On this day in 1968, one of the greatest moments in sports history happened. It was also one of the greatest moments in world history.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two runners from San Jose State University (my alma mater), made a demonstration that forever changed history. After having won gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200-meter running event, both Smith and Carlos raised a black-gloved fist during the national anthem in a gesture towards human rights. This came at a time in America where racial equality was still a distant dream.
What transpired afterward was equally telling of the times in America. There were people who understood the importance of their message; there were many who disliked the act. Smith and Carlos were immediately sent back home, they (and their families) received death threats. It became discussion over and over about how a sporting event was no place for what they deemed a political protest. What these two did was completely unacceptable and disrespectful.
This mirrors the struggle we are going through today. Racial inequality still exists. Despite living in a country where it appears that we treat each other equally despite our race, it’s far from the reality we wish that existed. We can take a look at Colin Kaepernick and how he too demonstrated with a protest about racial inequality, was ostracized from his sport and received major backlash.
We haven’t improved much as a country. We have a president in which some people in America fear that he is against them. We have people denying the need to address racial inequality. And the biggest issue going on right now in sports is whether or not it is acceptable to protest during the national anthem. It’s a very tough time for our country.
This isn’t to argue whether or not it is OK to protest during sporting events (or on a deeper level, what the flag is supposed to represent). But the issue at hand is the awareness of the racial inequality we face in America. It was the same issue then and it remains the same issue now. As athletes who experience racism in their own lives, they know they have a platform to speak to the world. It’s what they feel as human beings, not athletes, as their duty.
It’s been 49 years since Smith and Carlos staged their protest at a sporting event. Their message was not one of disrespect to the sport they played, but their cry for help on the platform their sport had gifted them with. What they were fighting for was an issue that was bigger than their sport. The discussion shouldn’t be whether or not it is OK to protest, but what are the next steps to stop this troubling issue we live through in this country.
Today we have the same battle that’s being fought. Colin Kaepernick started the discussion and now the NFL and other leagues are starting to see athletes take their form of protest. But through all that we see today, there is only one thing that matters: what is the message? It isn’t about the military or respecting the flag. It’s about respecting each other as humans. It was the story in 1968 and it is still the story in 2017. It’s bigger than sports. It always will be.