Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fits in protest of racial injustice at the 1968 Olympic Games. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This year marked the 50th anniversary of one of the most iconic images of the 20th Century and the history of sport—the “Black Power” Salute by U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. With athlete activism and protests as relevant as ever, we wanted to capitalize on an opportunity to examine teammates’ reactions to Smith and Carlos’ silent protest. To do so, we collected and analyzed interviews with 59 members of the 1968 U.S. Olympic Team. Our results, recently published in the Journal of Sport Management, highlight a range of perspectives and provide insight about the context and legacy of the demonstration.

As a reminder of the backdrop against which Smith and Carlos staged their protest, after winning gold and bronze, respectively, in the 200-meter final the two men wore black socks without shoes to the medal podium and proceeded to audaciously extend black-gloved fists over their bowed heads during the national anthem in protest of state-sanctioned policies that discriminated against Black Americans. Smith and Carlos were quickly dismissed from the U.S. Olympic team for their non-compliance and endured many professional and personal hardships as a result of their activism. However, decades later, the image of the two Olympians with their fists raised has become an iconic representation of the civil rights movement.

For our study, we used an institutional theory framework to identify processes, practices, and ideas that normalize and reinforce the social order of an institution. In this case, we analyzed how Smith and Carlos’ protest negotiated with the primary institution of the Olympics. After examining each interview, we identified four principle themes with respect to teammates’ reactions: (1) competition; (2) politics; (3) entertainment; and (4) nationalism.

Competition referred to the Olympians who believed that the sacred spirit of competition should supersede all else. These teammates of Smith and Carlos consistently stated that the Olympics were the wrong forum to stage a protest because it inappropriately took attention away from other athletes who had trained just as rigorously to reach the highest level of their sport. These teammates discussed how, after a lifetime of training, their own competitive success was paramount and they could not lose focus due to political issues being raised at the Games. This prioritization of competition resulted in disagreement with Smith and Carlos, who were seen as improperly placing protest ahead of competitive success. Comments in this category often suggested that politics are profane and tarnish the Olympics, which should remain sacred.

The second theme, politics, related to the Olympians’ perspectives as to whether politics belonged in the Olympic Games. Within this theme, the U.S. team members expressed two diametrically opposed viewpoints. The first perspective was that the Olympics should be apolitical. Just as some Olympians believed the Olympics were the wrong forum to stage a protest because doing so violated the sacred spirit of competition, some also believed the Olympics were the wrong forum because the Games should be free of politics. To this end, one of the Olympians expressed, “I’m not against that salute, but I think it was the wrong venue to do it. I think the Olympics should be politically free from political movement.” The apolitical perspective was expressed by the majority of U.S. team members who referenced politics in connection with the Olympic Games. There was a small contingent of U.S. Olympians, however, who held a counter-perspective, namely that the Olympic Games are inherently political. As one Olympian explained, “There’s probably nothing more political in all of the world than the Olympic Games…You can’t bring that many cultures and peoples together without people having political agendas. It is what it is and it’s always going to be more political than more people would like.”

The theme of entertainment, meanwhile, represented how some members of the U.S. team viewed the Olympics as a cherished spectacle or celebration that was wrongly interrupted by the salute. Other team members viewed the protest as overblown or sensationalized by the media, which resulted in Smith and Carlos’ salute being a bigger story than it should have been and distracting from other noteworthy and entertaining performances. For example, one Olympian described, “So they would have these press conferences with the medal winners and all [the media] would want to talk about was, “What do you think about what [Smith and Carlos] did?” You wanted to talk about what it feels like to win the gold medal…They [journalists] didn’t want to talk about that.”

Finally, nationalism signified how important it was to members of the U.S. team to represent the United States, regardless of sociodemographic background or political viewpoints. This theme overlapped with the politics theme in that Olympic team members viewed personal politics as subservient to representing the United States, with one team member commenting it didn’t matter if one was “Black, green, brown, Jewish, Protestant, (or) Catholic.” Rather, being proud to be an American who was able to represent his or her country on an international stage was what was most important. Further, seven Olympians noted that there was a proper response to winning a medal, with one Olympian stating, “if I could have won a medal and put my hand up in the air that I’m proud to be an American and on the team.” In particular, four members of the team lauded the actions of George Foreman when he proudly waived the U.S. flag after winning a gold medal in boxing. Thus, nationalistic loyalty superseded the importance or legitimacy of Smith and Carlos’ protest.

NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem, such as Eric Reed and Colin Kaepernick, are part of a long history of protest and activism in sport. (Photy by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)

The Olympians’ mostly negative views of the protest helped upheld the primary institution, the Olympics, as such opinions reinforced the status quo. In this case, the status quo involved not staging any form of protest at the Olympics, which would violate Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter. For many of the 1968 Olympians, it was conceivable that they did not want to jeopardize their status on the team, which may be a consideration for current athletes as well. One notable finding of our study was that the protests were viewed as a threat for the majority of the U.S. team members regardless of which of the four categories their responses fit into. Further, it is important to note that there was no clear contrast when breaking down team members’ perspectives by various characteristics (e.g., race, gender, sport). It is also important to note that there were some team members who voiced a level of support for Smith and Carlos. However, it was difficult to quantify this support, because statements of support were often qualified within one of the four themes. For example, one Olympian stated, “I was in favor of the black movement by Lee Evans, John Carlos, and Tommie Smith and empathized with them, but I believe that the Olympics should be politically free.” Similarly, another commented, “I respect them for standing up for what they really believed in, but I’m not convinced it was the most appropriate way of doing it.”

While the context of our study was an event that occurred 50 years ago, the implications are still relevant today. Consider, for example, the athlete protests that have taken center stage recently. Many prominent athletes, such as LeBron James, Megan Rapinoe, and Colin Kaepernick, have refused to “stick to sports” and instead highlighted social inequalities with the platform they have as athletes. It is likely that protests through sport will continually resurface as sociopolitical contexts evolve. Such protests should not be haphazardly dismissed or penalized. If athletes are the most important stakeholder of a sport organization and their well-being is a principal consideration, it would be sensible for those organizations to recognize the sociopolitical concerns and needs of the athletes. Otherwise, there may be a significant disconnect between athletes and sport organizations, as there was between Smith and Carlos and U.S. Olympic officials.

Dr. Brennan K. Berg is an associate professor of sport commerce in the Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management at The University of Memphis.

Dr. Kwame J.A. Agyemang is an associate professor of sport management at Louisiana State University.

Dr. Rhema D. Fuller is an assistant professor of sport commerce in the Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management at The University of Memphis.