Stay In Your Lane : A History of Sport and Civil Rights

The 200m Olympic champion has just been crowned in Mexico City. It’s the 16th October 1968 and American Tommie Smith has run a superb race, clocking a time of 19.83 seconds to set a new world record. His actions on the podium consign this athletic feat to forgotten sporting history.

Medal around his neck, black socks (but no shoes) on his feet and a black leather glove on his right hand, the African American bows his head. As the Star Spangled Banner begins to play around the arena, in recognition of his victory and the country from which he hails, Smith raises his right arm. A closed fist completes his human rights salute. 3rd placed John Carlos, Smith’s national compatriot, follows suit. They stand reverently throughout the anthem.

An instant backlash ensues. As the athletes exit the field, a torrent of jeers rain down from the crowd. The fallout quickly intensifies, led by Avery Bundage, President of the IOC. “The actions of these negroes was an insult to the Mexican hosts and a disgrace to the United States”. Both Smith and Carlos are expelled from the Games as punishment for what the IOC deem a political protest. They never race at the Olympics again. 

That the pair were competing at all may be surprising to those wise to the domestic troubles that plagued their homeland. 1968 had a been a decisive, divisive year for the American civil rights movement. In April, activist Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Civil rights advocate Robert F Kennedy then suffered a similar fate in June. Only four years earlier, the Civil Rights Act brought an end to lawful segregation which recognised black Americans as second class citizens. Now, Smith and Carlos stood on a podium in front of the world, Olympic champions from the ‘land of the free’.

This was nothing new. For decades, as the country remained in the stranglehold of Jim Crow, African Americans found some semblance of equality in sporting competition. A level playing field on the playing field where the colour of one’s skin became quickly inconsequential when that someone could run 100m in ten seconds or less.

Every four years, the Olympics provided a global platform for African Americans to represent their country in the international domain and stake a claim for equality upon their return. London served as an initial backdrop for change in 1908, as John Taylor Jr. became the first African American to win a gold medal (competing in the men’s medley relay team). Then, in 1936, Jesse Owens provided a compelling 10.03 second counter-argument to Adolf Hitler’s assertion of a superior aryan race as he won 100m gold in Berlin. Further victories in the long jump, 200m and 4 x 100m relay served to emphasise his point. In 1968, Smith and Carlos became the latest in a long line of black American talent.

But there was a catch. While their athletic ability opened the door, athletes had to adhere to an unspoken code of compliance in order to stay in the room. One point became quickly clear: political protest was not welcome in the sporting arena, especially that of a civil rights kind.

Smith and Carlos weren’t the first to face the consequences. A year earlier, Muhammad Ali paid a costly price for conscientious objection, stripped of his World Heavyweight title and banned from boxing for three years for refusing to conscribe to the US war effort in Vietnam. “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong”, he said. “No Viet Cong ever called me n*****.”

Smith and Carlos weren’t the last. In 1990, as Michael Jordan was approaching the peak of his powers, a political war for state senate was being waged in his home state of North Carolina between Democrat Harvey Gantt and Republican Jesse Helms. Despite the latter’s questionable civil rights record, Jordan refused to back Gantt. When quizzed why, the star replied: “Republicans buy sneakers too”. Endorsements over equality. 

Then, in 2017, came the infamous case of Colin Kaepernick, the NFL star whose decision to take a knee during the pre-game national anthem thrust the Black Lives Matter movement into American sporting consciousness. Having observed a silent protest against the ongoing mistreatment of minorities in the country since the beginning of the 2016 season, rumours began to swirl that San Francisco were preparing to release the quarterback early from his lucrative long-term. Pre-empting upper management, Kaepernick took matters into his own hands, opting out of his multi-million dollar deal. Three years on, shunned by American football organisations across the country, he remains unsigned.

