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Knubia Locker Room: Tethered for Keeps

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Decades had elapsed before Tommie Smith and John Carlos were exalted for their human rights salute in the 1968 Olympic Games. Australian Silver medalist Peter Norman was acknowledged–reluctantly and posthumously–within his own country. Until his passing, the only vestige of love he received from the sporting realm came from the United States. 

EXPRESSED BIASES 

Certain voices are synonymous with specific sporting events. Keith Jackson was synergistic with college football. Howard Cosell was espoused to network boxing. In the mid-to-late 1970s, the NBA on CBS was congruent with a gentleman named Brent Musburger. As a kid, no matter who his counterpart was on-air, I enjoyed and became accustomed to his basketball commentary and analysis. In my (then) naïveté, I was oblivious to some of the incendiary remarks he had made regarding Black athletes years prior when I was still in diapers—more on that in a moment. 

Even during my pre-pubescent years, I was mindful that I had a six-sense: a capability to recognize and decipher bull****. That penchant, I would ascertain later, is known as discernment. While listening to broadcasts on CBS, Musburger’s natural biases did not necessitate a degree in nuclear physics to unveil. All one required was the ability to harken closely. In the words of Joe Madison, one must rely on the “third ear.” Musburger performed with vigor when reporting and commentating on the (then and now) majority Brown league. Nevertheless, the glee that he would exhibit when non-melanated star players were performing well was arduous at times to tolerate. Something was amiss. Studies of broadcasters have shown that he is not aberrant. According to Michael Banks, author of “More Black Athletes In the Media,” it is “well known that for a viewer of NBA basketball, the linguistic style and tonal emphasis [of some white sports announcers] increases when a ‘Larry Bird’ makes a great play. [But] less emphasis on volume and tone occur when an ‘Isiah Thomas’ makes a similar [one]. The element of subtle racist attitudes in the announcer’s speech becomes evident.” [1] 

REVELATIONS 

In 1968, during high noon of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (O.P.H.R.) in the Summer Olympic Games (Mexico City), Musburger divested himself. After the iconic post-200 meter finals demonstration by Tommie Smith and John Carlos (supported by silver medalist Peter Norman of Australia, who also wore an O.P.H.R. chest pin, and suggested they each wear one black glove), Brent, in a column for the Chicago American, penned a vitriolic piece in opposition of their actions. “[But] you have to give Smith and Carlos credit for one thing,” said Musburger, “They knew how to deliver whatever it was they were trying to deliver on international television, thus ensuring maximum embarrassment for the country that is picking up the tab for their room and board here in Mexico City. One gets a little tired of having the United States run down by athletes who are enjoying themselves. Smith and Carlos looked like a pair of ‘BLACK-SKINNED STORMTROOPERS.’” [2] 

That terminal phrase still reverberates today. 

Musberger continued lambasting the pair, deeming the pair of sprinters as “juvenile…ignoble…[and] unimaginative.” Brent directed the lion’s share of his indignation at gold medalist Tommie Smith, calling him “that militant Black.” All of this, while referring to avowed racist and International Olympic Committee (I.O.C.) President Avery Brundage as “a kindly old grandfather [figure].” Smith and Carlos were banned from the Olympics and ordered to fly home from Mexico City by none other than Brundage. The I.O.C. also told them to return their medals. That final request was—justifiably—disregarded. “Never did it,” Smith said. “They told me a time and place to go to, to surrender my medal. I just never went.” [2] Neither did John Carlos. 

The I.O.C. had determined that the gesture by the American sprinters was a “deliberate and violent breach of the Olympic spirit.” Contrarily, Brundage considered the Nazi Salute used by German athletes in the 1936 Olympics (Berlin) acceptable and innocuous because it was a “national salute” for an international competition.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos are now vindicated; Musburger is still unwilling to apologize after over 50 years. When asked by journalist Jemele Hill if he had heard from Musburger, Carlos responded, “Well, you know, Brent Musburger doesn’t exist in my mind. He didn’t mean anything to me [50 plus] years ago; he doesn’t mean anything to me now.” [3] 

In 1999, Musburger made a tepid reference to his now infamous and opprobrious observation, stating that “it was a bit harsh” but that he objected to utilizing the medal stand “to make a political statement.” He flippantly asked, “Did it improve anything?” [4] At various functions, particularly since these icons have become relatively revered, Musberger and Carlos have occasionally been in proximity. The former always moves in the opposite direction, posthaste. “Musburger [became] an iconic TV broadcaster, first with CBS and then with ABC and ESPN.

