October 20, 2005

Is Athlete Protest Dead?

Recently I've been thinking a bit about athletes and social conscience; whether elite athletes are less likely than the general population to speak out against social injustice, and if so, why that might be; and also whether particular athletes shy away from controversy at the expense of their principles, and whether we should hold their silence against them.

In other words, I've been exercising the atrophied right side of my brain. I'm not sure yet what will come of that, but I'll get back to you. In the meantime, some new food for thought: Tommie Smith and John Carlos have been immortalized at San Jose State.

In 1968, Smith and Carlos, the gold and bronze medallists in the 200m, stood on the Olympic medal podium without shoes. During the playing of the US national anthem, they stood with heads down and black-gloved fists raised.

As with most such symbols, these gestures have come to mean many different things to different people. Clearly the protesters were speaking out against the oppression of African-Americans in the United States. Both men were very active in the civil rights movement long before the Olympics. In 1968, they became involved with the Olympic Project for Human Rights, led by a professor from SJSU named Harry Edwards. OPHR had tried to organize an Olympic boycott by black American athletes that never materialized. It is often reported that the podium protest was "inspired" by Edwards; Carlos himself discounts Edwards' influence:

Harry had nothing whatsoever to do with it. That's one of the things that needs to be straightened out and will be straightened out. It was a decision, collectively, between Tommie Smith and John Carlos … he wanted to ride on what Tommie Smith and John Carlos did.

Of course the Olympics provide a global stage, not just a national one, and to some extent the protest was part of a much larger picture and linked to the civil rights movement around the world. Just before the start of the 1968 games, several hundred students and workers were killed by security forces in Mexico City. In a strange coincidence of timing, Mexican authorities announced earlier this month that they will bring charges against interior minister (and later president) Luis Echeverria in connection with that massacre.

Justice has also been long in coming for Smith and Carlos. As a reward for their their peaceful protests, the two sprinters were suspended from all further competition and sent home by the USOC. They were not quickly forgiven. In certain quarters, their actions were even linked to the tragedy in 1972. By wordlessly expressing an uncomfortable truth, they had "politicized" the Olympic Games.

Tommie Smith has some thoughts on the questions that started this post: "What happened back then can never happen again, because the dollar bill has ruined the pride of justice." I think that this is an argument worth considering. It is also interesting to ask whether public attitudes toward this kind of protest have changed in the last 37 years. Would an athlete be sent home from a competition and publicly rebuked for making a non-violent protest of this sort today?

Has the world changed so much? Consider the case of Canadian swimmer Jennifer Carroll and the uproar (scroll down) she caused when she carried a Québec flag onto the Commonwealth Games medal podium. Dave Johnson, the team's head coach, forced Carroll to apologize to her teammates, and to him, and made a direct comparison between her action and the Smith/Carlos protest in 1968 — clearly implying that such non-conformist behaviour was unacceptable.

In my opinion, however, most of the controversy surrounded Mr. Johnson's actions; most people did not object to Carroll's gesture. Johnson has since been fired, and I do not think that Carroll's athletic career suffered as a result of her actions. Of course, those actions did not constitute a protest since Carroll denied that she was expressing any political sentiment. The connection to 1968 is tenuous indeed.

So, two more questions for me to think about: will the Olympics ever see another Tommie Smith and John Carlos? And if so, how will the world react?


Anonymous said...

Political displays are clearly prohibited by the agreement each Canadian Olympic athlete must sign with the COC prior to being named to the Olympic Team. I believe disciplinary measure include the possibility of being sent home.


Sean Smith said...

Welcome back over to the *right* side of the brain, Amateur ... we kept a seat warm! ;)

Great post, great questions ... thanks for doing all the writing so I can just jump in with some quick hits:

1. Is athlete protest dead?

Certainly not, though it is waning, and I would suggest that Smith is in large part correct by identifying money as the root cause. The idea of an Olympic athlete making big bucks from a championship performance simply didn't exist until after Los Angeles 1984 -- 16 years after Black Power. Generally speaking, there is too much at stake for a living-below-the-poverty-line Olympian who *might* be able to cash in on that performance.

2. So who *can* dissent?

Those with nothing to lose, figuratively speaking. Either they have made their money already (pro athletes), or never will (very amateur athletes). Think Etan Thomas on the one hand, or Toni Smith on the other.

