Sports, Politics and the 1960s


On my wall at work I have a photo virtually anybody who was cognizant in 1968 would recognize. It shows the U.S. Olympic runners Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos with their fists raised high in the air in the Black Power salute. I remember watching this event as if it were yesterday. Not only was I quite the sports fan at the time, I was quite interested in the movement for Black liberation. In 1968, thanks to the still blatant racism of the men running the sports world and men like Muhammad Ali and Smith and Jones, these two interests were often intertwined.

The history of black athletes in white America reflects the history of African-Americans in general. Before the integration of pro sports, blacks had their own leagues in baseball and basketball. The Negro Baseball Leagues featured some of the best players in the sport and when the major leagues finally began to integrate, the Negro Leagues faded as teams in the majors hired black players. Boxing was the first sport to be infiltrated by blacks–although African-American boxers too had their own association until the early 1900s. Jack Johnson was the Black boxing champion when he met the white boxing champion Tommy Burns in 1908 and beat him.

The discrimination against African-American athletes was even worse in college athletics. Not only were black athletes prevented from attending white colleges, they did not compete against their athletic teams very often either. However, the 1960s changed that. Along with integration in the classroom came the first wave of African-American athletes playing for previously all-white college teams. Many of these athletes, like today, were not courted for their academic ability, but only for their athletic ability. Still, however, these young men did not get any full scholarships–these were reserved for white athletes. Also like today, graduation was not given much priority by the Black players’ coaches or respective athletic departments. Blacks were forbidden from joining fraternities, subject to racist remarks and acts by fellow students and teammates, and due to their very small numbers, quite isolated from the rest of campus life. As sociologist and activist Harry Edwards wrote in his book, The Revolt of the Black Athlete: “The only difference between the black man shining shoes in the ghetto and the black sprinter is that the shoeshine man is a nigger and the sprinter is a fast nigger.”

As part of an ongoing struggle for just treatment in US collegiate and other amateur competition, African American athletes and their supporters begin meeting in 1967 under the auspices of a new organization called the Olympic Project for Human Rights about boycotting the 1968 Olympics. World-class runner and college student Tommie Smith was quoted after some track and field trials early that year in Japan as stating that “there may be a boycott” when asked by a Japanese reporter

Later that spring, Black students and athletes at San Jose State asked for better treatment. With the tutelage and complete support of Professor Harry Edwards (also an African-American), they met with the dean of students who told them to go away since he didn’t have time to deal with such a small number of students (70 out of a total enrollment of 5000). With this rejection, the students began to plan for a rally on the first day of classes the next fall. On that day, the rally began with only 135 students: 100 or so whites and 35 or so blacks, but by noon close to 700 were in attendance including faculty and staff. The demands of the rally were surprisingly mild, but indicative of the situation African-Americans found themselves in 1967. They were: Public deliberation of all problems and proposed solutions relevant to the situation of minority groups at SJS.

Public pledges that no housing of any kind, including frats and sororities, will be open to all students wishing to live there.

That all social and political organizations be open to all students and that this be proven by spring 1968.

That all athletic recruits be treated the same in the recruiting process.

That the athletic dept. disassociate itself from racist fraternities

That the college provide tutoring to all those who desire it.

That the student government be representative of all students, not just a corrupt group of racists.

There was no response to the demands, so the first football game of the 1967 season was boycotted and picketed by black players and their supporters.

On November 22 and 23rd, 1967, a national Black Youth Conference was held in Los Angeles–several college athletes attended and the boycott was discussed. UCLA basketball player Kareem Abdul Jabbar (who was still going by the name his parents had given him, Lew Alcindor) told why he supported the boycott: Everybody knows me. I’m the big basketball star, the weekend hero, everybody’s All-American. Well, last summer I was almost killed by a racist cop shooting at a black cat in Harlem. He was shooting on the street–where masses of black people were standing around or just taking a walk. After all, we were just niggers. I found out last summer that we don’t catch hell because we aren’t basketball stars or don’t have money. We catch hell because we are black. Somewhere each of us has got to make a stand against this kind of thing. This is how I make my stand–using what I have. And I take my stand here.

