It was 50 years ago today, in an office in downtown Cleveland, that prominent American black athletes met in what turned out to be the first event in a full-fledged movement of political protest.
The general purpose was to support Muhammad Ali’s refusal to join the U.S. Army as the Vietnam War was ripping America apart. However, as Jonathan Eig, author of a forthcoming biography of Ali, wrote this week at The Undefeated, there are many layers to this story.
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Also In This Issue: RIP Frank Deford; Kareem & Wooden; A Return To ‘Fat City;’ Saving The Banana Slugs; A Final Toast To ‘Baseball Bill’
Some of the attendees came for other reasons and thought Ali’s gesture was unpatriotic. They also took a dim view of the separatist philosophy of Elijah Muhammad at a time when the Civil Rights movement was reaching its zenith.
But as Ali took to the microphone, and center stage in America’s cultural cauldron, the cause of black political protest overwhelmed other considerations.
Several months later, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists on the medal stage in Mexico City. Harry Edwards, a Cornell doctoral student inspired by the Cleveland Summit, called for a boycott of the 1968 Olympics, and his organizing led in part to those protests.
As the first anniversary of Ali’s death was noted on Saturday, it’s fair to consider not only the effectiveness of the movement that was born in Cleveland, but whether the methods used during those contentious times make sense today.
Edwards, unwavering in his advocacy after a half-century, has recently reissued his 1967 book, “The Revolt of the Black Athlete,” and is resolute in his belief that the biggest stages in sports remain important platforms for change. Especially since players now have more money and power.
In 2012, leading NBA players, including LeBron James, took part in “hoodie protests” to express their concern over police shootings of young black men. For Edwards, this might have been the climax of his crusade:
“They get it. The athletes get it. It’s not the money issue that shakes the establishment up. Tommie Smith and John Carlos didn’t cost the sports establishment any money. Ali didn’t cost the sports establishment any money.”
“What they did do was to cause a shift in terms of who’s in control and what the limits of that control were. That is what the establishment is always afraid of. They print money every day.”
Yet I’m not convinced those protests shook up the establishment that much. They took place before the games and didn’t disrupt the action. Nor did they infringe upon time-honored patriotic traditions observed at American sporting events. While the protests did rankle some (I was not enamored), they were rather respectful. No fists were raised during timeouts, or after dunks.
On the other hand, the firestorm triggered last season by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is a more deliberate, provocative throwback to Smith and Carlos and it’s not a surprise it continues to boil over today. Nor is it a surprise that Edwards has become an adviser to Kaepernick as he looks for a team to sign him.
Taking a knee during the national anthem to protest treatment of blacks in American society was bound to inflame an American society caught up in a contentious presidential election.
He’s become a media martyr, with established NFL writers alleging blackball conspiracies without revealing much in the way of evidence. We’re supposed to take them at their word, while they ignore the stunning, rapid decline of a quarterback to went from Super Bowl starter to Blaine Gabbert’s backup in the blink of an eye.
If Colin Kaepernick is the face of new black athlete activism, then the movement has hit rock bottom. A marginally talented player with a nine-figure salary that was easily ditched even by an incompetent organization is not the ideal individual to carry the flag for anything more than his own campaign to find a job. Even if it’s in Canada.
The hollowness of Kaepernick’s gesture, with his professional football career waning, is surpassed only by those singing his praises, trying to somehow link him to those who came before him. Unlike Ali, and Curt Flood and Alcindor/Abdul-Jabbar, Kaepernick has risked very little. The fat contract he played under was going to expire. His playing time last season was going to be limited before he ever became a cultural and political lightning rod.
Kaepernick may indeed be genuine in his views, and I’ll link to something I don’t particularly like to let you decide for yourself. I think the “systemic oppression” claim made here by Dave Zirin is quite a stretch, but that’s how Zirin rolls.
But it’s this “To the Barricades” rhetoric that’s getting far too much credence in mainstream media and it’s very troubling. I won’t go as far as Jason Whitlock has in suggesting that Kaepernick has become a victim of his own supporters.
These overheated pronouncements take away from legitimate concerns about racial issues and the racism that still remains, directed even at high-profile athletes like James and Adam Jones of the Baltimore Orioles.
Their responses to recent humiliating incidents have been eloquent and impressive, calling on the good consciences of fair-minded Americans to resist such hatred.
It won’t be stamped out entirely, but the measures by which to confront it need to form a new playbook. Elsewhere at The Undefeated, “Forty Million Dollar Slaves” author Bill Rhoden calls for a “latter-day Cleveland Summit,” although he admits “There is no single, charismatic figure for black athletes to rally around.”
He also makes the mistake of lauding the “resistance” against President Donald Trump by athletes (see: Stephen Curry’s denunciation of Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank for his pro-Trump comments). Condemning someone for expressing support for a politician you don’t like is not activism. For those wishing to have their perspectives taken seriously, it’s also an unwise posture to take. Open and honest debate, not silencing and demonization, have to make a comeback in American society, but that looks far from likely now.
In a twisted-up political age in which the same Jim Brown who organized the Cleveland Summit has met with the new president, black athlete activism has to shed the vestiges of the ‘60s to have any serious effect.
