Fifty years ago, on Oct. 16, 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood atop the Olympic medal stand — atop the world, really, at an elevation of 7,400 feet — in Mexico City. As the United States’ national anthem commenced, they each raised a black-gloved fist in the air, transforming into symbolic embodiments of black pride and power.
The resulting photo is iconic. But we often lose sight of why it’s still relevant.
Most Americans know little about the organization behind the podium protest. That group offers a crucially relevant lesson for politically active athletes today: the value of collective action. This lesson is even more urgent in light of Colin Kaepernick’s new deal to serve as the face and voice of Nike’s celebratory 30th anniversary Just Do It ad campaign. The ads have celebrated athletic achievement, leaving the potential for collective action hovering in the background.
The risk, though, is that this revolutionary potential might be thwarted by the corporation’s peddling of individual inspiration — unless athletes and their allies remember Smith, Carlos and the team that made their protest possible: the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR).
In the year before the Mexico City Games, OPHR forced the cancellation of a college-football game to bring equal-housing guarantees to San Jose. It activated a far-reaching network to boycott a key track meet in the lead-up to the Games — one in Madison Square Garden and televised by ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” This effort compelled the event host, the powerful New York Athletic Club, to end its discriminatory policy, which denied Jews and African Americans membership but profited on their athletic prowess at track meets. OPHR stood by Muhammad Ali, sharing his antiwar stance and seeking the restoration of his heavyweight title and boxing eligibility.
The group’s ambitions extended onto the global stage. Track athletes in the late 1960s refused to be used as Cold War pawns, symbols of American democracy and meritocracy in the theatrics of U.S.-U.S.S.R. dual meets and international sporting events.
OPHR even turned its critique inward, to Olympic organizations themselves. Because of its efforts, the U.S. Olympic Committee added a black coach to its staff. Although OPHR could not force the resignation of Avery Brundage — a notoriously racist and anti-Semitic American who owned a racially and religiously exclusionary country club and served as president of the International Olympic Committee — it joined with others to successfully rebuke Brundage’s attempt to bring apartheid South Africa back into the Olympic family.
At its core, the Olympic Project for Human Rights was a boycott movement. Although track and field athletes called off the boycott and competed in Mexico — a decision that gave us that historic image of Smith and Carlos — some members of the network did decline their spots on Team USA rosters, most notably UCLA star Lew Alcindor, the activist athlete who soon after changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
OPHR's actions before the Games offer today's athletes a playbook for collective action. And unlike the amateur athletes competing in the Olympics in the 1960s, professional athletes today have the economic and cultural capital to achieve even broader advancements. Unlike OPHR, they won't run out of resources, even if actions spark a fierce backlash like the podium protests did.
Lesson one from OPHR: Today’s athletes need a leader to bring them together. OPHR organizer Harry Edwards assembled 200 black athletes, from many sports and across the country, in Los Angeles for a Thanksgiving 1967 workshop. Sitting together and witnessing the collective power of their numbers inspired both hope and concrete action. It was at that Thanksgiving meeting that athletes voted to boycott.
More important, however, a collective organization grants legitimacy. Edwards became a national leader and spokesman, leveraging the notoriety of world-class athletes in an Olympic year to amplify OPHR’s message. Martin Luther King Jr. and Floyd McKissick flanked Edwards at the news conference where he announced the athletes’ platform and list of desired changes before they would consider dropping the boycott. H. Rap Brown joined Edwards in New York during the NYAC boycott. Forming an organization is what raised OPHR to national prominence alongside King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, McKissick’s Congress of Racial Equality and Brown’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
While we see athletes doing work across all sports today, usually with their own charitable foundations, never do we see them strategize in a unified or systematic way like OPHR did. Even last year’s protests during the national anthem in the NFL were organized within individual teams, often spontaneously, rather than carefully plotted collective actions.
One reason: There is a barrier to this sort of action. After watching Kaepernick get blacklisted, many athletes fear losing multimillion-dollar contracts and sacrificing their ability to play games they love. Amateur OPHR athletes who took a stand lost everything, but everything for them was far less to lose. Indeed, Kaepernick’s shiny new contract, even though it comes after the NFL seemingly ended his career, shows companies want to work with social justice warriors, even if sports teams don’t.
In 2018, athletes have both the cash flow and the celebrity status to ensure their voices are heard, no matter how loud — or presidential — the voices of opposition. But to do so, they must regain touch with the legacy of collective action. The insular focus to be the best in the world at what they do, not to mention endorsement contracts, agents and other forces, pushes athletes to prioritize the individual — the brand — over the group. Even when they think in group terms, they often think of their teams (or sponsors) and goal of winning.
Collective action that transcends tribal affiliation can be divisive. But such collective action can overcome the risk to athletes’ careers that activism poses. While Kaepernick saw his career derailed because of his activism, when more NFL players protested last year, most avoided consequences. Since then, the NFL announced, and — after player and public outcry — suspended, a policy to penalize teams and fine protesting players. And now even Kaepernick’s former teammate Eric Reid, who also filed a collusion case against the NFL after losing his job despite being among the league’s best defensive backs, has been signed.
Today’s athletes must also avoid a major mistake made by OPHR: To be successful in 2018, an activist athlete organization must include women as equal participants. OPHR never asked the Tennessee State Tigerbelles — basically, the women’s Olympic sprints and jumps corps, including two-time 100-meter gold medalist Wyomia Tyus — to join the movement. At most, female athletes fielded requests to cheerlead and vocalize support for the men, never invitations to join as collaborators. In 2018, that cannot and should not fly. A successful activist athlete organization must include all voices.
Choosing activism is risky. But some athletes will find the risk worth the reward — and, in the process, become icons themselves.