In the weeks following the conference, Tommie Smith made public the contents of some of the hate mail he had been receiving for his comments regarding the Olympic boycott. In the meantime, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) invited the apartheid sports teams of South Africa to the 1968 Olympics, prompting an immediate outcry and an expansion of the boycott call to include most of the African nations, all of the communist nations, and many non-aligned countries. Simultaneously, it was revealed in the press that Avery Brundage, the head of the IOC, was a part owner of a country club that forbade membership to Jews and blacks. Eventually, the IOC succumbed to the ever-growing international pressure and rescinded its invitation to South Africa.

The American athletes vowed to continue the boycott in the hopes that it would force the U.S. Olympic establishment to provide African-American athletes with the same opportunities afforded their white compatriots. However, the boycott eventually fell apart–people were thinking of their careers. In addition, the harassment and intimidation from racist quarters was reaching the point where some of the athletes were receiving threats to their lives and the lives of their loved ones. An alternative path to a full boycott was decided on: no African-American athlete would take the victory stand when they won. Only weeks before the Olympics began, Mexican students took over the National University, supported by thousands of their countrymen and women. On October 2, ten days before the Games opened, Mexican security forces opened fire on a rally in the La Plaza de las Tres Culturas at Tlatelolco in Mexico City, killing hundreds. Although the harassment and intimidation of athletes supporting the boycott movement was not even close to the massacre of the students and their supporters, the intention was the same–to stifle protest. The Olympics almost didn’t take place.

On the first day of the competition two African American runners, Jim Hines and Charles Greene, won the 100-meter dash. When the two sprinters took the victory stand, neither man did anything but stand at attention as they received their medals while the US flag was raised. Then came the 200-meter dash. Tommie Smith took the gold, John Carlos the bronze. Although they had been intimidated and harassed like the other athletes, when the U.S. flag began rising up the flagpole and the anthem played, the two men refused to be intimidated. Both bowed their heads and raised their black-gloved fists in a black power salute. The silver medallist was a runner from Australia named Peter Norman who wore the patch of the Olympic Committee for Human Rights (OCHR-sponsor of the boycott movement) in solidarity with Smith and Carlos.

Within hours, the two African-American men were expelled from the Olympic Village and were stripped of their medals. This was one of the decade’s simplest and most effective protests. As the games continued, other athletes from a number of nations protested the treatment of the two in public statements and other symbolic actions. The results of the Olympic protest and the movement of black student athletes changed the world of black athletes in many ways, yet much remains to be resolved. It’s somewhat ironic, although not necessarily surprising that, as African American athletes make more and more money, their solidarity with one another and with the rest of the African-American community seems to diminish.

What were white student and amateur athletes doing during this period of upheaval? For the most part, nothing. However, there were a few individuals who worked with the OCHR and spoke out against the war and racism they saw on their campuses. When they did, they were often benched or kicked off the team by coaches and athletic directors who despised their opinions and lifestyle choices. By 1970, though, these few individuals were joined by whole teams and, in some cases (like UC Berkeley) virtually the entire student athlete population. After Nixon invaded Cambodia and many of the nation’s colleges and high schools went on strike, student athletes at UC Berkeley voted to protest en masse against the invasion. Then, following the murders of students at Kent and Jackson State later that spring, some teams cancelled workouts, while most wore black armbands during competitions and issued statements supporting the student strike as it spread across the land. In the Ivy Leagues, members of all eight schools’ track and field teams issued a strong statement denouncing the war, the killings of students and the repression of the black liberation movement. That statement caused the Army and Navy teams to withdraw from an annual springtime track and field event. Left On Base-College Athletics and The Myth of Opportunity

The world of American sports has changed in fundamental ways in the past forty or so years. One could argue that it was the decade of the 1960s that they began to assume their current overly important role in American culture. Money started to play a larger role than ever before, mostly because of television–although money had always played a role–and their role as spectacle grew larger. This growing importance gave greater meaning to the statement by NY Times sportswriter and author of The Contender Robert. Lipsyte, who wrote in an introduction to Caribbean Marxist and critic CLR James book on cricket: that among the poor, “a youngster’s only capital is his/her body. The exploitation is obvious, as is the hope:” As suburbia grew, pickup games in a vacant lot or playground became fewer as organized sports became the norm for youngsters wanting to play ball.

