This afternoon, I should be settling down with colleagues in the Virginia Room at the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, D.C. to talk about the Mexico City Olympic Games, my work on the black power protests that took place there, and the legacy of the 50th anniversary that looms this October. But I'm not. Instead, I'm in my kitchen, wondering when I'll brave the cold to feed the birds and what time the 5th grader will come downstairs to start a second day of no school.
The esteemed sports historian, Dr. Adrian Burgos Jr., who pulled the panel on Mexico City together, asked me yesterday if I would like him to say a few words on my behalf at the panel, which he is moderating. It wasn't intended to be a formal session, but rather a roundtable, and I hadn't really put thought to paper. My book on Mexico City, Not the Triumph but the Struggle, came out in 2002, so my ideas about it tend to have their own reserved section in my brain, rarely needing notes to support them.
But this, perhaps, is no ordinary time to be talking about race and sports and politics, which have certainly enjoyed a spate of headlines in the contemporary moment. I was looking forward to talking about Tommie Smith and John Carlos and their moment and movement -- the Olympic Project for Human Rights. In so many ways, historians aren't supposed to (or at least, we usually prefer not to) make any particular moment or action superlative. But in the wake of Colin Kaepernick's brave stances, and the backlash and support that have surrounded him, Mexico '68 seems particularly important right now.
I am especially struck by the language used to talk about athletes like Kap and those he's inspired, particularly every time the word "ungrateful" is uttered about them. Ungrateful for riches, for opportunity, for what? Over and over, the monetization of the athlete, the attempt of figuring out an athlete's worth, and then the expectation that with the identity of "athlete" (especially successful athlete) everything else is supposed to disappear -- politics, self, and so on -- is one of the real lines to tug about '68.
Yes, the guys in '68 took a financial hit, such as it was back then. But obviously there wasn't as much at stake. Now, however, in the post-Jordan era, there is a lot at stake for a select few when we talk about athletes being "ungrateful" because they raise their arms ("Don't Shoot!), wear a shirt ("I can't breathe"), take a knee, or don a hoodie. In so many ways, there is nothing new to write about any of this. And yet, of course, that isn't true. Whether it is the USMNT posing with Mexico for a photo before a game in storied Columbus or a bunch of football players refusing to visit the White House, we still need to be asking critical questions of citizenship, human rights, and social justice of athletes, owners, coaches, spectators, and sportswriters.
The legacy of '68 is that we perhaps now know better what to ask.
So as I sit in my kitchen instead of at the conference, I hope that the one line I have repeated for years, over and over, remains true and hopeful: Listen to athletes for a change. Because just as Jackie Robinson stepped up to bat almost a full decade before the Brown decision hit the papers, sports and athletes can tell us what's going on like nothing and no one else can.