Boycott Questions: 1968 vs. 2008

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

kareem_olympics_2opens IMAGE file

(Right: Spencer Haywood (8) leads way during U.S. gold-medal win at the 1968 Games, where there was a protest by black Americans but no boycott. Left: Smith, who won the 200-meter dash at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, along with bronze medalist and teammate John Carlos.)

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In 1968 I was a twenty-year-old college junior whose basketball success had been made famous.  I’d been honored as Player of the Year, Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA Tournament, named the USBWA Player of the Year, and played the “game of the century” against the Houston Cougars at the Houston Astrodome.  So it wasn’t surprising that I was invited to try out for the Olympic basketball team to represent the U.S. in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.  Any other year I would have been proud and elated at the prospect of playing for my country against the world’s elite athletes. But 1968 wasn’t like any other year.

The Vietnam War had divided the country more violently than any time since the Civil War.  The nightly news clips of U.S. planes bombing the Vietnam jungle was paralleled by clips of angry, sometimes bloody, clashes between war protesters and war supporters.  The Tet Offensive, in which 80,000 Viet Cong troops attacked 100 towns and cities in an effort to end the war, proved that the enemy was resourceful, resilient and in no mood to surrender.  It also increased public opinion against the war.  But the war wasn’t the only cause for all the social unrest and upheaval.  It was more like a bright light that illuminated many other social ills that we’d all managed to ignore or, even worse, pretend didn’t exist.

Black soldiers stationed in Vietnam complained of ramant racism.  When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated that same year, some white soldiers flew Confederate flags outside their barracks.  Some blacks tried to avoid the racism by requesting to serve in all-black units.  One Air Force report confirmed what black soldiers already knew: “Unequal treatment is manifested in unequal punishment, offensive and inflammatory language, prejudice in assignments of details, lack of products for blacks at the PX, harassment by security police under orders to break up five or more blacks in a group and double standards in enforcement of regulation.” Military discrimination didn’t just result in hurt feelings, it could result in death: by 1966 over 20 percent of U.S. combat casualties in Vietnam were black, which was a much higher percentage than the total of blacks in the military.

As the racism became more evident, some black soldiers naturally questioned their loyalty.  After all, the Vietnamese were people of color, subject to the same racial discrimination that they themselves were experiencing at the hands of whites.  Muhammad Ali articulated this dilemma when he said, “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”  And for refusing to register for the draft, even though he was guaranteed he wouldn’t see combat, he was stripped of his title and sentenced to five years in prison (later the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction).  On the other hand, some blacks saw the war as an opportunity.  “I thought the only way I could make it out of the ghetto,” confessed one black paratrooper, “was to be the best soldier I possibly could.”  Although Vietnam veterans were often disappointed at the tepid reception they received upon their return home, black veterans were even more disillusioned because the injustices they had left to fight against were still alive and well.  One black vet remembers coming home in 1968 and entering a restaurant in Virginia with some army pals that included two whites and three Hispanics.  The waitress told them she would serve the whites, but not the others.  “I think that going in a lot of us felt like things were going to be different,” the vet recalls.  “And when we realized that things wouldn’t be, a lot of us felt used.”

Violence was almost as rampant at home.  First Dr. King was shot, then Robert Kennedy.  The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago featured thousands of anti-war protesters that were met with police violence.  In the midst of all this international and domestic turmoil, the Olympic Games represented, to some, an opportunity to bring people of all nationalities together, maybe heal some wounds.  To others it represented the usual hypocrisy of ignoring the political problems in the name of entertainment and profit, because billions of dollars were at stake.

And there I was in the middle.  Twenty years old.  The age of many of the soldiers who were fighting and dying in Viet Nam.  Some of them were my childhood friends who I’d grown up with.  Because of my visibility as an athlete, whatever I chose to do would have international reverberations.

At that time sociology professor Dr. Harry Edwards, only twenty-six in 1968, urged black athletes to boycott the Olympic Games in Mexico City.  “For years we have participated in the Olympic Games, carrying the United States on our backs with our victories, and race relations are now worse than ever,” he told the New York Times Magazine in 1968. “We’re not trying to lose the Olympics for the Americans. What happens to them is immaterial….But it’s time for the black people to stand up as men and women and refuse to be utilized as performing animals for a little extra dog food.”  Harsh words to many white sports fans and self-proclaimed patriots alike, but for African-American athletes, there was a clear ring of truth behind the rhetoric.  Clearly the Olympic Games and the Vietnam War were parallel competitions.  In each, blacks were supposed to go overseas to drive themselves as hard as they could in order to bring glory to their country, only to return home and still be treated as second-class citizens.

