Monday, September 12, 2016

Echoes of the past that ring in the present, more than ever

Note from Sept. 2016: The above photo is not one you would necessarily expect to see on our humble blog, even with one of us working in sports journalism. But with the protests staged by numerous NFL players during the national anthem in recent weeks, I remembered a piece I wrote when I was a young reporter for The Oregonian in Feb. 2002 in which I got to interview John Carlos, one of the two U.S. athletes who participated in this iconic protest during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. 

The pitch to my editors was to write something related to sports for Black History Month. But selfishly, I had always been fascinated by the story behind the protest and was dying for any excuse to interview Carlos. 

I finally had one! 

From what I remember (the details are fuzzy thanks to my impending middle age), it was remarkably easy to get ahold of Carlos. I cold-called him at the school he worked at, we spoke briefly (he was very gracious) and he asked to call him back at an appointed time. A few days later, I had what is still my favorite interview of my career (his recounting of his conversation with Martin Luther King still gives me chills). Hopefully, some of that shines through in the piece. But more important, he provided some insight that resonates, especially in our current climate in this country. Which is why I wanted to share it here. 

Because it was the dark ages of the internet (i.e., before SEO was a thing), I've had an impossible time trying to find it via Google. But I remembered I had a copy of it on an external drive that was dated 2004. (Guess I was trying to build up a clip file? Who knows?) 

Anyway, without further ado and with apologies to my former employer, here is the text of the story I wrote:

There is still passion in the voice of John Carlos.

It is a passion that burns more than three decades after he took part in one of the most famous silent protests in the history of sports, at the 1968 Olympics.

It is a voice that is both symbolic of a bygone era and strikingly relevant to today's sports world, a world that sometimes is painfully void of an assertive voice willing to speak up on issues for fear of offending or losing the almighty corporate dollar.

But surely things are better now for African Americans in sports than they were in 1968, aren't they?

The fact that people like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Barry Bonds are multimillionaires; the fact that Magic Johnson has become a successful entrepreneur after his playing days; the fact that three of the four Division I men's basketball teams in Oregon have African American coaches; the fact that Tyrone Willingham was hired as football coach at Notre Dame, the fact . . .

"I think we're still on ground zero," Carlos told The Oregonian. "All right, we have black coaches. But did they come about because we wanted to let black coaches in or because Jesse Jackson or Jim Brown started to speak up on the issue? These things are still going on.

"You look at Tiger Woods, who still has to go through some suffering even though he's the greatest golfer in the game now. Michael Jordan is above the norm in money making, but I don't think sports have really, really changed a whole heck of a lot."

Carlos, a bronze medalist in the 200 meters in 1968, is now 56 and working as a counselor at Palm Springs (Calif.) High School. But he still questions, still continues to carry the spirit that he brought onto the medal stand on that muggy night in Mexico City.

And he still gets hate mail.

"These are people that have problems themselves because the world is changing around them and they want to strike out based on the fact they haven't grown up," Carlos said. But, as he is quick to point out, he would repeat his place in history "today, tomorrow and yesterday. There's no hesitation if you know what you're doing is right."

The protest that gold medalist Tommie Smith, Carlos and Peter Norman -- an Australian who took the silver -- staged after the 200 meters on Oct. 16, 1968, had its roots in the Olympic Project for Human Rights. It was a group started by Harry Edwards, then a young professor at San Jose State, to bring attention to the fact that America's civil rights movement had not gone far enough to eliminate the hardships African Americans were facing.

The original idea was to boycott the Olympic Games, although many athletes were leery of giving up that opportunity. The plan eventually was abandoned.

Carlos says he was very much at ease on the stand after winning the bronze -- like "a person having a peaceful Saturday in the park." And one glance at the picture -- still one of the most famous and poignant pictures in sports photography -- seems to confirm this. There is some noticeable tension on the face of Smith as he raises his gloved right fist -- symbolizing black power -- and bows his head into the black scarf -- representing black pride -- around his neck.

But Carlos, left gloved fist raised -- representing black unity -- was lost in his thoughts as the national anthem played.

"I was thinking about a vision I had as a kid when I was about 7 or 8," Carlos said. "I had just won a race and all the people were applauding, but a split second later, it turned into name-calling. I also thought about Dr. Martin Luther King, the things that happened to my father in the war.

"But most of all, I was thinking that the end result could hopefully make things better for my kids."

Who even thinks like that in today's sports world? Can anyone picture a high-profile athlete today acting selflessly on a sports platform to convey a socially conscious message?

Maybe it's because we lack the iconic role models that Carlos had, such as King -- whom Carlos met less than six weeks before the civil rights leader was assassinated. King, who supported the Olympic boycott, met the athletes at a midtown Manhattan hotel to discuss their objectives.

"It was the most terrific thing that ever happened in my life," Carlos said. "It was like saying you had an audience with the Pope or Mother Teresa. I was as in awe of him then as I'm in awe of thinking about it now."

And although the boycott did not come to fruition, Carlos came away with powerful advice from King.

"He asked me if I had any questions, and I had two," Carlos said. "First, I asked him why he would support an Olympic boycott, and he said it would be a potent, nonviolent statement. So that impressed me.

"The second question I had was because he was talking about being a second lieutenant of this boycott if he got back from Memphis. I was looking deep into his eyes and I didn't see one iota of fear. So I asked him why he would go if he felt he was in danger. And he said he had to go because his life was secondary to those that couldn't stand for themselves.

"That was like a bombshell."

It was the catalyst to a statement, a statement that came with a heavy fallout even Carlos could not have envisioned. He and Smith were suspended from the U.S. Olympic team and evicted from the Olympic village. Carlos' marriage broke up and his wife, Kim, committed suicide.

"I didn't anticipate my family taking the brunt of it," Carlos said. "It took the better part of 20 years to get over it."

Carlos is not expecting today's athletes to become political martyrs. He understood that even in 1968, when the threat of the boycott was lifted and the athletes competed. Who is he to keep someone from performing or taking in the millions of dollars in endorsements?

"It's the sign of the times," Carlos said.

Part of it, he thinks, comes from not having a sense of history. It's something he tries to instill in the kids he works with today whenever a student might see his name in a textbook and wonder if it's the same person.

"You tell them to go do their own research and come back with what they find," Carlos said. "It creates a dialogue that way."

Still, for Carlos there is a nagging feeling that today's African American athletes could do more.

"These are multimillionaires, so that must mean you're satisfying the boss quite well," Carlos said. "So you should have the opportunity to say, 'I would like to see this happen.' Like food programs, like recreational programs, parenthood programs -- these are things sports figures can be pushing.

"Nothing is really being put back into urban areas and I feel they have a responsibility not just to their communities, but if nothing else, to themselves so they can feel more comfortable."

Think some high-profile athletes could wield such influence with the companies they endorse? Would they?

"If they're worried they're going to lose commercial money, then they need to think a little further," Carlos said.

The voice of Carlos, still full of passion. A reminder of how one can still "wake people in the middle of the night and deal with their conscience."

Or, in the words of King, a reminder that we "must use time creatively . . . and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do great things."

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