Most coaches went along with the changes at this level and up into high school and college, grooming their prime athletes for the big leagues. Some, however, had other ideas. A small group of coaches and athletes critiqued sports in capitalist society. Perhaps the most well known was Jack Scott, who died in 2000. Lipsyte remembers him thus: “The first time I saw Scott, he was standing at the front of a University of California classroom wearing red running shoes, a baseball cap and gym shorts, which, in 1970, even in Berkeley, was not considered appropriate academic garb. He brought several hundred undergraduates to startled order by blowing a whistle. He did that, he later explained, because “300 yards from here, men who are also supposed to be teachers act and dress like this all the time, curse their students and impose arbitrary rules about hair, clothes, social life, and no one thinks twice about it.”

Scott was talking, of course, about coaches, a subject in his course, “Intercollegiate Sports and Education: A Socio-Psychological Evaluation. Scott’s views brought disdain from the tradition-bound, machismo world of organized sports and also from politicians, like Spiro Agnew who called him “the guru of jock liberation.” This was not meant as a compliment. Scott believed in discipline, hard work, fair play, civil rights, equal athletic opportunities for women. While he could despise the racism and hypocrisy of an Avery Brundage-the head of the International Olympic Committee in the 1960s, he could admire the idealism of the Olympic movement.

Jack was not an ivory-tower theoretician. He had been a hard-hitting high school football player and a college track athlete. Although his avowed goal was to do well by doing good, he was a jock, and he wanted to win, and celebrated for his athletic achievements. He was also a progressive thinker in the political and social realm-something found too rarely in the world of U.S. sports. In his two years at Oberlin as the athletic director, he created a prototypical Title IX program and hired Tommie Smith as track coach. He worked with basketball player and sports announcer Bill Walton and with linebacker Dave Meggysey on his “Out of Their League.” He challenged the authoritarianism associated with sports and explained the role of sports in schools and society as twofold: to make a ton of money for the school or corporation that owns the team, to instill militaristic and patriotic values into society, and to create a sense of community where there might otherwise not be one (for ex. as a fan of a team). Interestingly, it was President Eisenhower who once said “the true mission of American sports is to prepare young people for war.” Nowadays the sports fan is reminded of this fact before almost every sporting event broadcast on television-every broadcast seems to have a film collage of US soldiers in fighter plane cockpits and in the battle zone sometime during the contest.

Scott debunked the myth that sports serve as a means for disadvantaged youth and new immigrants to further themselves individually and a group. As those who follow sports today know, it is still true that for every college or minor league athlete who makes it to the pros, there are hundreds who don’t. He also criticized the role colleges play as minor leagues for the pros–suggesting that this should end and the pros should set up their own leagues to recruit and train players, thereby leaving collegiate sports to people who want to be in college for intellectual as well as athletic pursuits. As an aside, he demanded that college recruits who are in college only because of their athletic ability should be given extra tutoring, but then so should all academically disadvantaged students–something that rarely happens.

Remember, while much of this criticism might be old hat now, it was radical in the 1960s and 1970s, when coaches and academic departments were above reproach and staffed with men who could easily have been drill instructors at a Marine Corps boot camp, who were also often racist, to boot. Despite the dated nature of Scott’s complaints, very few sports programs have done anything to address them. Consequently, the intellectual life of the college athlete is still mostly irrelevant to his (or her) existence in academia. What this means in an athlete’s post-college life is this: if s(he) doesn’t make it in the world of professional sports, (s)he is out of luck. Either way, the media, the colleges and the sports establishment have made their money.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: