Sport as Socio-Political Institution

Print More

1968 Olympics Tommie Smith and John Carlos

Tommie Smith and John Carlos salute all the human rights workers and the victims of injustice.

I still clearly see in my mind’s eye the raised black-gloved fists of gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos soaring into the air of history during the track and field medal ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. As the Star Spangled Banner blared throughout the stadium, Smith and Carlos stood to salute all the human rights workers and the victims of injustice in the United States and throughout the world.
They both ascended the winner’s platform shoeless wearing black socks to highlight black poverty. Representing black pride, Smith wore a black scarf around his neck, and Carlos unzipped the top of his tracksuit in solidarity with all working class blue collar workers in the United States. He wore a strand of beads, which he declared, “were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage.”
I watched the ceremonies from my university dormitory lounge with other residents, while tear tracks of pride streamed down my face, not merely because of my connections with Smith and Carlos as undergraduate students at the same institution, San José State University, but because they clearly demonstrated not only the political potential, but more importantly, the very political nature of sport to forever transform minds, hearts, and souls for the betterment of society.
Not everyone, though, even at my university, supported their actions, stating that the purpose of sport is for entertainment only, and not to advance a political policy or agenda. Avery Brundage, International Olympic Committee president, scolded the athletes and the U.S. Olympic Committee for bringing domestic politics into “the apolitical, international forum [of] the Olympic Games.” Soon following Smith and Carlos’ actions, the U.S. Olympic Committee suspended them from the team and barred them from the Olympic Village. My university, however, gave them a hero’s standing ovation when they returned to campus, and we honored the two athletes with a 22-foot high statue in 2005.
I suggest to those who assert the “apolitical” nature of sport to ask President Jimmy Carter why he chose to have the U.S. boycott the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Ask the athletes and spectators at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia why they proudly waved rainbow flags and wore rainbow garments, held placards, and publicly embraced and kissed others of the same sex as Russian authorities passed legislation and cracked down on so-called “homosexual propaganda.”
Ask historians whether Jesse Owens’ performance by winning four gold medals in track and field at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany seriously called into question Nazi “racial” political philosophy on the supremacy of the so-called “Aryan.”
Ask the relatives of Jackie Robinson whether his very being as the first black professional baseball player had political implications within the sport as well as the effect of opening and expanding opportunities for people of color in the larger society.
Ask Michael Sam his experiences over and above the field as the first out gay man recruited by a National Football League team.
Ask Billie Jean King whether politics surrounded her win over Bobby Riggs in 1973 in their “Battle of the Sexes,” and her coming out as lesbian as the first prominent woman athlete.
Ask Martina Navratilova as well of her experiences as an out lesbian on the professional tennis circuit.
Perhaps, as time goes by, as more pioneers break racial, sexual, gender, religious, ethnic, language, and other barriers, athletes’ very being may one day have diminished political implications, but sport has always been and will forever have political consequences and possibilities.
Take for example, the recent show of solidarity by members of the St. Louis Rams football team with protesters in Ferguson, Missouri and throughout the nation demanding justice in the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black teen shot and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. Five team members entered the field at their recent home game presenting the “hands-up-don’t-shoot” gesture, which has become a protest symbol calling attention to the continuing plague of police shootings of black men and boys.
Reaction came swiftly from the St. Louis Police Officers Association (SLPOA):

“The St. Louis Police Officers Association is profoundly disappointed with the members of the St. Louis Rams football team who chose to ignore the mountains of evidence released from the St. Louis County Grand Jury this week and engaged in a display that police officers around the nation found tasteless, offensive and inflammatory.”

SLPOA has called for the players involved to be disciplined for their actions, and for the Rams organization and the NFL to issue a public apology to police in the area and throughout the country.
Whether the players face any consequences, the question still remains over whether professional and amateur athletes relinquish their First Amendment right of free speech once they don their team jersey and enter the field, and even when they are on their own time off the field of play.
I argue that Tim Tebow, when praying and performing the sign of the cross on his chest on the football field, and talking of his love for Jesus Christ during recorded interviews, not only engaged in religious acts, but also upheld Christian cultural hegemony within an alleged religiously diverse nation, and as such, he promoted his political agenda.
So should he have been restricted in his actions in other than his private spaces? Should athletes have restrictions or bans enacted on other forms of political expression? The jury is still out on these questions.
Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).