Protest as Sport The drive to separate politics from sports did not start in 1968, but the year did set many rules still played by.

Peter Norman (left), John Carlos, and Tommie Smith at the Mexico City 1968 Olympic Games.

Two months in 1931 set the stage for a collision between national anthem, sports, and protest that has persisted from black-gloved fists in the air 50 years ago to #TakeAKnee.

In March of 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed into law a bill making “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem of the United States. In May of that year, the International Olympic Committee introduced the concept of the medal podium—and accompanying recognition of athletic victory with national anthem performances. Ahead of two Olympiads hosted by the U.S.—the Winter Games in Lake Placid, NY and the Summer Games in Los Angeles—the IOC advised: “Medals will be presented by the IOC President, Count de Baillet-Latour, or his representative. Athletes will stand on three pedestals, with the centre one higher than the two others. The competition winner will stand in the centre, with the second-placed athlete on his/her right and the third-placed athlete on his/her left.”

“The Star-Spangled Banner” had deep roots in American culture leading up to its anointment as the anthem. Francis Scott Key wrote the tune to commemorate a battle in the War of 1812, and the Civil War further elevated its patriotic stature. By the 1890s, performance of the Star-Spangled Banner became an Opening Day tradition in professional baseball. During the Spanish American War and World War I, the song served as a nationalistic morale boost.

Phillip Wrigley, chewing gum tycoon and owner of Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs, refused to have the anthem consistently played at his stadium, remarking that it “shouldn’t be cheapened by routine renditions in athletic arenas.”

National anthems, including “The Star-Spangled Banner” (before it had officially been recognized as the anthem of the United States) likewise debuted in the Olympics prior to 1932. After a contentious U.S. victory over France in rugby during the 1924 Paris Olympics, the United Press reported that “the American flag was hissed and jeered as it was pulled to the top of the staff, when the strains of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ were almost drowned out by jeers and two American students were knocked out by cane-wielders in the stands.”[1]

Performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at sporting events both domestic and abroad became a more frequent practice over the decades, but it would meet pushback from some rather unlikely sources. Phillip Wrigley, chewing gum tycoon and owner of Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs, refused to have the anthem consistently played at his stadium, remarking that it “shouldn’t be cheapened by routine renditions in athletic arenas.”[2] As the Vietnam War intensified in 1967, Wrigley changed his mind and permitted regular performance of the anthem.

At the commencement of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics one year later, IOC administrator Prince George William of Hanover sought to do away with not just the American anthem, but the presence of all nationalist symbols at the Games. Ryan Murtha writes in Slate:

 

‘Despite the high regard with which he viewed the Olympics, he saw the constant encroachment of politics and nationalism into the games as a poison corrupting its host. The Olympics, which were supposed to be a unifying force, had transformed into simulations of battle between nations. This was no novel observation by Prince George, but rather an echo of what George Orwell had written in his essay “The Sporting Spirit” two decades earlier. Orwell described international sport as “war minus the shooting,” explaining that “as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused” and the finer points of Olympism are thrown out the window.’

 

Prince George’s motion to remove all flags and anthems from the Olympics received 12 more votes in support than it did in opposition, but failed due to a two-thirds majority requirement. The prince subsequently resigned from his lifetime position on the IOC.

 

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Most memorable protests have not been objections to “The Star-Spangled Banner” per se, but callouts of inequity and discrimination in the nation that the song honors. Even the anthem itself has a racist heritage. Key was a slaveowner and included a lesser-known third verse that condemns slaves fighting for their freedom.

“Key’s tune and other national songs that predated the Civil War eventually helped heal the enmity between belligerents, who rediscovered their common bonds by engaging in commerce, subjugating African Americans and fighting foreign wars,” author Marc Ferris writes in his book on the history of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”[3]

Black communities in the Jim Crow South identified more strongly with “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as their national anthem. Brent Staples writes in The New York Times that “substituting the song for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was a quiet act of rebellion against the racist status quo.”

The Civil Rights Movement and discontent among black athletes with both domestic and international racial injustice led to the creation of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, founded by sociologist Harry Edwards. Edwards, a former San Jose State discus thrower, recruited two of the school’s track and field stars, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, to the cause while they were undergraduates. OPHR athlete-activists also included the likes of Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Muhammad Ali.

In 1967, Ali had touched off a sociopolitical frenzy by refusing induction into the U.S. Army. He cited three interconnected reasons for resisting the war in Vietnam: He thought he would be sent to combat, and he was opposed to fighting in Vietnam against other “colored” people; according to how he interpreted his religious dictates, he refused to fight in a war that was not declared by Allah; he refused to fight for a country that he thought was racist and that the real fight was at home to help free his black countrymen.

