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The Sports Rebellion | The Nation

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The Sports Rebellion

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When the New York Track Writers Association gathered at Mama Leone’s on January 3 for its first session of 1972, the dominant topic was the gold medal chances of the United States at the Olympic Games in Munich this summer. None of the writers, coaches or track officials at the first luncheon chose to speculate on whether the specter of a black boycott of the U.S. Olympic team will be raised again, as it was before the Mexico City Olympics four years ago. Perhaps no one wished to mar the new year by raising a subject so distasteful to the track establishment.

About the Author

Steve Murdock
Steve Murdock wrote on sports for a Wyoming newspaper and edited the publication issued by Local 1199 Drug &...

The memory of Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing with black-gloved hands aloft and heads bowed during the 200-meter victory ceremony in Mexico, still shakes them up at Olympic House on Park Avenue. Posters of Smith and Carlos in the act can still be purchased in Greenwich Village. Memory of the event is still fresh, and the sports establishment is nervous.

When Bill Bowerman of the University of Oregon, who will be the head coach of the U.S. track team, was interviewed shortly after his appointment was announced, he said:

The main problem is that the opposition is awfully good. There are no “walk-on” victories anymore. We’ll be fighting for our lives. There’s no question of that. So it’s extremely important we don’t have any problems which would interfere with our preparations. I don’t think there will be anything like the boycott troubles of 1968.

If there’s a whistling-past-the-graveyard tone to that last sentence it’s justified. There may not be a boycott, but it’s a good bet that something will happen at Munich.

Jack Scott of Berkeley, who is the director of the Institute for the Study of Sport and Society and the author of The Athletic Revolution, says: “There are no formal plans at this time for demonstrations at the Munich Olympics, but, as Harry Edwards points out, ‘It’s too early right now to announce anything—even if plans are under way.’ ”

Edwards was the architect of the boycott movement four years ago. He is the former San Jose State athlete—now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California—who promulgated the idea that black athletes should refuse to compete for the United States in Mexico. That strategy was subsequently abandoned in favor of the Smith-Carlos salute and the less controversial black berets worn by Lee Evans, Ron Freeman, Vince Matthews and Larry James at victory ceremonies.

In 1968 Edwards made the mistake of talking a lot about what was going to happen before he had the black athletes solidly in his movement. That was one of the factors that made the boycott strategy impossible and dictated a lesser protest. Judging by the sentence of his that Scott quotes, Edwards is being more careful this time, and Munich may be different.

Scott says: “My opinion is that if certain athletes make the team, the Mexico City demonstrations will seem like an afternoon tea in comparison with what will happen in Munich. If demonstrations were warranted in 1968—and I certainly believe they were—they are even more warranted today.”

So 1972 is a kind of anniversary—a time for stocktaking in what has come to be known as The Revolt of the Athletes. The revolt, of course, extends beyond the plight of the black athlete. Since The Nation last dealt in a comprehensive fashion with the revolt (“Beards and Brawn: The Dissident Varsity,” March 16, 1970), there have been many developments—far too many to chronicle here.

A flood of books have appeared on the subject, two of them attracting considerable attention. One is They Call It A Game by Bernie Parrish, a former defensive back for the Cleveland Browns; the other is Out of Their League by Dave Meggyesy, former linebacker for the St. Louis Cardinals. Jim Bouton’s Ball Four has also caused a lot of talk. Scott’s The Athletic Revolution, though less well-known, is the best effort so far to chronicle the history of the whole revolt rather than to describe its effect on some one sport.

In addition to the books (and there are others besides those mentioned), the newspapers, magazines and radio-TV have discovered the subject. Scott’s institute runs a clipping service on material dealing with the athletic revolution—culled from publications across the nation—and the volume is only slightly short of that accorded the assorted contenders for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency. In the preface to his book, Scott says:

The student movement, the black liberation movement, and the growing counter-culture all began to have an impact on high school and college athletics during the late 1960s, and this led to an inevitable clash between athletes and their coaches and athletic directors. Since 1967 well over 100 athletic programs at major colleges and universities have been rocked by some form of disturbance. Additionally, although athletic departments are facing the worst financial crisis in the history of intercollegiate athletics, many college student governments are beginning to withhold funding they have traditionally given athletic departments. In short, college athletics as we enter the 1970s is facing its most severe crisis.

And things are far from quiet on the professional front. The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments shortly on Curt Flood’s challenge of the reserve clause system, as it is practiced in professional baseball. The eventual decision in this case could well establish restraints on the slave-trade practices of baseball club owners. And as columnist Red Smith notes, “Even if the Court does not uphold the Thirteenth Amendment, Congress just might get the notion that baseball has heen above the law long enough, and do something about it.”