The pattern is clear. Black athletes are welcome to compete, but only within strict confines. They stray outside of these at their peril – with defiance comes condemnation and exclusion. Educated through first-hand experience in 1968, Smith summarised: “If I win I am an American, not a black American. But if I did something bad then they would say ‘a Negro’. We are black and we are proud of being black.”

It is not a rule exclusively for black athletes, though. Revisit the image of Smith and Carlos on the podium and you will see a third man. He is Peter Norman, an Australian sprinter who finished second in the 1968 200m final.

Norman defied conventions of the day to stand in solidarity with Smith and Carlos. It was he who, upon finding out the Americans only had one pair of black gloves, suggested they wear one each. It was he who wore an Olympic Project For Human Rights badge in support of the protest. It was he who later stated: “I couldn’t see why a black man couldn’t drink the same water from a water fountain, take the same bus or go to the same school as a white man. There was social injustice that I couldn’t do anything about from where I was, but I certainly hated it. It has been said that sharing my silver medal with that incident on the victory dias detracted from my performance. On the contrary, I have to confess, I was rather proud to be a part of it”. 

But Norman paid the price. It was also he who, after his display of anti-racism, was shunned by the Australian team. It was also he who, despite remaining his nation’s 200m world record holder, did not receive an invite to the 2000 Games in Sydney. It was also he who remained ostracised until his death in 2006. Smith and Carlos were pall bearers at his funeral. While his nation may have chosen to forget, the two Americans did not. Norman was an ally, ahead of his time and championing equality in a world not yet ready to listen.

Problems persist and the UK is far from exempt.

Take the tabloid media’s contrasting approaches to reporting on the property investments of two rising stars at Manchester City. For Phil Foden, a white player, the headline reads: ‘Manchester City starlet Phil Foden buys new £2m home for his mum’. For Tosin Adarabioyo, his black team-mate, another article from the same outlet states: ‘Young Manchester City footballer, 20, on £25,000 a week splashes out on mansion on market for £2.25 million despite having never started a Premier League match’. The difference is clear and impactful. One positive and uplifting. The other, infused with scorn.

So what can we do? While sport has served to highlight the issues we face as a wider society, it may also offer the solution.

22nd June 2020 in Manchester, less than one month after the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota has propelled the Black Lives Matter movement back into the global mainstream. Manchester City vs Burnley in the world’s most watched league.

Upon kick-off at the Etihad Stadium, a banner reading ‘White Lives Matter Burnley’ is seen flying above the stadium. It is soon revealed that a small group of Burnley supporters from the club’s ultras group, the Suicide Squad, are behind the air borne counter-protest.

A throwback to dark days in the 1970s and 80s when racism plagued football terraces, it is easy to be disillusioned. Burnley’s response, though, offers hope.

Immediately after the game. Club captain, Ben Mee. Straight down the lens of the camera, talking to millions around the world: “We can talk about football but there’s something I want to speak about first. The airplane that went out before the beginning of the game. I’m ashamed. I’m embarrassed that a small number of our fans have decided to put that around the stadium. They completely miss the point. There’s a group of lads in there [Burnley changing room] who are embarrassed to see that. It’s not what we’re about, it misses the point of what we’re trying to do and I think these people need to come in to the 21st century and educate themselves ”. Burnley echo Mee’s words in an official club statement condemning the act.

Working as a pundit on American television, ex-professional Robbie Earle weighs in: “I was so saddened by yesterday. We’ve got so much work to do…The thing that gives me hope is when Ben Mee says the things he says. If you didn’t see a picture of Ben Mee, you’d think he was black. He was going through what we go through. He was seeing it through the lens of a black man”. ⠀

“That is change. That is progression. That is people standing with you in the fight and if we can stand together in the fight, we’ve got a chance”.

It is a good start. Now, athletes across the globe are challenged to continue the fight. To give their voice and platform to the campaign long after ‘Black Lives Matter’ disappears from the back of Premier League shirts. To seize the moment and use their social influence to transform it into a long-lasting, meaningful movement. As a wider society, it is our job to ensure we do the same. 

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