As a result of his decision, Ali was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title. Prior to the Mexico City Olympics, the OPHR demanded that the title be restored. Other demands included the removal of Avery Brundage as head of the IOC, the hiring of more black coaches and disinviting of Africa and Rhodesia from the Olympics. The IOC relented to the demand about South Africa and Rhodesia, stifling a widespread boycott. Though Abdul-Jabbar still opted to boycott and Brundage dispatched Olympic legend Jesse Owens to discourage other athletes from protesting, Smith and Carlos took their message to the medal stand.

Reactions among the U.S. Olympic teammates of Smith and Carlos to their protests ran the gamut. Wyomia Tyus, gold medalist in the women’s 100-meter dash and anchor on the 4×100 relay team, dedicated the latter group’s gold medal to Smith and Carlos. Meanwhile, gold-medalist heavyweight boxer George Foreman remarked of the protests, “that’s for college kids.”

“It was a collective group of young individuals that felt like we can have a better society than what was being shown,” Carlos would say years later of the OPHR. “We felt that all individuals should have an opportunity to get a decent education; all individuals should have an opportunity to live in the area where they feel their finances can take them. We felt that all individuals should have an opportunity to raise their kids in a clean, healthy environment. These are the things that we was concerned about, not just here in the United States, but throughout the world. We were concerned about social issues, as well as Muhammad Ali getting his title back.”

On October 16, 1968, as “The Star-Spangled Banner” blared after the 200-meter dash final, Smith, the gold medalist and world record-setter, and Carlos, the bronze medalist, bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists in unison. Carlos unzipped his jacket and wore a beaded necklace to demonstrate solidarity with blue-collar workers and victims of lynching, respectively. Silver medalist Peter Norman of Australia joined Smith and Carlos in wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights patch.

Reactions among the U.S. Olympic teammates of Smith and Carlos to their protests ran the gamut. Wyomia Tyus, gold medalist in the women’s 100-meter dash and anchor on the 4×100 relay team, dedicated the latter group’s gold medal to Smith and Carlos.

Meanwhile, gold-medalist heavyweight boxer George Foreman remarked of the protests, “that’s for college kids.”

Foreman celebrated his boxing victory by waving a miniature U.S. flag in the ring, but Carlos would remark years later that he did not take offense to Foreman’s gesture and that they simply expressed their patriotism in different forms. However, their teammates felt, the Black Power salute prompted excommunication for Smith and Carlos from the U.S. Olympic team and ridicule upon returning to America.

“Smith’s activism before the games had already cost his job washing cars,” filmmaker Geoff Small wrote in 2008. “But both struggled to find work to feed their young families when they returned home from Mexico. Smith’s marriage collapsed, Carlos’s wife committed suicide. Worse, the threat of retaliatory white violence haunted them. They received regular death threats. Carlos’s dog was butchered and left on his porch.”

Although the men suffered in many ways upon their return to the States, they continued with their athletic careers. Carlos had a successful year in track and field in 1969, and Smith played in two games for the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals during the same year. Carlos was also drafted into the NFL but never saw game-time action.

The pair’s protest emboldened more athletes to make political statements during the anthem. In the NFL, St. Louis Cardinals player (and Washington University in St. Louis graduate student) Dave Meggyesy protested the Vietnam War by bowing his head and holding his helmet in front of him. League commissioner Pete Rozelle responded by requiring players to hold helmets in left hand and salute the flag.[4] At the 1972 Olympics in Munich, sprinters Wayne Collett and Vince Matthews turned their backs during the anthem. The IOC suspended them and the U.S. Olympic Committee refused to allow their reinstatement.

During the 1980s, Lou Whitaker and Chet Lemon of MLB’s Detroit Tigers refused to stand for the anthem, but as a religious statement rather than a protest of racism or war—both men are Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“I acknowledge God’s kingdom over earth,” Lemon told the Detroit Free Press. “I give my allegiance to him and not to the flag.”

“Smith’s activism before the games had already cost his job washing cars,” filmmaker Geoff Small wrote in 2008. “But both struggled to find work to feed their young families when they returned home from Mexico. Smith’s marriage collapsed, Carlos’s wife committed suicide. Worse, the threat of retaliatory white violence haunted them. They received regular death threats. Carlos’s dog was butchered and left on his porch.”

A decade later, Muslim NBA player Mahmoud-Abdul Rauf of the NBA’s Denver Nuggets fused the religious and political in his objection to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Abdul-Rauf developed a routine of ignoring the national anthem before each game—instead engaging in warmup activity or staying in the locker room. Journalists were slow to catch on, taking nearly a full season to even notice his protest.

“The dispute came to a head at a Tuesday morning shoot-around in Denver, when Abdul-Rauf said the United States flag is a ‘symbol of oppression, of tyranny,’ ” The New York Times reported in March 1996.

The NBA briefly suspended Abdul-Rauf for violating a one-sentence clause in the league’s rulebook requiring players to stand for the anthem. He reached a compromise with the league wherein he would stand but bow his head in a silent prayer as the song played.

A standout player for Denver, Abdul-Rauf was traded in the offseason to the Sacramento Kings, where he played two more years before going unsigned by any team. His career was over at 29—save for a brief cameo three seasons later with the Canada-based Vancouver Grizzlies.

When NFL.com reporter Steve Wyche broke an exclusive piece about San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick remaining on the bench during the national anthem in 2016, he pointed to Abdul-Rauf as his point of reference. Kaepernick has not articulated specific religious motivations for his protest, but his justification for sitting on the bench during the anthem is familiar to anyone who had covered or followed Abdul-Rauf.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told Wyche after a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers.

Like Abdul-Rauf, Kaepernick also adjusted his original form of protest—he went from sitting on the bench during the anthem to kneeling on the sideline after consulting with former NFL player and Green Beret Nate Boyer.

 

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Though Kaepernick kicked off the latest cycle of protests and the election of Donald Trump accelerated them, the resurgence of high-profile athlete activism can be traced to the killing of black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012. Martin was a Miami Heat fan returning home with snacks to watch the NBA All-Star Game when neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman fatally shot him. Consequently, members of the Heat, including two-time league Most Valuable Player LeBron James and 2006 championship MVP Dwyane Wade, collectively donned hoodies for a group photo. James tweeted the image along with the hashtags #WeAreTrayvonMartin, #Hoodies #Stereotyped #WeWantJustice. Two years later, the mere possibility of boycotts for an NBA playoff game by the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors contributed to the ouster of bigoted Clippers owner Donald Sterling.

Toward the end of the same summer, Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown and reignited the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement. At a Division III basketball game in Clayton, Mo., Knox College basketball player Ariyana Smith lay on the court for four and a half minutes—starting during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The protest represented the four and a half hours Brown spent dead in a pool of blood on the street before police moved his body. Knox officials announced a one-game suspension for Smith, a decision they quickly overturned.

“I knew it was gonna shock people,” Smith said of the action. “I knew they were gonna be upset, but I couldn’t let that stop me. I could not go to the city of St. Louis and not acknowledge the sacrifice the protestors were making with their bodies. People are being gassed. To me, that demonstration was absolutely respectful.”

At a Division III basketball game in Clayton, Mo., Knox College basketball player Ariyana Smith lay on the court for four and a half minutes—starting during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The protest represented the four and a half hours Brown spent dead in a pool of blood on the street before police moved his body.

Days later, five players on the NFL’s St. Louis Rams demonstrated the “hands up, don’t shoot” protest before a game. Just days after that, a series of NBA players wore warmup T-shirts bearing the dying words of Eric Garner—placed in a chokehold by New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo—“I Can’t Breathe.”

In late 2015, players on the University of Missouri football team pledged to sit out games in solidarity with hunger striking graduate student Jonathan Butler. Months of activism by campus organizers, culminating in the highly visible hunger strike and solidarity statement by the football team, forced the resignation of university president Tim Wolfe.

In 2016, four players on the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx responded to the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, by wearing shirts reading “Change Starts With Us: Justice & Accountability.” The move led to similar actions by WNBA players and teams across the league.

Then Kaepernick sparked a raft of protests taking specifically timed during the anthem, which Lindsay Gibbs and Aysha Khan of ThinkProgress.org compiled into a database. In just the initial nine weeks after Kaepernick kneeled, 48 NFL players, athletes in other professional sports, and 52 high schools and 39 colleges took action. The protest extended to 35 states and three other countries.

Fellow NFL players joined Kaepernick in kneeling or raising their fists as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played. Olympic and World Cup champion Megan Rapinoe of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team kneeled during a game for her professional team, the Seattle Reign.

Soon thereafter, Trump rode a campaign of open racism to the Oval Office. He has since offered tacit support for white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., and called kneeling NFL players “sons of bitches.” Athletes from all over the league—plus cheerleaders and even some artists performing “The Star-Spangled Banner”—answered the derogatory comments by protesting during the anthem. The entire Los Angeles Sparks team remained in the locker room before Game 1 of the WNBA Finals.