3. Will the Olympics ever see another Tommie Smith and John Carlos?

Absolutely, though it might not necessarily be race-fuelled protest. It will be something more global in nature, and it wouldn't surprise me if it happened in Beijing 2008.

4. How will the world react?

Well, in seeing the bile spewed at Toni Smith, who frankly was on a small potatoes stage, my guess is very negatively. But I think the specific reaction will depend on who the athlete is/where from, the nature of the protest, and the issue being protested.

Incidentally, Dave Zirin, who is writing about these issues, is in Toronto tonight promoting his new book. I'm going to try and get there.

Amateur said...

Smithers, thanks for the great feedback.

It would be very interesting to meet Mr. Zirin; I hope you make it to see him, and I hope you blog about it! I do not agree with everything that he writes, but that just may be my left brain talking -- I think that he sometimes plays a bit loose with the facts to make his point. Certainly he is raising important issues that are too often ignored.

Amateur said...

Hi Steve,

That's a good point. So what is the COC's motivation in keeping a damper on outspoken athletes? Certainly money comes into it.

Also, one of the things that got me started here was l-girl at wmtc asking why athletes don't speak up more often. I am not yet convinced that she is right -- that is, that athletes are more guilty of this than the general population -- but if it is true then COC regulations don't really explain it. A nationally-famous athlete has plenty of opportunities outside of the Olympic games to make a public statement.

ken said...

Oh oh oh! I am so excited by this post. I have been thinking about this forever and some of my current research on women in sport and empowerment draws from this line of inquiry. {what are we really empowering women to do?--change the world or become CEOs and reify the hegemonic imperialist discourse?}
Obviously I don't have clear answers but I tend to be more pessimistic. I think it's just frightening that Jennifer Capriati (when asked several--or more--years ago by a reporter) didn't know what Title IX was. How is it that only 30 years have passed and the women's tennis community's collective memory about the activism engaged in by Billie Jean King and others is virtually gone?
Picking up on Smithers's point, I wonder if there is a link between the climate at large and the activism or lack thereof in the sporting world. I think it would be a fascinating project to pursue.

Amateur said...

There are a couple of points that come to mind. First, I think that many athletes are "activists" in the sense that they lend their names, their time, and their money to worthy causes. I think that what we are talking about is more accurately described as "protest;" by that I mean taking an unpopular stand on an issue that is controversial.

Second, I am still not convinced that athletes are any more timid in this respect than the general population. I suppose in this I am echoing ken's last point, that the perceived silence among athletes is just a symptom of a general silence in the population.

Let's consider the (fairly minor) protest of Carlos Delgado: refusal to stand during the national anthem. Let's say that there are 50 baseball players on the field, and 25,000 in the stands; if Carlos Delgado has the courage to make this protest, do 500 in the audience join him?

ken said...

I think I must disagree about the nature of activism/protest.
I think protest is always a activism, I don't think activism always is protest but I do NOT think that these celebrity athletes who donate their time or money to causes are always enaged in activism. I am thinking of the discussion we had that Smithers started about breast cancer charity runs. This is just one example of the corporatization (did I just make up a word?) of charities. I am not saying that all celebrities are just in it for the publicity but I don't see a lot of what they are doing as activism. They aren't really challenging the status quo in any meaningful way oftentimes.
I think I have more to say about general pop. vs. athletes and their ability/desire to engage in activism/protest but I am late for class...

Amateur said...

Well I don't want to limit our discussion to 'celebrity' athletes, partly because I don't have any particular insight into what the life of a celebrity athlete is like!

And of course athletes are not always engaged in activism when they do good works (for lack of a better word) but neither are members of the general public! Question: did smithers engage in activism by running in the breast cancer charity run? I say that he and all the other participants were engaged in a kind of activism, or at least that was their intent.

Anyway I would not discount the real beneficial effect that athletes (including celebrity athletes) have through their actions. There are plenty of examples of athletes that are not in it for publicity or image improvement.

Again the Smith/Carlos action is very different, though, and very rare. It is not risky to speak out against famine in Africa, or child abuse, or breast cancer. After all, who is in favour of those things? What Smith and Carlos did carried a real risk because it offended a large group of people. Smithers recently noted Steve Nash's anti-war stance on his blog -- a very risky statement to make in the USA when he made it.

It is this type of activism that I am more interested in discussing (and I think that you are too). Let's continue.