June/July/Aug 2007

Empty Handed

Two books chart the rise and fall of the people of the politicized black athlete

Gerald Early


Perhaps it would have been more of a surprise, in retrospect, had Tommie Smith not done what he did at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games, considering the times. In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, an event that triggered rioting and rebellion in major cities across the United States and for many, black and white, signaled the end of the best hope of the civil rights movement. In June, Senator Robert Kennedy, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, was murdered in Los Angeles after winning the California primary. He was running because President Lyndon Johnson had stunningly chosen not to seek renomination in the wake of his failed military intervention in Vietnam, which had come undone particularly as a result of North Vietnam’s Tet offensive of January, a propaganda coup for the Communists that turned opinion in the United States against the war. Leftist students at Columbia University virtually shut down the school in protest in April in the most famous of all campus protests in the United States.

1968 was the year of radical political thinking in the United States, especially among the young; of pushing change to the point of revolution; and of stern political reaction to this relentless transformation. Alabama’s segregationist governor, George Wallace, mounted a highly visible and popular campaign for president that year, and Richard Nixon won the office on a conservative platform of law and order, as so much seemed so lawless and out of order in the country at the time.

This turbulence formed the strange backdrop to the Summer Olympics, a global showcase where nationalism becomes a form of symbolic and ostentatious escape from real-world politics into the world of high-performance sports, where athletic competition replaces war. But even here, radical protest, reflecting the restlessness of the time, was expressed, not violently but dramatically and effectively. On the victory stand, African-American sprinters Smith, winner of the gold medal in the 200 meters, and John Carlos, winner of the bronze, raised black-gloved fists during the playing of the national anthem, something that International Olympic Committee officials like its archconservative president, Avery Brundage (who was intensely disliked by black athletes because of his reluctance to ban South Africa from the Games), had feared might happen. The gesture astonished the world, and it has certainly never been forgotten by anyone who was over the age of five or six in 1968, whether you watched the Olympics or not. (I remember it vividly, as I did watch the Games that year and read newspaper accounts as well.) 1968 gave us, in a grand international moment, the self-consciously political athlete. Opinion was sharply divided as to whether it was good that athletes had decided it was not enough to play their sports but now had to voice their political preferences and feelings as well. And opinion remains divided. It was also the same year, 1968, that baseball slugger, braggart, and tough guy Gary Sheffield was born.

Click to enlarge

Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos, right, during the playing of the national anthem at the Summer Olympic Games, Mexico City, October 16, 1968.

The occasion for Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith, more or less, is the 2005 erection of statues on the campus of San Jose State University to honor alumni Smith and Carlos, an extraordinary event and one that, in 1968, was unimaginable. Smith recounts how he paid the price for his gesture through ostracism and periods of unemployment; he was forced to join the Cincinnati Bengals’ taxi squad as a wide receiver for a few years, and later he was a track coach at Oberlin until he was ignominiously denied tenure. He then became track coach at Santa Monica College. What’s more, “the treatment I received from black folks hurt even worse. I was looking up to them for support, but I found out that there were more blacks than whites who didn’t want anything to do with me.” Even his family didn’t approve: “They felt that they were being made to suffer for something I had done wrong.”

Yet as Smith makes clear in the book’s opening, he has received other accolades in recent years. His return to San Jose for the statue’s unveiling was not his first time back to be feted: He was honored in 1994 at the Bruce Jenner Classic, a track meet in the city; in 1997, he was inducted into the San Jose Sports Hall of Fame; in 1998, he was given San Jose State’s annual Outstanding African American Alumnus award. So his school and the City of San Jose no longer ignore him, and he had far earlier and probably more opportune occasions to produce this book, either during the years of his villainy and exile or during his initial reemergence and public acceptance.

Is Silent Gesture ten or twenty years too late? Does the gesture even matter now, to a new generation? At times, Smith expresses his doubts: “I truly believe that the students heard and understood John and me, but we were that old Chevy with old Chevy parts, and they’re in the Lexus dealing with the computer parts, and they tried to put it together and couldn’t. How we looked, how we walked, and how we talked were more interesting to them than what we had to say.” Even his teammate seemed to have come out too late with his story, Why? The Biography of John Carlos, published in 2000. Harry Edwards, the young black firebrand, former amateur athlete, and current professor of sociology who inspired the black-student-athlete protest movement of the late 1960s, produced his versions of events in a more timely way, The Revolt of the Black Athlete in 1969 and The Struggle That Must Be: An Autobiography in 1980.