After Colin Kaepernick had started the anthem protests, continued by many of his former teammates in San Francisco, Musburger tweeted at one point: “Yo 49ers, since you instigated protest [you have] 2 wins and 19 losses. How about taking your next knee in the other team’s end zone.” Recently, Musburger further exacerbated the problem by publicly advocating for now-banished Las Vegas Raiders Coach Jon Gruden, comparing his (racist, sexist and homophobic) email leaks to “a hit job from a criminal organization.” [2] In the 1970s, a young non-melanated star came into his own in the NBA: future Hall of Famer Bill Walton. He peaked in 1977, leading the underdog Portland Trailblazers to the championship before chronic injuries slowed him in 1978. Before Walton’s medical issues, Musberger to Walton was connate to “Flava Flav” to “Chuck D.” It was purified hype. Brent dubbed Walton the “Mountain Man” due to his full beard and red curly hair while editorializing and gushing over his every on-air move. To Bill Walton’s credit, he never appreciated this while making it clear that he opposed the “White Hope” label. 

ATTEMPT AT ELUCIDATION 

The scene was dissimilar regarding Tommie Smith. He encountered the broadcaster face-to-face. “[Las Vegas Raiders owner] Mark Davis is a friend,” said Smith, “and he asked if I would be willing to get together with him [Musburger] for dinner one night. I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ To be honest, I was curious [about] what he might have to say. When I asked him what he [thought] when he wrote the column, he went on about how young he was [29] and how he had to write the column that way because that was what his bosses wanted him to do.” Smith continued, “He said, ‘I had to do it to protect my job, to take care of my family. I had to do it.’ I waited for him to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ Instead, he came over to me and started crying, put his arms around me, and said, ‘I had to do it, I had to do it.’ He never actually apologized, but I still felt sorry for him at that moment, not for what he did but for the fact that he had to know how wrong he’d been. The tears were his apology to me, but he never actually said ‘I’m sorry.’” [2] “He knew the column was racist; he had to know it. He just couldn’t bring himself to say it.” [2] 

Public acknowledgment by him, or atonement, while certainly not a panacea for all transgressions, could have alleviated public perceptions of Smith and Carlos decades ago. In addition, it could have refined the man within. Carlos no longer demands an apology. Smith received an explanation of sorts. Carlos, Smith, and Norman took a stand on the grandest podium in track and field for a brief life-altering interlude. Brent was allotted a weekly tribune in front of millions for decades but declined to do so. The iconic voice—when it mattered most—was relatively muted. 

FOR PETE’S SAKE 

The triumvirate came to compete on that day in 1968. 

The consensus favorites were Smith and Carlos. Both stood over 6’2” and could ignite the track like Greyhounds. Peter Norman was 5’6” and, although formidable, in comparison, was more Welsh Corgi. Yet, when the gun sounded, all three men accelerated during each qualifying heat. 

They may be best known for what happened after the race, but the group made history before the 1968 men’s 200-meter final was even run. “[To qualify for that final] you had to beat world or Olympic records,” Matt Norman (his nephew) said. “Peter beat the Olympic record on his very first run. Tommie Smith beat Peter. John Carlos then beat Tommie Smith. “It literally became one of the greatest 200 meter [races] in history.” [5] 

Buoyed by his success in the preliminary rounds, Peter sought out the uber-confident John Carlos, putting him on notice that “the Aussie” was coming.

PETER NORMAN: “You have this one, John; I’ll take the next.” JOHN CARLOS: “Who is this little white guy?” [8] 

Smith, Norman, and Carlos finished first, second, and third in their much-anticipated sprint final. Moments before the medal ceremony, Peter declared his stance concerning the O.P.H.R. The Australian had been a vociferous critic of his country’s White Australia Policy; hence, he felt empathy. The policy (née, The Immigration Act of 1901) was radical, sectarian, and on par with the apartheid of South Africa. “Criticisms of non-white groups were based on the idea that they were less advanced than white people in all ways, especially morally and intellectually. In Australia, this idea focused particularly on people of Asian descent but applied to all non-whites, including Indigenous Australians [Aboriginals], who were considered a ‘dying race’…Ironically, Australia saw itself as a utopia and a working man’s paradise, a forward-thinking country that promoted equal rights and opportunities for ‘desirable’ citizens at least. To uphold this image, the nation aimed to attract a well-paid, male, white, and skilled labor force.” [6] 

Fearing replacement–yes, that replacement–there was a persistent ethnocentric slogan to “populate or perish” the continent or risk being overrun and saturated with melanated peoples. In the turbulent 60s, continuous, palpable tension and uprising were cresting on both continents. 

Norman’s altruism did not initially persuade the Brothers. 

