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 Waterboyand 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 his 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, Musberger 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, and he heads the other way.”
It’s been 44 years. It’s time Brent Musberger 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.
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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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