Ohio State’s Sports and Society Initiative hosted panelists Thursday night at the Blackwell Inn to discuss the role of athletes in the field of social-justice activism.
Panelists included Tommie Smith, a gold medalist at the 1968 Olympics in the men’s 200-meter dash; Malcolm Jenkins, Philadelphia Eagles and former OSU safety; and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a former NBA guard in the 1990s. The three have contributed nearly 50 years worth of social justice activism. Vince Doria, the former senior vice president and director of news for ESPN, acted as moderator during the event.
Doria began the evening with a brief history of athletes and social activism, noting that activism of this kind almost always involves race — something he said should not be surprising given the contributions that African American athletes have had on the sports industry and American culture.
From the days of Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali resisting policies they saw as unjust to, more recently, Lebron James and Kyrie Irving donning “I Can’t Breathe” shirts before a Cleveland Cavaliers game, Doria said the sports industry has had a long history of African American athletes breaking barriers for social justice.
“In the past half dozen years, there has been a steady drumbeat of social activism among athletes,” Doria said.
Each of the panelists shared their personal stories and answered questions prepared by Doria and submitted by faculty, students and audience members.
Smith is most recognized for his demonstration on the podium at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, when after winning his gold medal, he and his teammate, John Carlos, donned black gloves and Olympic Project for Human Rights badges then raised their fists in a Black Power salute. Smith and Carlos were immediately reprimanded and sent home from the Games.
Smith said that he did not view the gesture as a symbol for black power, but rather as a salute for human rights.
“A lot of people view that as a negative message to our country or an insult to America,” he said. “But for Tommie Smith, it was a cry for freedom … it was a plea through faith –– and there was no hate involved.”
Though his actions were arguably the most overt political protest in Olympic history, Smith said he views his display of protest differently.
“We wasn’t there to change the world, only to help the world change,” Smith said.
Abdul-Rauf is best known for refusing to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” before games in 1996, saying that standing for the national anthem would be a contradiction to his Islamic beliefs. His actions led to a one-game suspension, after which he agreed to stand during but would keep his eyes closed and look downward, often reciting prayers.
After growing a thirst for reading in college, Abdul-Rauf said he “developed a conscience” the more he read about the troubles of the world, which motivated him to sit in protest of the American flag and the anthem.
“We speak about equality, we speak about fairness,” said Abdul-Rauf. “This is something that many of us hope for and dream for. I really want it to be a reality. And this was the way, as (Smith) was saying earlier, it was a cry for freedom.”
A month after Colin Kaepernick, a former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, gained national attention when he took a knee during the national anthem in protest the treatment of people of color in 2016, Jenkins took a stand of solidarity with Kaepernick. Alongside several of his teammates, the former Buckeye raised his fist during the national anthem, symbolic of Smith’s own protest at the 1968 Olympics.
“What (Kaepernick) did showed me how far and how much influence we have as athletes,” Jenkins said. “When he took a simple knee, it started a worldwide conversation … Regardless of how you feel about what he did, whether he did the right thing or not, he started a conversation.”
The panel discussed a number of different issues included in social activism, including Abdul-Rauf and Smith sharing the impact their activism had on their professional and personal lives and Jenkins experiences meeting with members of Congress to discuss criminal justice reform.
Despite their efforts, Jenkins said he knows activism is not for every athlete competing today, rather all he asks is for those who want to be involved would be involved wholeheartedly.
“We can get a lot done with the few that are committed,” he said. “But if we have the whole team and everyone has lukewarm convictions, we still won’t get anything done.”