From John Carlos and Tommie Smith to Bruce Maxwell: America needs the Bay Area

The San Francisco Bay Area has long lived on the liberal fringe of American society. From the gold rush of the mid-1800s through countless movements in art, music and politics, this is a region that has stood out for its commitment to pushing for inclusion and progressiveness — put another way, we have pushed for the values that truly make America great.

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us, then, that it remains a flashpoint for political activism within the athletic community.

One easy conclusion: The preponderance of athletes here who have been willing to demonstrate their resolve via peaceful protest is a sign that there are countless others in less liberal locales who choose not to step out for fear of reactions from regressive ownership or a less sympathetic public.

Living in this bubble, it’s easy to forget that the national attitudes are trailing a considerable distance behind in terms of progressive values – American values, really, though that term has been co-opted and distorted beyond recognition. But as with any social or civil progress, movements like these need people willing to act first, and environments like the Bay breed the commitment to forward-thinking principles and the courage of conviction to spur an initial action.

We live in a place where one NFL owner is not yet 40 and a vocal spokesman for diversity and inclusion, another NFL owner pushed the league toward diversity for decades while hiring the first black coach in the modern era and a female executive to run his team, the NBA franchise employs Rick Welts – the first prominent American sports executive to be openly gay – as President and Chief of Operations and Oakland A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first MLB player to take a knee during the anthem, and was met with support from management and a round of applause from fans.

NBA great Bill Russell attended McClymonds high school in Oakland and University of San Francisco before having the winningest career in league history — when he became player-coach of the Celtics, Russell was the first black head coach of a modern American sports team, and he regularly spoke out on behalf of civil rights. Stanford grad Julie Foudy’s stand on Title IX reform was key to maintaining anti-discrimination policies in NCAA sports.

Probably the most oft-cited example of athlete activism was born here in the Bay — with the guidance of Bay Area sociologist and civil rights champion Dr. Harry Edwards, San Jose State teammates John Carlos and Tommie Smith took the podium at the 1968 Olympics with black-gloved fists raised to the air and their shoes in their hands. This particular precedent seems especially relevant to our current circumstances.

Much like the #TakeTheKnee movement sweeping the NFL, Carlos and Smith’s actions were intended to bring attention to inequity and injustice. Just like Colin Kaepernick, they used a public moment to make a non-violent statement.

And just like Kap, they were persistently and deliberately maligned and mischaracterized and continue to be to this day.

There are still those who think of that iconic image of Carlos and Smith on the podium as a divisive salute to Black Power — as some imagined symbol of antagonism. But Smith, not unlike Kaepernick years later, spoke clearly when asked to define the message of his protest: “We were just human beings who saw a need to bring attention to the inequality in our country. I don’t like the idea of people looking at it as negative. There was nothing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head, acknowledging the American flag – not symbolizing a hatred for it.”

There’s no doubt, especially in America’s celebrity-obsessed wasteland, that people with the profile of major athletes can have a significant effect on the political and social arenas.

Dr. Edwards is still working here in the Bay, and is on the board for San Jose State’s Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change (a group that includes Carlos & Smith, among Sharks & Niners team executives and journalist Marc Spears, currently of ESPN’s The Undefeated). At a January town hall meeting held by the institute, Jocelyn Benson (CEO of Rise – the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality) summarized the impact of the athlete activist:

“We’ve found across the board that athletes get people in the room. They get people talking when they otherwise wouldn’t talk, and that is how we listen to each other and how we actually bridge the divide right now, on what can be very controversial issues.”

Kaepernick’s protest has fulfilled that promise. Whether Americans are capable of having civilized conversation or can “actually bridge the divide” remains to be seen, and is hindered by the embarrassing behavior of our Commander in Chief, but what is happening across the NFL and throughout sports is forcing a level of conversation and engagement that would otherwise not be happening.

We can’t know whether Kap would have taken his stand in a different city. It’s impossible to say whether his well-documented political awakening would have run the same course if he had been drafted by the Cowboys or Jaguars. But as divisive as his actions may have been among fans around the country, Kap had one of the most sympathetic audiences in football.

That regional history doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We, the Bay Area sports consumers, are an intimate part of it.

It’s on America as a whole, ultimately, to come together and respect one another. These movements for social progress take considerable time to affect real change. But Bay Area sports fans can play an outsized part by embracing and supporting the local athletes who take a stand.

We can be the fans who cheer for peaceful protest while Boston bros embarrass themselves by booing. We can rock our Kaepernick jerseys around town while those confused about what America means burn theirs. We can wear our SF Giants Pride hats with, well, pride. We can, as the saying goes, be on the right side of history.

Because while the current media maelstrom may often forget to look past kneeling NFLers and a puerile president run amok, the Bay has been a bastion of athlete activism for more than 50 years.

Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. Find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.

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