How athletes are fighting social justice issues at ASU and abroad

A flash to the past, present and future of athletes protesting

During the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in protest of social injustices during the podium ceremony. Nearly 50 years later, professional athletes are now kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

In 2017, ASU saw two of its own female athletes kneel for the same cause. 

Prior to an ASU women’s soccer match against UCLA, then-senior forward Jazmarie Mader and then-sophomore forward Christina Edwards planned to take a knee during the national anthem. 

Edwards said she was glad Mader brought the idea of kneeling to the team's attention because she wouldn't have done it on her own.

"It was nice to have her back and for her to have mine – then my family having my back (and) teammates having our backs," Edwards said.

Leading up to the kneeling, Edwards said she was prepared to face backlash because of her white privilege. 

"The backlash that I received is that I can't take a stance on that. I can't have an opinion because it doesn't directly influence me," Edwards said.

However, she said receiving support from her community and loved ones helped and despite any criticism, the overall positive responses Edwards received outweighed the negative ones.   

“I did get a lot of random Instagram messages and Twitter messages from strangers saying, ‘Hey, you do have a platform. I appreciate you doing that,’ just the most simple gestures,” she said.

From the Olympians of the past to the Sun Devils trying to affect social change, the fight for racial equality is exemplified on different platforms for many athletes.

In the limelight of the 1968 Mexico City Olympic anniversary, Edwards said she felt privileged to hear first-hand from Carlos, who talked to the Student Athletic Advisory Committee.

“We're seeing the same thing that we saw in '68 as we are now – just variations of it," Edwards said. "I think people are grasping on to that time period, that image, and trying to translate it to now and more modern issues." 

ASU's Global Sport Institute held the Raising a Fist to Taking a Knee event on Oct. 23 at the Phoenix Art Museum, where five former athletes spoke about their experiences from the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. 

“If you are in a sport, it’s important to make it clear that you are not out of the world and have an obligation,” former Harvard rower who competed in the '68 Olympics Paul Hoffman said. “We didn’t think we did much. We just thought we are doing enough to not be embarrassed having done nothing."

To ally with black athletes protesting, Hoffman was a part of Olympic Project for Human rights, and he publicly announced his support to the athletes who protested during the '68 Olympics. 

Protest has transitioned from the iconic fist raised above the head on an Olympic podium to kneeling on a sideline on Sundays, an action spurred by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee during the national anthem throughout the 2016 season to protest police brutality. 

Only 10 days before the opening of the 1968 Summer Olympic Games, hundreds of students were peacefully protesting at Tlatelolco Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City until they were gunned down by the military on Oct. 2, 1968.

During the event, Carlos wore black socks and no shoes to represent black poverty, beads around the neck to protest lynching, and other accessories and articles of clothing that represent the injustices of minorities, such as black gloves and Olympic Human Rights Project badges.

“The professional price (athletes) will pay is incomparable to anything historically, and what John (Carlos) and Tommie (Smith) did is very brave,” Hoffman said. “When you face someone who has power above you, you can’t be too judgmental and have to balance, but when you see real bravery, you have to salute it.”

He said that he would make an effort to have conversations with his Harvard rowing teammates following the event.

“There was a large aspect of not wanting to be ashamed for an action during this time,” Hoffman said. “Harry (Edwards) came to Cambridge and started to talk about what the Olympic Project was all about. We said what we’ll promise to do is to start a dialogue with every team member and start a conversation about what our black teammates are talking about.”

Among other social movements mentioned at the event, Gina Hemphill-Strachan went to the 1972 Olympics with her grandfather, Jesse Owens, who was told to talk other black athletes out of protesting. 

Owens won four Olympic gold medals competing in track and field at the 1936 Olympics.

“When Jesse (Owens) came into the room ... he came with a vision of the '68 Olympics in his mind,” Carlos said. “Jessie had tears in his eyes. He said, ‘John, what I thought I was doing was right, but these people have used me.’”

As time moves forward and social issues hover in the midst of athlete activists like Kaepernick and others, there is the hope that there will be eventual cultural changes.

Playing the U.S. national anthem at sporting events began during the World War II era when former NFL Commissioner Elmer Layden ordered that the anthem be played at every NFL football game. Before then, the anthem was not a tradition on the field.

“The national anthem is a patriotic ritual in every sport," the Global Sports Institute's special events manager, Luke Brenneman, said. "Politics are inherently embedded and connected to sports."

Brenneman emphasized that it's important for students to understand why sports are important and how it affects the political world.

Overall, as more athletes become involved in social justice activism on and off the field, Carlos encouraged young athletes to continue working towards social justice and equality.

“We did ours," said Carlos of his social protests. "Now, it’s your turn to think about the issue and do yours.” 



Reach the reporters Edith.Noriega@asu.edu and mdhunte2@asu.edu or follow @Noriega_Edith and @masaihuntertv on Twitter.

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