PETER NORMAN (to Smith before the medal ceremony): “Hey mate! Let me have one of those [O.P.H.R. chest] pins. That way, I can show my support [for] your cause.” [7] 

TOMMIE SMITH (astonished and thinking to himself): “Who is this white Australian guy? He won his silver medal. Can’t he just take it, and that be enough?” [7] 

“To [us], this was America’s problem, and some white guy from Australia had no place taking part in [our] protest and [our] fight. ‘I’ll stand with you,’ Peter told the pair, borrowing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge and pinning it proudly on his chest. ‘I expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes,’ Carlos said. ‘Instead, I saw love.'” [7] 

A 2012 CNN profile revealed that “he returned home to Australia a pariah, suffering unofficial sanction and ridicule as the [so-called] Black Power salute’s forgotten man. He never ran in the Olympics again.” [8] Commentators say he was not selected for the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972 despite recording qualifying times. Officials did not welcome him even three decades later at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. “I would have dearly loved to go to Munich (but) I’d earned the frowning eyes of the powers that be in track and field,” he said years later. [8] Carlos and Smith suffered a similar fate, enduring seemingly endless reprisal, including death threats. 

John Carlos later stated that “If we [Carlos and Smith] were getting beat up [in tandem], Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone.” [8] Shunned within Australia, Norman eventually became revered in the United States over time. “[Nearly] All Black athletes that met Peter considered him a hero,” Matt said. “Whenever he was being interviewed or around, people would flock to him. He was very popular in the States.” 

Matt continued, “At the 2000 Summer (Sydney, Australia) Olympics, he wasn’t invited in any capacity. There was no outcry. He was the greatest Olympic sprinter in our history.” Within his own country, Peter Norman remained the forgotten man. When the U.S. delegation discovered that Norman wasn’t attending, the United States Olympic Committee arranged to fly him to Sydney to be part of their delegation.” [6] He was invited to the birthday party of 200 and 400-meter runner Michael Johnson, where he was to be the guest of honor. Johnson took his hand, hugged him, and declared that Norman was one of his biggest heroes.” [8] 

Predictably, as the winds began to change, the Australian Olympic Committee (A.O.C.) denied any wrongdoing. Eventually, Norman, who passed away in 2006 with both Smith and Carlos as pallbearers, received belated recognition within Australia. In 2019 a statue was erected in his honor. He was much more than the other guy on the stand.

Before his transition, Peter Norman stated, “It has been said that sharing my silver medal with that incident on the victory dais detracted from my performance. On the contrary, I [must] confess; I was rather proud to be part of it.” [8] 

SYNOPSIS 

To some, the mere notion of the coalescence of marginalized groups is not only lurid; it’s downright repulsive. Further, others consider the “crossing over” of a non-melanated “ally” treasonous. Contrary to legend, their demonstration was not about Black Power but a plea to all humanity. The latter was precisely the point that many of their detractors misconstrued. Virulence and venom were siphoned at them from all conceivable angles. Although social progress has been made incrementally in many ways, their defiance and willingness to utilize their literal platform would still evoke vehement polarity today. 

Antithetical to the rhetoric of television critics like Greg Kelly of Newsmax, whose recent bigoted commentary implies that the National Museum of African-American History and Culture is divisive, Peter Norman is also being honored there. Once again, he is alongside his sienna-hued Olympic brethren. Within those venerated halls and beyond, their eurythmic accord transcends the phantasmal concept known as race. Moreover, those who remain infatuated with the mythical idea of “CRT” should know that those letters apply to this trio because they will go down in the annals of history as: COURAGEOUSRESILIENT-TRIUMPHANT.” 

Now bronzed, the three stalwarts and friends will forever stand luminous in Washington, D.C.–colligated in spirit–just as they did in Mexico City in October, 54 years ago. 

This time, it’s for keeps. 

Words by Dr. Eric Hawkins (“Dr. Hawk”) 

BIBLIOGRAPHY 

(1) Banks, Michael A. “More Black Athletes In the Media.” Xlibris LLC. Indiana (2014) p. Conclusion: Media Speech.

(2) Feinstein, John. “On the Monumental Lasting Impact of Tommie Smith & John Carlos at the 1968 Olympic Games.” Literary Hub. (literaryhub.com). November 30, 2021 

(3) Thomas, Rafael. “Brent Musberger Should Be Fired.” Too Athletic Takes. (tooathletic.com). June 5, 2019 

(4) Knox, Stephen. “There Goes Brent Musberger Again, Making Cringeworthy Comments & Being On the Wrong Side of Race Issues.” Deadspin. (deadspin.com). December 2, 2021 (5) Jackson, Andrew. “‘He Was Ignored Until Death’: How Australia Failed a Brave Sporting Icon.” Fox Sports. (foxsports.au). July 4, 2020. 

(6) The National Museum of Australia. “White Australia Policy” (nma.gov.au). 

(7) Gazzaniga, Riccardo. “Peter Norman: The White Man In The Photo.” The Wire (the wire.in). June 15, 2020 

(8) Montague, James. “The Third Man: The Forgotten Black Power Hero.” CNN (cnn.com). April 25, 2012

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