All that gave me a lot to think about.  Then baseball-pro-turned-broadcaster Joe Garagiola interviewed me on the Today Show and for the first time I spoke publicly about my concerns and frustrations regarding the direction the country was taking politically.  Garagiola was clearly annoyed that I would even consider boycotting the Olympics.  My response was that for black Americans life in this country was still something that included racially based discrimination in every area of life. The economic, legal and social biases against blacks were at the time a very real burden in any black person’s life.   Most of white America was focused on the chaos of the war, the rebellion of the youth against traditional values, of women insisting on more rights, and of economic pressures.  The problems of black Americans just seemed like a lower priority.  But to us, the social upheaval was an opportunity to be heard, to be seen, to evoke change.  Ending racial discrimination so that we could all enjoy the opportunities that whites had was our highest priority.

Eventually the idea of a boycott was abandoned because Dr. Edwards was unable to attract a critical number of athletes to the idea.  Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and I met to discuss the boycott and each of us had our own reasons for not becoming involved.  In my case, I had a summer job with the city of New York that paid me very well and enabled me to attend school without having to worry about financial matters. We didn’t boycott, but we did not support it either.

However, that October at the Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, after winning first and third in the 200-meter dash, raised their black-gloved fists from the medal podium and bowed their heads during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  This image captured the spirit of the times: whites were outraged, blacks felt some rush of pride.  Ironically, their gesture was a compromise; dozens of black American athletes had debated boycotting the games but decided that this gesture would speak louder than not showing up.  Dr. Edwards was credited with suggesting this compromise.  Today, Dr. Edwards is a renowned sports psychologist who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley, and he served as a consultant to the San Francisco 49ers football team and the Golden State Warriors basketball team, as well as an assistant to the Commissioner of Major League Baseball.  Although the rhetoric has softened, his commitment to the black athlete has not.  He continues to fight for black inclusion, but on the management side of sports.

Here we are forty years later and we are once again about to send our young athletes overseas to compete in games while we send our young soldiers overseas to fight in war.  And, as before, there is a social agenda attached to the Olympic Games.

There is an unpopular war going on in the Middle East that has divided America into two camps.  There is a genocidal war going on in Darfur, Central Africa, and the government of China, the host country of the Olympics, supports the Sudanese government, which is pursuing the Darfur conflict thorough proxy insurgents.  China also has been involved in what many people see as the suppression of the rights of its Tibetan subjects.  China took control of Tibet in 1956 and has absorbed it into its political structure with very little concern for the reactions of Tibetan people.  The Dalai Lama, who is the spiritual leader of Tibet as well as its political leader, has been exiled in India for many years and the Chinese accuse him of promoting secession and violence among those who are still loyal to him.  Many people around the world support autonomy or even independence for Tibet, which is a very irritating position for the Chinese.  Violent demonstrations against anyone who supports the Tibetans’ cause have flared up throughout China.  But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  China’s record of human rights violations is long and varied, including the persecution of everyone from political rivals, journalists, artists, students, prisoners, and many other groups.  Despite China’s public relations blitz to portray a kinder, gentler panda-bear cuddliness, most people can’t erase the horrors of the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square when peaceful protestors calling for democratic reform were gunned down by the military, killing anywhere from hundreds to thousands.

Should we boycott the Olympic Games to protest China’s arrogant human rights performance, their political imperialism, their shoddy exports that recently have left some Americans ill or dead?
The answer is no.  While it may seem disingenuous to be playing games with countries that aim weapons at us, the same claim can be made about us by many other countries. I am of a mind that the actions of Tommy Smith and John Carlos made a difference in 1968.  However, this Olympics is an entirely different situation that requires different tactics to achieve a satisfactory resolution.  Instead of turning our backs, we need to continue a dialogue with the Chinese.  When people stop communicating with each other, the situation doesn’t get better, it gets worse.  The more we talk with each other, the more we understand each other and can reach compromises that will benefit the lives of those we are trying to help.  Getting innocent people freed from prison or preventing others from being persecuted is much better than just wagging our fingers from across the ocean.  Jackie Robinson once said that the great thing about athletics is that “you learn to act democracy, not just talk it.”  That’s what our athletes will demonstrate to the one billion Chinese who may be watching.

A second means of influencing the Chinese is through globalization, in which we share products, entertainment, and culture with others—and they share theirs with us—in order to break down the barriers that make us fear each other’s differences.  Economic interdependence, in which we share risks and profits of international sales—makes us more dependent on each other and therefore more willing to compromise in other areas.  The NBA is a good model for globalization.  In China, the Chinese Basketball Association permits only two foreign-born players per team.  But the NBA’s policy of choosing the best players, regardless of nationality, has not only kicked up the level of play, but it’s made basketball more popular on an international level than ever.  The fact that the NBA brought in China’s Yao Ming, Wang Zhizhi, Yi Jianlian, Sun Yue, and Mengke Bateer has increased NBA fans in China—and when the Chinese people are exposed to America through basketball, we become more human to them, less a threat.

So, let’s not just pick up our ball and stay home.  We have many more options—political, commercial, and cultural—to express our displeasure with China’s policies.  The more we have in common, the more impact we can make.  It’s all about building trust.

(Photo credit: Associated Press/Olympics 1968)

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