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.
As for the actual stormtrooper-sympathizer, Musburger refers to Brundage as a kindly old grandfather and with great affection and addresses him as “Avery”. No mention of course that many of the athletes called him “Slavery Avery.”
To this day, mention Musburger’s name to John Carlos and he grits his teeth. This is particularly illustrative because Carlos is fond of saying that he has no hate in his heart toward anyone even after all the isolation and criticism he endured. As he is fond of saying, “Bitterness leads to cancer which leads to death and I have too much work to do to have time for any of that.” Name a nemesis of his from 1968, like Jesse Owens or another member of the media and he responds with a smile and recounts how in private, they buried the hatchet. But not Musburger.
“We are talking about someone who compared us to Nazis. Think about that. Here we are standing up to apartheid and to a man in Avery Brundage who delivered the Olympics to Hitler’s Germany. And here’s Musburger calling us Nazis. That got around. It followed us. It hurt us. It hurt my wife, my kids. I’ve never been able to confront him about why he did this. Every time I’ve been at a function or an event with Brent Musburger and I walk towards him, he heads the other way.”
It’s been forty-four years. It’s time Brent Musburger apologized for slandering these two young men as “black-skinned stormtroopers.” It’s time he apologized for his absence of journalistic ethics in ignoring their message and instead obsessing on the color of their skin. It’s time he apologized for making the lives of John Carlos and Tommie Smith that much harder. Nearing the end of a distinguished career, he should address this scar on his legacy. Brent Musburger: the ball is in your court.
The full text of Musburger’s column is below.
Bizarre Protest by Smith, Carlos Tarnishes Medals
by Brent Musburger
mexico city—Tommie Smith and John Carlos must be labeled unimaginative blokes if they can’t come up with a stronger and more effective protest than the one they staged her last night during the Olympic medal ceremony honoring their accomplishments in the 200-meter run.
Smith and Carlos looked like a couple of black-skinned storm troopers, holding aloft their black-globed hands during the playing of the National Anthem. They sprinkled their symbolism with black track shoes and black scarfs and black power medals. It’s destined to go down as the most unsubtle demonstration in the history of protest.
But you’ve got to give Smith and Carlos credit for one thing. They knew how to deliver whatever it was they were trying to deliver on international television, thus insuring maximum embarrassment for the country that is picking up the tab for their room and board here in Mexico City. One gets a little tired of having the United States run down by athletes who are enjoying themselves at the expense of their country.
Protesting and working constructively against racism in the United States is one thing, but airing one’s dirty clothing before the entire world during a fun and games tournament was no more than a juvenile gesture by a couple of athletes who should have known better.
If Smith and Carlos were convinced that the ends justified their black power demonstration during the National Anthem, they should have avoided the award ceremony altogether. If it’s true, as hayes Jones says, that an athlete competes for himself but walks to the stand for his country, then a more courageous protest would have been for Smith and Carlos simply to stay away and not pick up their medals.
An Ignoble Performance
Their ignoble performance on the victory stand completely overshadowed a magnificent performance by two black athletes. It’s a shame. Smith will not now be remembered as that splendid runner who so thoroughly demolished the world’s record that he ran the last 10 yards with both arms held high in triumph over his head as he crashed through the finish line in the fantastic time of 19.8.
He will instead be remembered as the militant black who shook a black glove and black track shoe during the playing of the National Anthem. It hardly seems on the level with his first accomplishment, and it did absolutely nothing to relax racial tensions any place.
Another sorry performance developed on the bus ride back to the Olympic village after the ceremony. Smith and Carlos, along with their wives, boarded a bus with a group of tourists who were headed in the same direction.
Upon spotting the two winners, an indignant California tourist declared: "I was ashamed of both of you. That was a disgraceful performance." This ignited a loud public debate between the two Olympic medal winners and the irate tourist, as ears around the world sucked up the ugly words.
A Canadian journalist, Dick Beddoes of Toronto, finally broke up the argument. Then he, too, wound up debating Carlos, who wasted all of the post-race interview time last night lecturing the assembled journalists on what they should think and write. Perhaps it’s time that 20-year-old athletes quit passing themselves off as social philosophers.
Brundage Skips the Show
One could feel the tension building here all day yesterday. It was a foregone conclusion that Smith and Carlos would win medals in the 200 meters. A bigger question was what action the two militants would take to dramatize their protest against white America.
The front of the United States dormitory resembeld [sic] a United Nations debate. Jesse Owens lectured several newspaper men, insisting there were better stories to write than those about the black athletes and their dislike of Avery Brundage. The blacks on the United States team have said they will not accept medals from Brundage.
Yesterday Brundage was conveniently away in Acapulco, reportedly checking up on Olympic yachting. It’s somewhat ironic that Brundage wound up boycotting Smith and Carlos, two who advocated the Harry Edwards movement a long time ago.
This, too, appeared to be a big mistake on Brundage’s part. He should have stayed in Mexico City, marched to the stand with the medals, and demonstrated that he was not afraid of any threat. If Smith and Carlos had refused the medals from Brundage, Avery always could have stuck them in his pocket and taken them home to the grandchildren.
When Smith and Carlos ran, both were wearing long black sox. Carlos ran looking like a trinket shop, beads and badges and the medallions bouncing as he dashed toward the finish line.
Peter Norman, the talented Australian who nipped Carlos for second place, admitted afterward that he’s a protestor of sorts himself. He practices on week-ends in Australia, wearing a sweatshirt that proclaims: "Jesus Saves."
The way things are going, someone better save all of us before it’s too late.