Forty-eight years ago, Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood together on a podium during the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and carried out one of the most powerful silent protests the sporting world had ever seen.
The two sprinters, who had just won gold and bronze, respectively, in the men’s 200-meter race, waited for the National Anthem to begin, before bowing their heads and each raising a black-gloved fist in the air. Their act of political subversion was a response to International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage’s support of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, Brundage’s and the IOC’s history of racism and anti-Semitism, as well as a show of solidarity with victims of human-rights abuses around the world.
The protest promptly earned them both a suspension from the U.S. Track and Field team and a tidal wave of “shut-up-and-play-the-game” histrionics from American sportswriters, who were still clinging to the age-old sports journalism trope that athletes—especially black athletes—should comment on little more than home runs and touchdowns.
Perhaps no one weighed in with as much vitriol as a then-unknown Chicago-based sportswriter named Brent Musburger. Yes, that Brent Musburger. That mild-mannered and unthreatening television sportscaster whose velvety voice has been the soundtrack to your Saturday and Sunday afternoons for nearly 50 years. He was your introduction to the NFL, the NBA, and college bowl games. He looks like your goofy uncle.
He also published a hateful 800-word screed in the now-defunct Chicago American the day after the protest, calling Smith and Carlos a pair of “black-skinned Stormtroopers.” He referred to Smith as “the militant black.” And he derided Carlos for “lecturing the assembled journalists on what they should think and write.”
But Musburger (who also seems to have a bit of an ogling problem) has consistently refused to respond to the criticism he’s received over the years. In a 1999 HBO documentary called Fists of Freedom: The Story of the ’68 Summer Games, Musburger made what appears to be his only public comments on the column, conceding that the words may have been “a bit harsh,” but while doubling down on the patronizing “know-your-place” position he has apparently maintained for all these years. “Did it improve anything?” he asked in the film. “Smith and Carlos aside, I object to using the Olympic awards stand to make a political statement.”
If not at the Olympics, then perhaps it’s worth asking him, today, how he feels about political statements being made on a basketball court or a football field? Or, better yet, how about on the stage of an awards show broadcast by ESPN—Musburger’s employer—that honored Smith and Carlos in 2008 with their Arthur Ashe Courage Award?
“I asked ESPN to explain to me how they were giving me and Tommie Smith an award and still letting Brent Musburger keep doing games on their network,” Carlos says today. “I never got an answer. They just let that shit slide like water off a duck’s back. And there he is, every year, back on television every Saturday afternoon.”
Neither ESPN nor Musburger responded to emails seeking comment.
Carlos, who played briefly in the NFL and later became a counselor and track coach at Palm Springs High School in California, says he’s encouraged by what he calls a “rising up” of young, black athletes who are no longer afraid to speak their minds, as well as a more accepting media that finally understands the power a superstar athlete’s voice can carry.
“I think it’s become less of a choice for athletes and more of a responsibility,” he says. “I think they now believe that they need to be a voice for the voiceless—especially people of color.”
He points to the segment in the most recent ESPY awards, held last month, in which NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Lebron James, Chris Paul, and Dwayne Wade appeared together to speak out against racial violence and ask their fellow athletes to educate themselves and use their celebrity to help effect change. “LeBron and those guys, they’re starting to walk the walk,” Carlos says. “You know, [Musburger] didn’t just say those things about Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Those words were directed at any person of color who has ever spoken out, and for years no one wanted to speak out. No one wanted to go through what we did.”
So what of Musburger, then, in this new era of embracing athlete activism? Just before the last summer Olympics in 2012, Carlos told The Nation’s David Zirin (who dug up Musburger’s long-mothballed Chicago American column and reprinted it in full) that the two have never spoken. “Every time I’ve been at a function or an event with Brent Musburger, he heads the other way,” he said.
As long as ESPN continues to pay Musburger to talk about sports on television (albeit now in a significantly reduced role), the network is condoning his silence, which is especially problematic at a time when police violence against people of color and simmering racial tensions are dominating the news and inspiring more athletes to speak out. So wouldn’t this be a great time for Musburger to tell us, on the eve of another Summer Olympics, that the 2016 version of himself no longer agrees with what that opportunistic 29-year-old sportswriter wrote all those years ago? That he can at least appreciate the decisions made by James, Anthony, and others to speak their minds and try to use their influence to push for social justice? And, wouldn’t it be a load off his mind to let Smith and Carlos know that he regrets comparing two brave athletes to the thugs Hitler assembled to help aid his rise to power in Germany?
Today, Carlos has begun to resign himself to never getting closure, but says he’d answer the phone if the broadcast legend ever chose to call. “Brent Musberger is many years behind the times,” he says. “But he could always still do the right thing and apologize. And he should. I always say that the greatest invention of all time isn’t the airplane or the automobile or the computer. It’s the eraser on the back of your pencil. Anybody can make a mistake, but you have to be able to realize it and own up to it. Either he doesn’t realize it, or he doesn’t give a damn.”