As part of the McLean Community Center's 2018 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, William C. Rhoden gave a two-hour talk to a few dozen people on the subject of Activist Athletes on Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018, at the Old Firehouse on Chain Bridge Road in McLean.
The columnist and editor-at-large for ESPN's The Undefeated – a website about sports, race, and culture – spoke about Martin Luther King Jr. as well as current athletic controversies involving Colin Kaepernick; former 1968 Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos; as well as 1936 Olympian Jesse Owens.
THE YEAR 1968, when Dr. King was killed, was a transformative year, he said. He was 17 and a senior in high school in Chicago at the time of the assassination. "I remember there was this gasp; I couldn't believe it. I was so stunned," said Rhoden, a former sports columnist for the New York Times, of the shooting. "I remember the next day my instructors had been crying all night. It was the Prince of Peace who had been assassinated."
The Morgan State University English major offered another memory: "I remember when I was 5 [in 1955], that Emmett Till was killed. He was from Chicago. His mother left his casket open so everyone could see what they did to this kid. A group of white men came to his house, tortured him, shot him in the head, beat him, and dumped his body in a river. That's the kind of stuff that happened in the home of the brave and the land of the free."
He said what awakened him was the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. "As a black athlete, you were trying to figure out where you fit in with the activism that was going on," said the former football player for the Morgan State Bears.
During the Olympics, he was watching the 200-metre race, and Tommie Smith won and broke a record; Peter Norman from Australia came in second; and John Carlos was third. "My favorite moment was when the athletes stand at the victory stand. It's always an emotional thing. They were playing the 'National Anthem,' and these guys, Smith and Carlos, they raised their fists... That was the longest two minutes. You knew instinctively these guys had basically ruined their lives. You sensed they were doing something out of the ordinary. They didn't say anything. That has become the most iconic sports photograph made possibly in sports history," he said.
The incident had a major impact on him, he said. "It began to transform in my mind the roles that athletes could play," he said, adding that the 1968 Olympics had the largest contingent of black athletes ever. They won more medals than any other group of athletes before them.
He also mentioned how from the 18th century to the beginning of the 20th century, that black jockeys dominated the field of horse racing. "Black athletes dominated every sector of the industry – from jockeys to trainers. But eventually white track owners got tired of it, and by 1915, they were gone," said Rhoden, the author of "Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete."
THE FAST FORWARD TO 2016-2017, when Kaepernick started to kneel during the National Anthem as a form of protest for the oppression of people of color and the issue of police brutality. Other athletes joined him and it really blossomed, he said. "With Kaepernick, the rule was you stand at attention during the National Anthem," he said. "What had happened in the sports arena was white fans had gotten used to black athletes basically being silent."
He said Kaepernick, who was quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, then became a free agent but could not get a job. "It was clear it was a blackball. I thought the tragedy was it became a labor issue," he said. "The issue is here's one of your members who is clearly being blackballed."
So then Donald Trump chimed in on the issue, urging NFL owners to fire players who kneel or engage in silent acts of political protest. "With this administration, everything is a reality show. And the attention shifted to the NFL," he said.
"All of a sudden, Kaepernick isn't invited to some of the meetings. And now they want to start negotiating with the owners. So Kaepernick said 'no,' we're not going to stop. The owners consistently kill the players in negotiation. They said we'll give you $89 million. [Eagles Safety and leader of the NFL Players Coalition] Malcolm Jenkins said, 'I will not protest anymore.' So what happened? They stopped. What happened was the protests ended. That was basically the end," he said.
He added, "It all boils down to money. That's where we are as a nation. Money has become our highest value now."