curt Flood essentially sacrificed his baseball career to ensure free agency for others. And there isn’t enough ink and newsprint to unpack the irony of white football fans who threw fits when their team — the Redskins — was forced to integrate in 1962.
In the 1970s, Muhammad Ali lost his boxing license after becoming a conscientious objector. It took the Supreme Court to restore his rights.
Not even Archie
The end came for Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott in the 1990s after she complimented Adolf Hitler, demeaned gays and Jews, and described two black players as “My million-dollar n-----s.”
In 2000, New York Yankees pitcher John Rocker was suspended for 73 days for remarks that would have made Archie Bunker blanche.
In 2014, several NBA players, including LeBron James, wore “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts in protest after Eric Garner died in a choke hold during a misdemeanor arrest in New York City.
Fans upset with the pregame protests point to the mountains of money being made by NFL players and contend that they’re aren’t suffering from discrimination, but ingratitude. But if you’re a player who gets stopped for driving while black, your bank statement won’t help.
Former boxer George Foreman has lambasted the pregame boycotts, saying that the protestors are being unpatriotic and are just seeking attention.
Is he right?
Are the boycotts an attack on American values, or an attempt to uphold them, using the one venue where Americans actually pay attention? The answer probably depends on who you are, how you define patriotism — and whether your guys have a shot at the playoffs.
— Reach Charita at 330-580-8313 or firstname.lastname@example.org