In the fall of 2011, I was touring around the country with 1968 Olympian, anti-racist campaigner and protest icon Dr. John Carlos. For the uninitiated, he was the guy on the medal stand along with Tommie Smith, with his jacket open and arm bent, ready to take on the hatred of the world for the greater principle of human rights. Whenever we visited a big-time sports university, we made sure the athletics department was aware of it, just in case they wanted Dr. Carlos to speak to the student-athletes. Some of the smaller programs graciously said yes. The overwhelming majority either did not return our calls or replied with a curt no. After all these years, Dr. Carlos is still radioactive in the eyes of the risk-averse caretakers of college football and basketball. It makes sense, given their dependence not only on unpaid black labor but on the passive compliance of that labor. If your star players choose to raise their fist instead of play in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl or take the floor for March Madness, the entire multibillion-dollar economic setup of college athletics would implode. There may not be laborers more exploited or in possession of more labor-power, than the disproportionately black revenue-producing college athletes and that makes the entire setup a racial and economic tinderbox.
We realized that it would take actual courage for a big-time NCAA football or basketball coach to ask John Carlos to address their locker room. Of all the places we visited together, only one asked him to speak to their team and that was Chip Kelly at Oregon. I called Dr. Carlos last night to see what he remembered about the experience, and he recalled how Kelly introduced him to the Ducks as a person of principle and resolve and said that any successful team needs to share those kinds of principles if they want to rise above being ordinary. He remembered that Kelly was passionate in having his players know the history of 1968, and the sacrifices made by Dr. Carlos and his generation of black athletes.
I recalled this story yesterday because there was a volcanic thread over social media about Chip Kelly, now the coach of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, making personnel decisions that are being labeled as racist. I gleaned somewhat that this had been started by ESPN First Take’s bombastic co-host Stephen A. Smith, and was discussed after a series of moves by Kelly to clear out, trade or not re-sign a group of popular African-American players in Philly. These moves have also included holding on to white wide receiver Riley Cooper for two seasons after Cooper was caught on camera making a drunken racial tirade at a Kenny Chesney concert.
By evening, having always felt grateful to Kelly for bringing Dr. Carlos in to speak to the team, I tweeted the following: “Hard to hear the ‘Chip Kelly is a racist’ slander when I saw Coach Kelly bring in ‘68 Olympic protester John Carlos to address Ducks in 2011.” And then “After John Carlos spoke, Chip Kelly said that players should emulate his conviction. This is John Carlos. Racists don’t like John Carlos.”
I still stand by that. But what I did not expect—and I cannot believe I was this naïve—was a tidal wave of anti–Stephen A. Smith invective in my timeline aimed at him for even broaching the question. I did not even mention Smith in my tweets because it felt like the topic was beyond him, but he had become the piñata for everyone angry that this discussion was happening. It was over the top and very ugly, as if the act of talking about racism was in fact racist. It felt particularly stunning to read this on the very day that thousands marched in Madison, Wisconsin in the name of Tony Robinson and the players on the Oklahoma football team were walking out of spring practice clad in all black, fed up with the racism of fraternities that worship them on the field and mock them once the uniforms are off.