Taking a knee, raising a fist: How Black athletes risked their careers by making a stand

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Friday, February 10, 2023
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From 1968 to the modern day, Black athletes-turned-activists have risked their careers to stand up for their community.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- The world of sports produces unbridled passion.

We see that every Super Bowl, when hundreds of millions gather to experience this grand event.

In sports, so many regard the field, the track, the court, as sacred territory.

It is no place for protest.

Or is it?

In this episode of FACEism, "Taking a Knee," we look at activism by Black athletes who risked their careers to stand up for their community.

Fists raised in '68

Tommie Smith and John Carlos were among the greatest track-and-field athletes in the world in the 1960s. At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Smith won gold and Carlos took a bronze medal in the 200-meter race.

However, it was not their medals, but their gestures on the podium that garnered them the most attention. Both men stood on the medalist platform and raised single fists in the Black Power salute.

Immediately boos broke out in Olympic Stadium at the activist gestures.

ABC's Howard Cosell spoke to Smith after he accepted his gold medal. He asked him if he was representing all Black athletes.

"I can say, I represented Black America," was Smith's reply.

Their demonstration drew such vitriol, the U.S. Olympic Committee kicked them out of the Games, saying the Olympics were not meant as a forum for political statements.

They arrived back home to a country that was bitterly divided over race. They were villains and they were heroes. They received death threats - and applause.

ABC7 cameras were there when the two athletes arrived at Los Angeles International Airport. They were surrounded by an absolute media frenzy while walking through the airport, as Carlos told reporters "I feel great. ... It's great to be home." Smith noted the applause they heard from bystanders in the airport was quite different from their reception in Mexico City.

On ABC, which was airing the Summer Games, Cosell was critical of the expulsion and tried to provide perspective from the athletes' point of view.

"The Black athlete says he is part of a revolution in America," Cosell said, reporting from the stadium two days after the medal ceremony. "A revolution designed to produce dignity for the Black man and that he is a human being before he is an athlete. He's aware of backlash but says he's had it for 400 years."

Shut up and dribble?

UCLA Professor Tyrone Howard, who has authored books on issues of race and culture, says little has changed since those days.

"We really expect Black athletes to not think and not to offer opinions, because we just want them to entertain us, bring us joy for two hours, two and a half hours, and then go away somewhere and be quiet," Howard says.

Even now, Black athletes who make activist gestures face major backlash.

Colin Kaepernick was a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers when he decided to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem before games in the 2016 season. The gesture ignited widespread controversy - and after that season, when he became a free agent, no other team would take him.

"Colin Kaepernick was vilified when he took a knee," Howard says. "And there were lots of people who felt like there was no place in sports for protests."

Then-President Donald Trump weighed in, suggesting that NFL owners should fire any athlete who "disrespects our flag."

But Donzaleigh Abernathy says the gesture was not about disrespecting the flag. Her father Ralph Abernathy was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's partner in the civil rights movement. When she saw Kaepernick take a knee it stirred memories from her childhood when taking a knee was an important gesture of peaceful protest.

"It was not at all about the desecration of our flag or anti- our soldiers or anything like that," she says. "It was about the injustice that Black people had endured. And that's what we did through the '60s."

And now, a half-century after the Mexico City Summer Games, our streets are still boiling over. Now the protests are often over police mistreatment of Black people, as seen in incidents involving George Floyd for example.

One Fox News TV commentator famously suggested that athletes such as LeBron James who offer political viewpoints should just "shut up and dribble."

"I applaud many of these athletes today because they're taking stands," Howard says. "They're being vocal."

"They're putting their careers at risk."

Colin Kaepernick never played another down.

Smith and Carlos never ran another race. In the years following the '68 Olympics, both fell on hard times. They couldn't find jobs.

At their lowest point, the stress from financial struggles and being vilified was so overwhelming, Carlos' wife committed suicide.

Most people have no idea how much it can cost an athlete to peacefully ask for fairness.

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