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Sports is Life, Life is Struggle

On July 9, the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx wore T-shirts at their home game seeking change in the wake of the fatal shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling by police. In response to the players’ stance, four off-duty Minneapolis police officers who were working security at the game walked off the job. The team’s black warm-up shirts said: “Change starts with us: Justice and Accountability.” The back of the shirts featured the names of Castile and Sterling, the Dallas Police Department shield, and the words “Black Lives Matter.”

At the July 12 major league baseball All-Star game, one of the members of the Canadian group The Tenors, Remigio Pereira, raised a sign that said “All Lives Matter” and changed a line of the Canadian national anthem the group was singing to: “We’re all brothers and sisters, all lives matter to the great.”

At this critical moment in this Olympic year, we should remember one of the most important sports protests ever. I wrote the following early in 2016:

Brett Musburger has been a fixture on the television sports landscape for decades, making millions and, as a sideline, appearing in movies such as Cars 2 and Rocky II.

It was not always so. Musburger first made a name for himself in 1968 as a columnist for the Chicago American. When John Carlos and Tommie Smith took to the victory stand in Mexico City at the Olympics and thrust their black-gloved fists in the air as a gesture of protest, there was a firestorm of media criticism in the United States. At the head of the line stood cub reporter Brent Musburger. Rather than commend the athletes for their courageous stand or for doing it in Mexico, a country that welcomed fugitive slaves when the country Carlos and Smith ran for was hunting slaves down with dogs and guns, Musburger attacked them as “a pair of black-skinned storm troopers.”

Sports journalist Dave Zirin searched for Musburger’s full column and, after a lot of digging, found it. The headline is “Bizarre Protest By Smith, Carlos Tarnishes Medals.” Despite seeing what they did as ‘bizarre,’ Musburger doesn’t once address why Smith and Carlos did what they did or quote them directly. He does find time to mock them repeatedly. He describes Smith and Carlos as “juvenile,” “ignoble,” and—this actually is bizarre—”unimaginative.” In describing a scene of Carlos trying to defend their actions, Musburger writes, “Perhaps it’s time 20-year-old athletes quit passing themselves off as social philosophers.”

Although in 2008 ESPN gave Carlos and Smith its Arthur Ashe Courage Award, saying simply “They were right,” Musberger has yet to apologize or even acknowledge what he wrote.

In 2008, Sports Illustrated wrote: “While their gesture was everywhere described as a ‘black power salute,’ both men beg to differ. “The focus of the Olympic Project For Human Rights,” Smith writes, was ‘human rights, not civil rights, nothing to do with the Black Panthers or Black Power—all humanity, even those who denied us ours.’”

As we approach the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, a country torn apart by inequality and where there have been massive protests over building stadiums instead of feeding people, we note that when Brent Musburger attacked Smith and Carlos he was actually attacking all of us. As an aging broadcaster, the Olympics in Brazil may be Musburger’s last chance to publicly apologize for his actions and show that sports is more than a paycheck to him. Otherwise, history will write his epitaph the way he leaves it.