Weeks after some of them joined their players on the sidelines, the NFL owners attended a summit that allowed them to vent their displeasure with the demonstrations. “We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” Houston Texans owner Bob McNair remarked.

However, the day of action around the NFL diluted the message of Kaepernick’s initial protests. Several teams simply decided to link arms as a sign of unity, some alongside the owners of their teams. A protest for unity is in fact not a protest at all, especially when it is joined by owners who donated millions to Trump’s inauguration.

Indeed, weeks after some of them joined their players on the sidelines, the NFL owners attended a summit that allowed them to vent their displeasure with the demonstrations.

“We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” Houston Texans owner Bob McNair remarked.

During the offseason, the owners unanimously agreed to a new rule that requires players on the field to stand for the anthem, though they will be permitted to remain in the locker room.

The NFL policy is controversial but not entirely out of the ordinary. The NBA, usually lauded as the more progressive counterpart to the NFL, has a rule stating: “Players, coaches and trainers are to stand and line up in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line during the playing of the national anthem.”

NBA players and coaches have been freer to speak on social justice issues than their NFL companions, but the written policy has not been tested in a high-profile manner since the league suspended Abdul-Rauf.

 

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Taking a knee has spawned boycotts of the NFL from both Kaepernick’s supporters and his denigrators. A fan has sued the NFL over the protests because they disrupted his “entertainment and intellectual enjoyment.” Meanwhile, activists have rallied outside NFL headquarters in New York, calling on viewers and sponsors to tune out the league until Kaepernick is reinstated. Bill Russell is one of many prominent former athletes to stand (or more accurately, kneel) in solidarity with Kaepernick.

The league’s television ratings declined by 10 percent in 2017 as protests also divided schools and entire towns. They have riled up elected officials—like the governor of South Carolina, who decreed a “Stand for the Flag Super Bowl Sunday.”

Then there are the president and vice president, who tweet indignantly about players kneeling and even adjust their travel schedules to perform loyalty to the flag and anthem. Trump even disinvited the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles from a White House visit—citing disrespect for the anthem policy among the players. Predictably, he and Pence have cheered the new rule requiring players to stand for the anthem. Following the leaders of their party, the kneeling protests have also turned into a bona fide campaign talking point for Republican candidates.

Perhaps the notoriously vulgar and combustible Nixon would have reacted in a more Trumpian manner if Twitter existed in 1968. On the other hand, choosing not to exploit a Black Power protest may have been a conscious decision. Nixon was indeed the law-and-order president, who fueled his campaign on white rage toward civil rights. But Nixon also made a deft effort to embrace a limited, conservative vision of Black Power.

Social media and online news have elevated the censure from authority figures like Trump. Comparatively, Richard Nixon did not make any notable public comments on the protest by Smith and Carlos despite it occurring during the heat of a presidential campaign. Nixon was elected roughly a week after the closing ceremonies.

Perhaps the notoriously vulgar and combustible Nixon would have reacted in a more Trumpian manner if Twitter existed in 1968. On the other hand, choosing not to exploit a Black Power protest may have been a conscious decision. Nixon was indeed the law-and-order president, who fueled his campaign on white rage toward civil rights. But Nixon also made a deft effort to embrace a limited, conservative vision of Black Power.

“Some aspects of Black Power are very disturbing to us because it means revolution—it means violence,” Nixon once said. “But other aspects of Black Power are very constructive because it means that black people—they want to stand on their own feet. They want to have black banks and not just go to white banks. They want to have black businesses and not just go to the white businesses.”

In fact, Nixon more than doubled 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s share of the black vote—15 percent to six.

Trump has likely clung to the flag and the anthem to compensate for his dearth of experience and substance as a politician. Nixon was a seasoned politico who compensated for a personality deficit with shrewd strategic cultivation of his base; Trump is a performer whose appeal to the base is his bombast.

Despite turning athlete protests into a far more explicit wedge than Nixon ever did, Trump has also tried to strike a balancing act with heroes of yesteryear. He floated a pardon for Ali, who died in 2016 and does not need a pardon because the Supreme Court overturned his conviction for refusing to be inducted into the army in 1971. Trump pardoned another famous black boxer, Jack Johnson, who was convicted in 1913 of transporting a white woman across state lines “for immoral purposes.” Johnson died in 1946.

Trump’s intermingling obsessions with celebrity, male dominance, and his business history with the NFL also explain his desire to hone in on the protests. If a celebrity—particularly a male athlete—is dead and unable to actively oppose his agenda, like Johnson and Ali, the president will extend an olive branch. But few things irk the president more than disobedient, living and breathing black men, especially when it comes to the NFL, a league Trump battled as an owner in the short-lived United States Football League.

