ARCHIVAL (CRITICAL PAST, 7-2-61):
ANCHOR: Track fans gather for the 220 yard dash.
HARRY EDWARDS (PROFESSOR EMERITUS, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY): I was a senior at San Jose State when Tommie Smith came in as a freshman. He was the greatest sprinter that I’ve ever seen.
NEWS REEL: Smith begins to pour it on and forges to the front. He literally flies toward the tape.
NARRATION: Harry Edwards first met Tommie Smith as his classmate in the 1960s, but a couple of years later, Edwards got a job at San Jose State and became Smith’s teacher.
HARRY EDWARDS: And in those courses I talked about here’s where sport intersects with education, here’s where it intersects with religion, here’s where it intersects with politics.
JELANI COBB (THE NEW YORKER): The athletes of the 1960s are much different than the generation that preceded them. You saw things like Lew Alcindor becoming Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Muhammad Ali in refusing to go to Vietnam.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 4-29-67):
MUHAMMAD ALI: The real enemies of my people are right here, not in Vietnam.
NARRATION: As the 1968 Summer Olympics approached, Edwards, Smith and fellow sprinter John Carlos, became determined to bring the plight of black America to the international arena.
NEWSREEL: The men’s 200 meters. Another event dominated by the black American sprinters.
HARRY EDWARDS: Up until then, the prevailing notion was that black concerns with civil rights stops at the water’s edge. We don’t air our dirty laundry before the world. Our churches were being bombed. Our little girls being killed, our leaders being shot down while they had black athletes going abroad as goodwill ambassadors to sell the American system.
JELANI COBB: People forget that those Olympics happened just a few months after Martin Luther King had been assassinated.
NEWS REEL: All over America, black ghettos exploded in rage and grief.
HARRY EDWARDS: We want to send the message that we are determined to fight this struggle. We may not be able to get to the forum in the United Nations but we can get to the Olympic podium.
NEWS REEL: It was widely interpreted as a provocative black power gesture, and in retaliation, Smith and Carlos were thrown off the team and told to get out two days later.
NARRATION: The image of Smith and Carlos raising their fists during the national anthem sparked immediate public backlash.
HARRY EDWARDS: There was a tremendous reaction. The death threats came rolling in. I was fired from my teaching position at San Jose State.
HOWARD COSELL: Do you think you represented all black athletes in doing this?
TOMMIE SMITH: Uh, I can say I represented black America.
JELANI COBB: It wasn’t simply a reflection of black militancy. It was pointing to the duality of being asked to perform on the world stage as good, loyal Americans in a society that had blood on its hands for the assassination of the foremost articulator of African-American claims to democracy and freedom.
JOHN CARLOS: You’ll never see me stand up and tell this thing, national anthem, represents me. Right now, it doesn’t represent me.
JELANI COBB: And so, in a way, there’s a kind of distillation of the position that African-American athletes had been in from the very beginning.
HARRY EDWARDS: Jackie Robinson told me that he didn’t stand for the national anthem anymore. He didn’t say the pledge of allegiance. He understood that even after the price that he paid in turning the other cheek, keeping quiet – which was not in his character – very little progress had been made.
JACKIE ROBINSON: I think they’ve got to do whatever they possibly can, but we cannot exclude any means, except violence.
HARRY EDWARDS: He was the first one to make it clear to me that progress is a very, very tricky kind of a concept. At one level, it’s a lot like profit. It comes down to who’s keeping the books.
ARCHIVAL (OJ SIMPSON COMMERCIAL):
O.J. SIMPSON: Ever need to rent a car fast?
NARRATION: By the late 1970s, the rise of celebrity culture and an influx of endorsement money ushered in a new generation of black athletes whose profitability and wide appeal was contingent on avoiding politics.
HARRY EDWARDS: O.J. Simpson, he stated, everybody can’t be Martin Luther King, and he was not wrong. If Larry Bird doesn’t have to stand up for every hick in French Lick, Indiana, or every poor white guy or woman in Appalachia, why should O.J. have to be representative of every black person who’s struggling under racism in this society? Are we really talking about exchanging black orthodoxy for white supremacy?
ARCHIVAL (SNEAKER COMMERCIAL):
SPIKE LEE (AS MARS BLACKMON): Yo Mike. What makes you the best player in the universe? Money, it’s gotta be the shoes. Shoes. Shoes. Shoes. Shoes. You sure it’s not the shoes?
MICHAEL JORDAN: I’m sure, Mars.
SPIKE LEE: What about the shoes?
JELANI COBB: Michael Jordan’s arrival as the most identifiable American on the planet, possibly. It’s not coincidental that he achieved that level of global stardom as being among the least political, least outspoken African-American athletes in that tradition.
HARRY EDWARDS: It became possible for somebody like Charles Barkley to say…
CHARLES BARKLEY: I am not a role model.
HARRY EDWARDS: That actually became part of a commercial. Don’t expect me to do anything or be anything for your child. I’m just here to dine sumptuously at a table where somebody else’s sacrifices and struggles made it possible for me to do so.
JELANI COBB: In 1990, when Harvey Gantt ran against noted segregationist Jesse Helms in North Carolina, Jordan refused to weigh in and refused to endorse Gantt.
ARCHIVAL (GATORADE COMMERCIAL):
SINGING: If I could be like Mike…
JELANI COBB: The dictates of the market were more important than the dictates of civil rights, at least in his own personal calculations. That really became the mold for a generation of African-American athletes.
ARCHIVAL (SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS, 1994):
49ERS PLAYER: Game ball…Coach Bill Walsh.