Belatedness is disadvantageous not only because fewer young readers know who Smith is and many older readers have lost interest in something that meant a great deal to them in their youth. It also works against the author’s ability to frame his narrative with urgency and immediacy. For instance, it is harder to understand why black college athletes were so upset about their treatment in the 1960s, since Smith cannot recapture the time with any sustained emotional vividness. The reader is given a good sense of his family’s smalltown home in Texas, where his father worked for many years as a sharecropper, and of the predominantly white San Jose State and how out of place he felt there as a black athlete. (Most of the blacks who attended the school at the time were indeed athletes.) But the political drama and intensity of the day is not so well managed. Subsequent history has affected not only the reader but the writer as well. And few memories sharpen with age.

Smith readily avers that white coaches helped him since boyhood, when it was discovered that he could run and play basketball. Jim Focht, a white teacher and the first person to recognize his talent, “improved my life and that of my family through his thoughtful action.” Focht got Smith’s father a job “as janitor and bus driver at Central Union [Elementary School], which got him further away from the life of the fields,” providing his father with “the steady income he had always yearned for.” “My respect and love for Coach [Bud] Winter,” Smith writes about his coach at San Jose State, “will never fade. . . . [His] personality emanated calm and poise. The fact that he never really yelled or screamed or got mad had a much more positive effect than did the craziness other coaches gave off.” It is hard to imagine that a black coach could have done more for him. If a black athlete who made such a militant gesture of protest and defiance at the Olympics could have gotten along so well with some of his white coaches, how bad could things have been? This seemingly reasonable question requires an answer.

Why did black athletes meet and contemplate a boycott of the 1968 Olympics? Was it simply the mood of the times that demanded a form of commitment from the athletes, who had, because of their intense regimen and inward focus, largely been sheltered from or chosen to ignore the confrontations on the streets? Other black students had demonstrated and held sitins— where were the athletes? Certainly, the example of sacrifice on the part of Muhammad Ali, who refused induction into the army on religious grounds as a Muslim in 1967, faced a five-year prison term, and was stripped of his title, made a strong impression on many other black athletes. But what else was there that drove the athletes to think about a collective protest, and why, in the end, did the boycott fail? It was not because 1936 Olympics track star Jesse Owens talked the young athletes out of a boycott. (Smith’s book provides a good account of the meeting with Owens.) Did the athletes, in the end, simply think their careers were more important than any protest? Professionals––and highperformance athletes, whether amateur or on a payroll, are professionals in their dedication and single-mindedness––are apt to think their careers are indeed the only thing that matters. And African Americans were rapidly developing a highly diversified professional class by the late 1960s. Smith and the other black athletes knew they were at San Jose State solely to help the school win, but a young reader might think, well, weren’t the white athletes recruited for the same reason? Why else would a Division I school want athletes at all, except to win? And weren’t the first efforts at integration likely to be difficult for all concerned and especially for the young African Americans asked to adjust to the white people and institutions they were being given access to, theoretically as social equals?

Perhaps it was the inherent inequality of integration that required more of the minority than of the majority, that required the minority to do more adjusting than the majority, that produced anger and unhappiness for the minority, a sense of both inferiority and unrequited sacrifice. Perhaps that is why the more privileged or lucky members of a minority become more fractious and militant, more self-consciously racialized and “different,” when they encounter the majority: to give the majority something difficult to adjust to in the process of integration, to make integration a more level playing field. Smith’s book doesn’t lack for honesty, but there is a lack of self-reflection or self-irony in the book and a lack of rigorously detailed narrative that make the book far less compelling than it should be. Silent Gesture is often too repetitive and too self-justifying. At times, it is even confusing: Smith writes, “To this very day, the gesture made on the victory stand is described as a Black Power salute; it was not.” Yet when he was interviewed by Howard Cosell the day following the gesture, he said, “My raised right hand stood for the power in black America.”