Parrish tells in his book of his attempt to bring 179 professional athletes into one big union. “I formulated a plan to try and get the four major league players associations—football, baseball, basketball and hockey—to merge into one union with four divisions, an organization large and powerful enough to deal effectively with matters common to eleven professional sports, and still allow each division to deal with problems unique to its own sport. All professional athletes face fundamentally the same problems—a player draft system, a reserve or option clause which binds them to a club for life, a relatively short career, and having to deal with the legal entity of a league set up with decisions made collectively but with profits divided among various corporations.”

Parrish’s scheme didn’t materialize, but it’s significant that the players’ associations—most notably those in football and basketball—are stronger than they have ever been. More and more, they are being regarded as unions, and Parrish, who is linked to the Teamsters, may one day see his plan realized.

Scott looks to an even more radical solution: “Although it would be a progressive step for the National Football League players to follow Parrish’s suggestion and become a formal trade union organization, it would be even more progressive for them to take over the league themselves and have real workers’ control.”

By any standard of measurement, the athletic revolution has progressed in the last four years. It has gone far beyond the struggle for the right to wear long hair and beards and has begun to reflect additional pressures, including that of women’s liberation.

It has even developed its own internal conflicts. Scott puts it this way: “Today black athletes are no longer struggling alone, as they were in 1968 when they were serving as the vanguard of the athletic movement. The athletic movement must continue to associate itself with the larger political movement or else it will become totally co-opted into ‘jock lib’—you know, higher salaries and the right to have long hair and wear bellbottoms.”

“Those of us in leadership positions in the athletic movement have a responsibility to make it clear one need not drop acid twice a week and become a counterculture freak in order to’ be involved in the athletic movement. If the anti-work, hedonistic life style of the counterculture ever was progressive, it certainly is no longer today.” Thus Scott rather carefully dissociates himself from-the super-radical—or dropout—wing of the athletic revolution.

Another articulate spokesman for the athletic revolution is Bruce Kidd, a Canadian who only a few years ago was one of his country’s top distance runners and a figure familiar on running tracks in the United States. Midd wrote not long ago, “I think that students have become apathetic and even hostile to sport, largely because its image personifies so many of the beliefs they oppose. Sport is usually equated with competition, for example, and there is a general revolt among young people today against all competitive aspects of modern living. Competition not only produces the best athlete at the expense of everyone else but it implies the psychological necessity of treating the opposition as the enemy.”

Obviously, the Kidd thesis has been carried to extremes by some participants in the sports revolution, and Scott seems now to be issuing a warning against getting out too far.

But at the same time he warns against idols who may give no more than the appearance of being anti-Establishment: “Joe Namath may be a pleasant enough guy to his friends, but his life style is avant-garde consumerism. It most certainly is not radical.”

Meanwhile, coming up fast in the athletic revolution sweepstakes is women’s liberation. Women jockeys, women marathon runners, women umpires, girl pitchers in Little League, and professional women tennis players are demanding a fair shot at the loot—or else. In New York’s Central Park last September a woman for the first time ran the marathon in less than three hours, and the staid old Boston Marathon seems to be realizing that it can’t run women competitors off the streets. And now the courts have ruled in favor of a woman baseball umpire.

This is a development that has grown most markedly in the past four years—just as women’s lib has. It is a new factor and one that Scott says cannot be ignored.

Daily headlines make it clear that the revolt of the black athletes is not losing steam. Six black basketball players boycotted the Cornell team for three games in December. Providence College lost its black captain for several games when two black players were dismissed. Columbia’s basketball team has been hard hit by the departure of both black and white players. And the Harlem Globetrotters have been on strike.

Last summer when a U.S. track team played host to a team representing—for the first time in history—the continent of Africa, blacks in the stands at Duke University in Durham, N. C., kept their own rather proudly displayed scoreboard. They added the points scored by black Americans to those scored by the virtually all-black African team and came up with a clear triumph for black pigmentation. Every black athlete—United States or African—who won an event received a tremendous ovation from a predominantly black crowd.

Black track athletes have said for years, “Where would the United States be in the Olympics without us?” Adolf Hitler turned it around in 1936 when he said the United States would never have won more medals than his super-Aryans if it hadn’t been for their “black mercenaries.” It was inevitable that someone like Harry Edwards would come along with an Olympic Project for Human Rights. It’s only strange it didn’t happen sooner. Scott would seem to be right when he says that something will happen at Munich.

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