NARRATION: In 1985, Harry Edwards got a call from Super Bowl champion coach Bill Walsh, who was also a San Jose State alumnus. Walsh knew of Edwards’ history of social activism – and thinking outside the box, he felt Edwards could be a valuable asset to his team.
HARRY EDWARDS: He said, “Where I want you more than anywhere else is in the locker room. We have a demographic transition coming where you have a majority blacks on the field. I want these athletes to be aware and conscious of what’s going on not just in football, but beyond so that we can be ahead of things when they develop.
NARRATION: Over the last three decades, Edwards has been a sounding board for 49ers players grappling with the intersection of sports and society, including a dynamic young quarterback named Colin Kaepernick, who led the team to the 2013 Super Bowl.
HARRY EDWARDS: Colin Kaepernick asked me for books to read, I said, “Yeah I can give you some books to read.” He was just another athlete who would come to me and say, “Doc, there’s something I want to talk to you about.”
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 8-29-16):
COLIN KAEPERNICK: This country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all and it’s not happening for all right now.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 8-27-16):
ANCHOR: San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick says he is ready for the backlash after refusing to stand during the national anthem.
ARCHIVAL (KOFY, 8-29-16):
NEWS REPORT: Sports and politics collided when Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem, he says, to highlight black oppression.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 9-23-17):
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Get that son of a bitch of the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!
HARRY EDWARDS: There’s no such thing as staying in your own lane in sports. You’re engaged in politics.
ARCHIVAL (1936 OLYMPICS):
NEWS REEL: The black American athlete smashes the theory of a Teutonic super race. His name is Jesse Owens.
ANCHOR: There was no such thing as a civil rights movement. Robinson quietly endured constant ridicule and abuse.
ARCHIVAL (1968 OLYMPICS):
ANCHOR: As the national anthem played, Smith and Carlos raised their fists and ignited a worldwide controversy.
JELANI COBB: I think that what’s happened now, with the current generation of athletes is that we have been inundated with video of people being killed by the police under, at best, questionable circumstances. And we’ve seen it again, and again, and again, and again, and again.
ARCHIVAL (CELL PHONE VIDEO OF POLICE WRESTLING ALTON STERLING, 7-5-16):
ALTON STERLING: What I do? What I do?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Don’t (inaudible) move. I’ll shoot your (inaudible). Put your (inaudible) hands on the car.
ARCHIVAL (CELL PHONE VIDEO OF POLICE WRESTLING ERIC GARNER, 7-17-14):
POLICE: Put your hands behind your head.
ERIC GARNER: I can’t breathe, I can’t breather…
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 12-12-14):
JOE JOHNS: We now know that Tamir Rice was killed by one shot to the left side of his abdomen.
ARCHIVAL (VIDEO OF PHILANDO CASTILE KILLING, CNN, 7-6-16):
DIAMOND REYNOLDS: We got pulled over for a busted tail light in the back and the police, he is covered. He killed my boyfriend.
JELANI COBB: There’s always been pressure, particularly from African-American communities, saying that people who had a platform should speak out on behalf of those communities.
HARRY EDWARDS: Between about 1974 and about 2008, there was no ideology framing up the era. There was no movement. At the end of the day, it’s inevitable that these waves will come along. Why? Because it is embedded in the very cultural and historical fiber of American society.
ARCHIVAL (FOX, 10-11-17):
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You cannot disrespect our country, our flag, our anthem. You cannot do that.
JELANI COBB: There’s a political calculation and there’s a political profit to be reaped whether it is the deliberate or unintentional misinterpretation of this dissent to be anti-American.
ARCHIVAL (CELL PHONE VIDEO, 9-24-17):
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES FANS: I hate you! American made! American made!
NEWS REPORT: Furious football fans are posting videos online burning all things Kaepernick.
JELANI COBB: Whenever we’ve seen figures articulate a critique of the society, especially African-American athletes, dissent is interpreted as disloyalty.
ARCHIVAL (FOX, 9-24-17):
NEWT GINGRICH: Let’s be clear. That’s what they are. They’re arrogant young millionaires.
JELANI COBB: There’s a presumption that black people are not supposed to be at the tier of society where they are. And they should be grateful that they’ve been allowed to exist on that tier.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, THIS MORNING, 10-28-17):
ALEX WAGNER: During a meeting between players and owners last week, Bob McNair said, if the league didn’t stop the protest, it would be like - quote - “inmates running the prison.”
HARRY EDWARDS: The audience do not reflect the 80 percent blacks on the field. I mean, I’m watching a couple of teams this past Sunday, it looked like Ghana playing Nigeria. And it’s going to get blacker owing to the concussion issue because whites are dropping out. This is a growing contradiction. This is not going to get better. It’s going to become more strained, and this sophistry about, “Well, it’s the national anthem,” doesn’t help to move the conversation forward.
JESSICA CASTRO: The NFL has agreed to commit $89 million over the next seven years to social justice issues considered important to the African-American community.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 11-30-17):
REPORTER: Kaepernick remains unsigned leaving some to suggest he’s being blackballed for his controversial protest.
NARRATION: In October 2017, Kaepernick accused NFL team owners of colluding to keep him out of the league, a case that was later settled. But in the midst of it, sportswear giant Nike revealed he would be the face of a new advertising campaign.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 9-4-18):
NEWS REPORT: The face of controversy now part of a global campaign.
NARRATION: While some on social media declared a boycott of the company, others saw it as a sign of progress since 1968, that a major corporation viewed Kaepernick’s fight as not only acceptable but marketable.
JELANI COBB: For the people who take these stands, it often entails a significant degree of personal sacrifice. But I think it’s the thing that people do out of a sense of a broader humanity.