So what originally inspired your interest in studying sports in society and the power of that platform for activism?
First of all, I experienced it as an athlete, being one of that first generation of mass desegregation of high schools and so forth in East St. Louis in 1957. We were brought into the then-predominantly White high school — but they had no idea what to do with us. They didn’t understand our culture. They didn’t know our families. They didn’t understand our community. They had no idea of the challenges that we faced. What they did know was sports, as a result of Jackie Robinson and the Black football players who were, by then, going to places like Iowa and Purdue and Indiana. And so we played football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and track and field in the spring. And that’s what I did.
But I experienced, in that period of time, such an abject alienation from the culture of the school, from what the school was supposed to mean to a teenager at that time. And whatever I did pick up from the culture of the school during the day, I forgot about on the bus on the way back to the south end to another culture, where there was an entirely different spectrum of survival realities that I had to deal with. And I began to understand that the disconnect that I was experiencing in the classroom also existed in the locker room. Black athletes were treated differently. Black athletes were approached differently than White athletes.
Fifty-plus years after you organized the Olympic Project for Human Rights around the ’68 Olympics, h ow significant do you think it is that the U.S. Olympic Committee finally formalized its pledge earlier this year not to punish athletes for peaceful protest?
I think that it’s a 21st-century decision under circumstances where the USOC no longer controls the media. Social media means that these athletes can get together, go online and put their message out there. This is a phenomenal advance because it takes away from the U.S. Olympic establishment the power to define what’s legitimate and what is not. And I think the athletes were courageous and determined in bringing the discussion and debate to the point where that decision was made. So the United States Olympic Committee was in a position where they could get on board or get run over.
So not necessarily enlightenment, then?
No. When you go back and look — I don’t care whether it’s the desegregation of sports, the expansion of women’s access to sports — none of it has been done out of consideration of constitutional rights, moral justice, equality and freedom. It has been transactional. The breaking of the color line by Kenny Washington and Woody Strode in football, and Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby in baseball, and Earl Lloyd and Chuck Cooper in basketball was not a consequence of a change in racial attitudes following World War II. It was transactional. There was an opportunity to advance interests by changing business models to include African American athletes. And the same with women. Title IX made it costly not to have some program which at least pretended parity for women in sports, if you got federal money as an educational institution. It was not moral. It was not intellectual. It was not spiritual. It was not even in the guise of respect for freedom and equality. It was transactional. And this thing that the United States Olympic Committee did was transactional. This was the power of social media with athletes saying: We’re going to do this, and we don’t want you punishing us the way you did athletes during the past Olympics, the Pan Am Games and so forth.
Back in ’68, after John Carlos and Tommie Smith protested at the Olympics as part of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, you all were vilified.
Oh, absolutely. Down to the death threats. I was fired. Smith and Carlos couldn’t find a job.
Did you have a sense at the time that things would come around?
Well, it wasn’t a sense that things were going to come around. It was a sense that what was done was imperative and absolutely necessary. What Smith and Carlos were saying, what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was saying, Lucius Allen and Mike Warren when they boycotted the games was: Hey, we’re better than this as a nation, and we have to do better than this.
See, I was a student of sport in society. I understood that history of athletes being in the forefront of that kind of effort. And I was aware that there was a price to be paid when you forgot your place, irrespective of what service you may have done for the country or the nation.
Whether we’re talking about Octavius Catto back in 1865 and ’66, who organized a baseball team and tried to get an integrated baseball league started, and ultimately was murdered behind his efforts to mobilize the Black vote at the onset of the Reconstruction era in 1871; or the Black jockeys who [were] 13 of the 15 [jockeys in the first] Kentucky Derby, who ultimately were driven out of the sport. Not only were Joe Louis and Jesse Owens hounded by the IRS. Not only was Jack Johnson driven out of the country first and then put in jail on a trumped-up charge of interstate travel with a woman for illicit purposes. Not only was Paul Robeson — another great athlete of that first wave era — reduced to an Orwellian nonperson for all practical purposes. Not only did Jackie Robinson ultimately wind up saying: I cannot stand for the anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance because I find myself a Black man, even at this late date, in a racist, White society. So I was aware of that. And most certainly, in 1967, the first time I got shot at, and my house got vandalized, and my car got vandalized, I had a sense of what the price could be.
As part of the 49ers organization, you spoke with Colin Kaepernick before his protests. Were you surprised at the reaction he got even so many years later?
No. I went into the locker room after that game when he took a knee and got his jersey, his shoes and his gloves, had him autograph them, and I sent them to Lonnie Bunch at the [National] Museum for African American History and Culture. I said, “Put it right between Ali and Smith and Carlos, because that is where it belongs.”
In protesting injustice, you said those athletes are saying to the country, to the world: We’re better than this. Do you ever worry that that may not be true? That maybe, in fact, we’re not better than that as a nation?
In the moment, you’re absolutely correct: We’re not better than that as a nation in the moment. But you have to take a longer view if you’re going to move forward. I go back to the abolitionist movement. We came through a bloody civil war, but we came out with an end to slavery. We went through a bloody labor movement, but we came out with the eight-hour day and an end to child labor. We went through the women’s suffrage movement, where women were beaten and jailed and assaulted, but we came out with the women’s right to vote. We went through a bloody civil rights movement, that killed, between the turn of the 20th century and the assassination of Dr. King, three times as many people through lynching, murder and so forth as the attack on the twin towers, but we came out with the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. With Black representation in Congress and mayorships in cities across the country. So in order to evaluate and credibly understand the potential there, you have to look long-term, and athletes have always been in the forefront saying: We, the people, are better than this.
KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @kkOttesen. This interview has been edited and condensed.