So, what do you do when, as a professional black athlete, it turns out that the man who owns your team is a hideous racist who hates your race so badly he admonishes his girlfriend for even being seen with black people? He’ll profit from your skills, he’ll prance and preen when you win, but actually be seen around you, or have people close to him seen around you? Never!
I refer, of course, to the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, who this week heard recordings of their 80-year-old owner, Donald Sterling, admonishing his 31-year-old girlfriend (I am guessing she finds his personality alluring) for “associating with black people. Do you have to? You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.”
In response, the team had meetings and looked at all options of protesting, including boycotting their next play-off match. Instead, they maintained loyalty to each other, and their fans, while sending a very public “up yours” to the owner by wearing black socks, black wristbands and then wearing their practice jerseys inside out for the warm-ups.
The gesture achieved huge publicity, severely embarrassed Sterling, and made their point. Sterling may own the team, but he does not own them.
Such protests and gestures in the world of sport have a noble history. The most famous example, of course, was during the 1968 Olympics when, after the 200 metres final, black American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos used their moment of glory to protest against racism by holding their gloved fists in the air on the dais, as a symbol of “Black Power”. Our own man, Peter Norman, who had won the silver medal, found out about it in the dressing room, and decided to wear a human rights badge to support them.
The Americans also decided to wear only black socks on their feet, “to symbolise black poverty”.
And then the denouement …
The athletes are atop the podium, the flags are being raised and The Star-Spangled Banner starts to warble into the thin twilight air when Smith and Carlos silently lift to the sky their clenched fists encased in black gloves.
“I was standing there,” the late Norman told me before the 2000 Olympics, “and I could hear this particularly rich baritone singing The Star-Spangled Banner, really belting it out, and then the voice suddenly faded out. I knew then that John and Tommie had gone ahead with it …”
Shortly afterwards, at a press conference, both black athletes, in the presence of Norman, expanded on why they had done it, in terms that are particularly apposite to the Clippers episode.
Carlos was the most eloquent.
“White people,” he said, with great force, “think of black people as animals to do a job and not to think about it afterwards. There were many boos and thumbs down from whites in the stand when we were receiving our medals. Some people seem to think we are like show horses. You can throw them some peanuts if they do their job … We are the equals of anyone; it’s about time everyone knew it.”
And here we are, pushing 50 years later, and clearly there are still people who feel the same, and have been called on it. So bravo the NBA and the Clippers for doing something: the NBA for suspending Sterling for life and fining him $US2.5 million ($2.7 million) and the Clippers for protesting.
Norman remained proud of the whole episode to his dying day, nearly eight years ago, and, again, his words to me in 2000 on why the protest had such an impact so long after the event remain right on the money.
“It was because,” he says, “their noble, silent statement at the Mexico Olympics helped make people in the street aware of racial issues, and it went a long way towards raising consciousness that there was serious racial discord which must be addressed. It was a wake-up call to America and the world, and it took the image of a ‘demonstration’ away from rioting in the streets of the Bronx, and put it right in the middle of peaceful sport. It was like this black thing isn’t just riots and brick throwing, it’s now everywhere.”
Bravo to those in sport, like the Clippers, who use their time in the spotlight for things more substantive than winning mere games.
In Australia, our Australian of the year, Adam Goodes, is a fine example of one who has done exactly that.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.