Trump does have one living legend on his side, OPHR leader Jim Brown, a critic of Kaepernick.

“I don’t desecrate my flag and my national anthem,” Brown has said of the kneeling protests.

Trump’s alignment with Brown—shocking on the surface—makes a great deal of sense when considering the Nixonian lens on Black Power, as Brown biographer Dave Zirin has written.

“I didn’t think much of Dr. King,” Brown told Zirin. “I mean, I am not trying to put him down, but if you think about the majority of the rhetoric, it’s about what’s being done to us. It doesn’t have damn near anything that says what we’re going to do for ourselves.”

Colin Kaepernick has accumulated much more personal wealth than Smith or Carlos due to his multi-million dollar NFL contracts, giving him freedom that the 1968 legends lacked. Modern media culture has boosted Kaepernick’s platform in ways that it did not for the Olympic sprinters.

Brown’s take on King is hardly distinguishable from how a conservative Republican would justify Medicaid cuts. While Trump pursues such policy ends, his move to go radioactive on athlete protests has likely ensured that Kaepernick will never get a job in the NFL again. Smith and Carlos were welcomed—albeit briefly—into the NFL as much less talented football players. Yet Kaepernick has gone unsigned ever since he started kneeling in 2016, when he was still under 30 years old and coming off the best season of his career.

Regardless, Kaepernick has accumulated much more personal wealth than Smith or Carlos due to his multi-million dollar NFL contracts, giving him freedom that the 1968 legends lacked. Modern media culture has boosted Kaepernick’s platform in ways that it did not for the Olympic sprinters. He has been able to promote a million-dollar pledge through social media, collecting generous donations from celebrities toward a variety of charitable causes.

While the president can tweet angrily, protestors can also cultivate a network of supporters of their own online. #TakeAKnee spread rapidly through different levels of sports and has remained viable as a result.

Increasing diversity in sports journalism traditionally has also strengthened the conversation around protest. In 1968, future icon of sports broadcasting Brent Musburger described the general sentiment toward Smith and Carlos by calling them “black-skinned storm troopers.” Protestors of today clearly still have testy critics in the mostly white and male sports media, but commentators like ESPN’s Jemele Hill can effectively counter with their own megaphone.

“If you are criticizing Kaepernick now, but loved Ali, it just shows you really didn’t care about what Ali stood for,” the SportsCenter host tweeted to her hundreds of thousands of followers in August of 2016.

Women like Hill, Rapinoe, and WNBA players have been notably outspoken in the protests against racism and police brutality. Co-chairs for the Women’s March, which brought millions to the streets in 2017 and 2018, have thrown their support behind Kaepernick—including at the rally outside NFL headquarters.

“If you are criticizing Kaepernick now, but loved Ali, it just shows you really didn’t care about what Ali stood for,” the ESPN SportsCenter host Jemele Hill tweeted to her hundreds of thousands of followers in August of 2016.

The still lagging but growing centrality of women to the narrative marks a shift from the days of OPHR, when outreach to women athletes was lacking. OPHR leader Brown has also been accused numerous times of violence against women.

“We felt that a lot of women were very strong,” Carlos told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! in 2011, “and we just feel very sorry that there wasn’t—more inclusion into the whole production of the Olympic Project for Human Rights.”

 

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As ESPN’s Hill pointed out, America tends to glorify its former activists while suffering from intense polarization over its active activists. Martin Luther King, Jr. was despised by most of the white majority while he lived, but is now commemorated by a towering statue in Washington, D.C. Likewise, Smith and Carlos went from receiving mostly death threats in the aftermath of their protest to awards and recognition in recent years. Since 2005, they have had a statue of their own on the San Jose State campus.

Despite his effective banishment from the NFL, Kaepernick is already racking up the activist honors himself, including an award from the American Civil Liberties Union and distinction as GQ Magazine’s “Citizen of the Year.” He may get his statue too one day.

Around the time it is built, we will be preparing for or witnessing the next culture war raging over athletes and the national anthem. But as the tight vote before the 1968 Olympics proved, it is no sure thing that “The Star-Spangled Banner” sticks around the sporting world forever.

[1] “Hissed, Jeered, Americans Win at Rugby, 17-3,” The News-Herald, 19 May 1924, Page 10. https://www.newspapers.com/image/57155340/?terms=star-spangled+banner+olympics

[2] Ibid, 223.

[3] Marc Ferris, “Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 60.

[4]Ferris, 221.