Remembering Frank Deford
Less than a month after giving his final sports commentary on NPR, Frank Deford died at the age of 78 at his home in Key West, Fla. The official cause of death has not been announced, but the tributes have been pouring in, and they are as tremendous as the man who inspired them. Read, enjoy and savor the best of the best:
- Sally Jenkins, The Washington Post;
- Charlie Pierce, Esquire;
- Alexander Wolff, Sports Illustrated;
- Nicholas Dawidoff, The New Yorker;
- Bryan Curtis, The Ringer;
- Joe Posnanski.
Roy Peter Clark, the retired writing teacher at The Poynter Institute, breaks down how Deford’s “focused writing,” even in his many classic longform pieces and books, gave his work its distinction.
From Deford, his 2010 Red Smith Lecture at Notre Dame, “Sportswriter Is One Word,” packed with insights from his career and his profession and its prospects in a digital world. Among his predictions: “As a consequence of this greater female presence in both sport and academia, I believe, we will, in the future, look upon sport in a more artistic manner.”
That’s a theme—sports, art and culture in their broadest sense—Deford addressed often in his long career, perhaps more than any mainstream sportswriter, and it was at the heart of one of his final NPR commentaries:
“I do honestly believe that, in the 21st century, sport is the most significant cultural element in this imperfect world. It calls for serious attention. No, sport is surely not the purest human expression, nor that which will leave the deepest mark—but sport is an art, it has incredible appeal everywhere on this earth, and it fills so many human breasts with passion that it’s impossible to dismiss it as simply the familiar junior partner of bread. Sport is more a devotion than a circus.”
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s latest book, “Coach Wooden and Me,” fondly details his 50-year friendship with his UCLA coach, in all its complications;
- Much homespun wisdom has been attributed to Wooden, but at Slate, Paul Putz argues that most of it is hogwash;
- As the NBA Finals continue, Ian Levy of The Step Back blog has curated an authoritative list of what he calls “basketball creatives,” including writers, bloggers, authors, analytics hounds, podcasters, designers and illustrators. A good number of them are bootstrapping their own independent media efforts as corporate bloodletting continues;
- Some veterans of the American Basketball Association are livid about the NBA’s regard for their recognition, benefits and trademark claims. One of them, Allen Berrebbi, has launched “a moral crusade” to bring light to grievances in the first of a series of stories by Tokyo-based journalist Ed Odeven.
A Few Good Reads
- Stockton, Calif., was the setting for Leonard Gardner’s celebrated 1969 boxing novel “Fat City.” For The New York Times, poet Karen Schoemer makes a recent visit with the author, now 83, and calls the place “an Edward Hopper painting, a Robert Frank photograph, a midnight-choir Tom Waits operetta plunked on an out-of-tune piano;”
- Not far away in a funky coastal town that still seems stuck in the 1960s, the UC-Santa Cruz athletic program looked headed for extinction, the victim of state higher education budget cuts. But the overwhelming passage of a campus measure to significantly raise the student athletics fee means that the non-scholarship Banana Slugs will live to compete again;
- It was 50 years ago during the American Summer of Love, and a year removed from England’s victory at the World Cup, that machinations got underway for major professional soccer in the United States. The United Soccer Association eventually gave way to the North American Soccer League, and a continental soccer odyssey took on a new dimension;
- Two longtime fishing and outdoors writers bid farewell to their readers from the Pacific Northwest, where stepping out into the larger physical world is a major component of the fabric of life. Mark Yuasa of the Seattle Times is a salmon fisher extraordinaire with nearly four decades on the beat. At the Tacoma News-Tribune, Craig Hill covered hiking, mountaineering and kayaking, and the elimination of his position ends an outdoors tradition at the paper going back 125 years.
- Roberto De Vicenzo, 94, won 231 professional golf tournaments in a glittering career that included induction in the World Golf Hall of Fame. But it’s the tournament he didn’t win—due to signing an incorrect scorecard—that earned him more attention than anything else. Months after capturing the British Open title, the Argentine De Vicenzo looked headed for a playoff at the 1968 Masters, but he generated decades of empathy and respect for the grace with which handled such a calamity, and for his memorable remark in halting English: “What a stupid I am to be wrong here;”
- Jack McCloskey, 91, was the chief architect of the Detroit Pistons NBA championship teams of the 1990s, and was happy operating in the background as the “Bad Boys” and coach Chuck Daly earned their notoriety. From the time he drafted Isiah Thomas with the first pick in the 1981 draft to the time he left the organization a decade later, “Trader Jack” never stopped wheeling and dealing to keep the franchise among the best in professional basketball;
- A legendary D.C. sports fan and local barkeep, “Baseball Bill” Holdforth, 66, “was really ‘Cheers’ before ‘Cheers,’ ” earning fame for his prodigious beer-drinking and inventive protests of the departure of the Washington Senators in the early 1970s. I worked with his brother years ago at a Maryland weekly, and spent many evenings observing Bill’s first-rate baseball knowledge as he poured drinks at the Hawk ‘n Dove, an iconic Capitol Hill watering hole. As Dave Kindred noted: “If you asked him a Senators question, you finished six beers before he finished the answer.”
The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 85, published June 4, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
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