In the end, Smith’s autobiography feels as if the author is settling scores. Smith describes Edwards as being there “at the beginning of the project and throughout the struggle, but not in Mexico City, where our lives were on the line.” And, “Harry Edwards was not in Mexico City for those Games; as he stayed home to steer clear of the death threats he received, we faced the threats on our lives in person, on the track and on that stand.” Later, the reader learns that Edwards had promised to set up a trust fund for Smith’s and Carlos’s children for the financial sacrifice that they would make because of their protest, but he failed to do so. Football star Jim Brown, who was going to serve as Smith’s agent, backed out and asked for his two-thousand-dollar advance back after the fallout from the Olympics. Smith saves his bitterest remarks for boxer George Foreman, who, too, won a gold medal in 1968––and became famous for parading around the ring after his victory holding two small American flags. “When I saw that, I was very bitter, very angry,” writes Smith. “I thought he was doing it to minimize the effect of what we had just done on the victory stand, which is what it did.” “I’ve been asked many times how I feel about being a college coach while George Foreman is a millionaire on television. Who came out ahead? My answer is, I still have a mind, and I ask what sits on George’s shoulders where his head is supposed to be. If he has anything in that head, I say, it’s a lot of kitchen utensils.” Smith never considers in this assessment that Foreman, as a champion boxer, was likely, with some luck, to come out financially ahead of a sprinter because there were simply more ways for Foreman to make money and garner fame in his sport. Even Smith’s relationship with Carlos is uneasy, and Smith is particularly upset by Carlos’s assertion that he let Smith win the 200 meters “because a gold medal meant more to me than it did to him.”

Unlike Smith’s book, Sheffield’s autobiography might have come too soon. He is still an active player, recently awarded a contract extension by his new team, the Detroit Tigers, that will keep him playing baseball at over thirteen million dollars a year through the 2009 season, when he will be more than forty years old. Because of that fact, Sheffield cannot afford to speak as openly as perhaps he could. For all its ostentatious bluster, Inside Power is highly guarded; indeed, the bluster seems strategic, to hide the fact that not a great deal more is revealed here than in interviews that Sheffield has given over the years. This book, too, but for different reasons, lacks any sense of self-reflection and any sense of complexity within Sheffield himself.

Sheffield’s story is fairly familiar to baseball fans: Born and reared in Tampa in a working-class family with a grandfather who had been a semipro player, Sheffield was a tremendous baseball talent from the days of Little League, but his impatience and the chip on his shoulder made things hard for him with his first major league team, the Milwaukee Brewers, where he felt he experienced racism by being forced to give up his original position, shortstop, to an inferior white player. But Sheffield blossomed once he was traded to the San Diego Padres, where he became one of the most feared hitters in the game. After San Diego, he played for the Florida Marlins (where he won a World Series ring), the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Atlanta Braves, the New York Yankees, and now Detroit. He has had four children out of wedlock and affairs with numerous women, has always been aggressive on the field, and has been seeking some form of inner peace that he claims he has found in marriage and in religion, although his expression of his faith seems childish, which, refreshingly, he freely admits. He speaks honestly about racism in baseball, but not always convincingly. For instance, he quotes sportswriter William Rhoden, who complains that at the start of the 2006 season only four of thirty big-league managers were African-American. One might reply that as African Americans make up 9 percent of major-league ballplayers, their percentage in management is actually, by affirmative action’s math, quite acceptable (though there are only two African-American managers now). In any case, nearly everything in the book makes Sheffield seem like the poor little rich black boy of baseball.

There are two truly interesting facts about this future Hall of Fame player. First, Sheffield is the nephew of pitcher Dwight Gooden, who many thought would be a Hall of Famer but who was waylaid by the demons of the pampered life of the star athlete. (Sheffield does not reveal much about his adult relationship with Gooden or how his family has coped with Gooden’s cocaine addiction.) Second, Sheffield was briefly good friends with Barry Bonds and spent a winter training with him. The two fell out, Sheffield feeling that Bonds patronized him. But as a result of their relationship, Sheffield was tainted by the accusation of using steroids, which he strenuously denies having knowingly done and which should not even be an issue unless substantial evidence is brought against him that he has the opportunity to challenge in a court of law.

Sheffield is one generation removed from the black athletes of the 1960s. He is more the contemporary of Michael Jordan than of Ali, and his career coincides more closely with the rise and fall of Mike Tyson than the emergence of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The athletes of the 1960s paved the way for Sheffield––and not just the black athletes. The rise of the powerful baseball players union made it possible for him to be what he is and to present the public persona that he does. Sheffield will wind up his career a lot wealthier and more famous than Tommie Smith ever could have been. It is not a matter of advancement or regression that the situation is this way. Nor is it a reflection of any sort of morality. It is just another curiosity in the grand old shop of American popular culture.

Gerald Early, the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University in Saint Louis, is the author of several books, including The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture, which won the 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism.

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