When Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, they were scorched with scorn across the sports media landscape. One would have searched in vain for sympathy, understanding or even an unbiased recording of their grievances.
No one asked why two young, world-class athletes would risk their livelihoods, their reputations, even the safety of themselves and their families in the name of protest. Few were interested in examining why anyone would feel compelled to challenge an International Olympic Committee that coddled apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, didn’t hire black officials or would be led by an avowed white supremacist and anti-Semite, Avery Brundage. It was easier to dismiss Carlos and Smith and misguided souls and be done with them.
In 2012, that frozen, dramatic moment of 1968 resistance is far more likely to be celebrated than criticized. Smith and Carlos are now routinely lauded for their bravery and daring. As ESPN proclaimed bluntly upon giving Smith and Carlos their Arthur Ashe Courage Award in 2008, “They were right.”
No one was saying that in 1968. Amidst the angry denunciations, there was one column, published in the Chicago American newspaper, that was particularly ugly. The journalist responsible has never deigned to comment or explain, let alone apologize, for why he decided upon the words he chose. The writer became an iconic broadcaster who now sits comfortably as the elder statesman of the sports world. He appears in family friendly movies like The Waterboy and Cars 2. His name is Brent Musburger.
In 1968 Musburger was a restless, ambitious young sports writer looking to make his name. He found his opportunity when Smith and Carlos made their stand. Musburger didn’t see a demonstration. He saw a target.
“One gets a little tired of having the United States run down by athletes who are enjoying themselves at the expense of their country,” he wrote. Musburger then infamously called Smith and Carlos “a pair of black-skinned stormtroopers.”
The above quote has been disseminated in books and articles for years but Musburger’s full column is a difficult find. With an assist from Professor Jules Boykoff and an old-school tool called microfilm, I found it, and if anything, it’s even uglier than the above quotes suggest. The headline is “Bizarre Protest By Smith, Carlos Tarnishes Medals.” Despite seeing what they did as “bizarre,” Musburger doesn’t once address why Smith and Carlos did what they did or quote them directly. He does however find time to mock them repeatedly. He describes Smith and Carlos as “juvenile”, “ignoble,” and—this actually is bizarre—“unimaginative.” Musburger calls Tommie Smith “the militant black.” In describing a scene of Carlos trying to defend their actions, Musburger writes, “Perhaps it’s time 20-year-old athletes quit passing themselves off as social philosophers.”
And then there are those words that still singe the eyes: “black-skinned stormtroopers.” You almost don’t believe it until you read it.