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John Feinstein: Colin Kaepernick Will Be Viewed A Hero – Someday

Many Americans revile Colin Kaepernick, but like John Carlos and Tommie Smith before him, his courage will ultimately be recognized

March 16, 2019 - 4:02 pm

Jerry Brewer, my colleague at The Washington Post, wrote a wonderful and insightful column Sunday on the 50th anniversary celebration of Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s black power-Civil Rights salute at the 1968 Olympics.

The word celebration is an important one here because when Smith and Carlos stood on the medals podium after finishing first and third in the 200 meters and raised black-gloved fists to the sky, they were pilloried by many—perhaps most—Americans.

They were instantly "expelled" from the Olympic movement by IOC President Avery Brundage, the same man who, in 1936, as president of what was then the American Olympic Committee, removed two Jewish sprinters from the Americans 4x100 meter relay in Berlin in order to not insult Adolph Hitler.

Today, Brundage is recognized for what he was: a racist, an anti-Semite and one of the worst people to ever hold any kind of power in any walk of life.

Back then, though, almost no one questioned what Brundage did to Smith and Carlos. Now, there’s a statue dedicated to them at San Jose State—their alma mater—and their act of courage, which is exactly what it was, is celebrated.

And yet, even in 2018, racism remains the massive elephant in the room that is American society. It was there when the constitution was written describing slaves to be counted as "three-fifths" of a man when conducting a census. It was there during The Civil War and throughout the 19th century, when slaves were routinely referred to as "darkies."

Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, but he certainly didn’t put an end to racism. For years, African-Americans weren’t considered smart enough to play quarterback; in 1987 Al Campanis,  once a friend and teammate of Jackie Robinson, speculated that perhaps there were so few black managers in baseball because they lacked "the necessities" to be in charge of a team.

Among the greatest sports heroes of the 20th century, none stood out more than Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. The first two were banned from hotels and faced constant hostility for the simple reason that their skin was black. Ali was labelled a draft dodger for refusing to be inducted into the Army during the Vietnam War. He lost his heavyweight championship title, three-and-a-half years of his career and very nearly went to jail—saved only by the Supreme Court. One wonders how today’s court would have viewed the Ali case.

Smith and Carlos are in that group because they dared to see wrong and try to right it. Or, as Brewer so eloquently put it for, “having the audacity to do something to get attention” for a huge societal problem.

The two most over-used words in sports are courage and tragedy. Neither belongs in the sports vernacular, at least as it relates to competition. It does not take courage to go for a green over water with one’s second shot. It takes confidence and the belief that you can pull off the shot. It is not tragic if that shot goes in the water. It’s disappointing—at the very worst.

Courage isn’t going for it on fourth-and-one. Nor is it throwing a breaking pitch on three-and-two.

What Smith and Carlos did took courage. They knew—absolutely knew—they would face serious consequences for their protest. Any chance they had to return home as Olympic heroes and to cash in on their medals was gone the instant they raised their gloves.

They did it anyway. The unsung hero in that moment was Peter Norman, the Australian who won the silver medal, finishing just behind Smith and just ahead of Carlos. Prior to the medal ceremony, Norman saw Paul Hoffman, an American rower wearing an “OPHR” button—Olympic Project for Human rights—and asked if he could wear it during the ceremony.

The OPHR was the group that Dr. Harry Edwards had founded and that Smith and Carlos were representing on the medal stand.

Norman returned to Australia as a pariah. He was left off the 1972 Olympic team and endured years of harsh treatment. In 2003, when San Jose State unveiled the Smith-Carlos statue, Norman was invited to take part in the ceremony. He died of a heart attack three years later at the age of 64—the 20.06 he’d run in Mexico City still the Australian record in the 200 meters.

Smith and Carlos were eulogists and pallbearers at his funeral. Six year later, the Australian Parliament posthumously "apologized" to Norman for the way he was treated in his home country. It only took 44 years for Norman’s courage to be recognized.

There will always be those who will see Smith and Carlos’s act as anti-American. Just as there will always be those who will take the Donald Trumpian-view that Colin Kaepernick should have “left the country” after he stopped standing for the national anthem in 2016 and that NFL owners should have fired those who eventually joined his protest.

Let’s not make any mistake about what’s going on here: this IS a racial issue. It is not about whether one loves flag or country; a simplistic view at best.

Kaepernick was very specific in saying he was protesting what he believed to be white police brutality committed against African-Americans. Most of the NFL players who joined him by sitting or taking a knee were African-American. Most who have expressed outrage—led by the President—are white.

There are, of course, exceptions on both sides.

What Kaepernick did was an act of courage. He knew he would be pilloried for doing it and he knew it might very well cost him his very high-paying job—which it did. Any notion that Kaepernick wasn’t signed in 2017 as a free agent because he suddenly forgot how to play quarterback is patently ridiculous and outrageous.

He lost his job because of his protest. Period.

Some will say he should have found a different way to protest; that he had no right to do it while at work and that—gasp!—his protest and the protests of others took away some of the joy fans derive from watching the NFL.

Don’t mix sports with politics, many have screeched. Tell that to Avery Brundage. Or, for that matter, Adolph Hitler or, more importantly nowadays, Donald Trump, who has repeatedly returned to the anthem protests as a way to stir up his base.

For the record, there were exactly SIX protesters who took a knee for the anthem the week before the President went on his “fire the SOBs" rant at a political rally in Alabama 13 months ago. That Sunday, there were more than 200 protesters—which is probably exactly what Trump wanted.

One of those who participated in the Smith-Carlos celebration at San Jose State last week was Nate Boyer, the former green beret with whom Kaepernick consulted with after he began his protest.

It was Boyer who suggested to Kaepernick that he kneel during the anthem rather than sit because when military veterans go to the graves of fallen comrades, they take a knee in tribute to them. Kaepernick listened and Boyer attended a game soon after and stood next to Kaepernick while he knelt during the anthem.

Boyer didn’t kneel. He didn’t have to agree with what Kaepernick was doing in order to respect his right to do it or understand why he felt the need to do it. If only more Americans took that approach to political disagreements.

It’s my belief that 50 years from now—sooner, I hope, because I’d like to be around to see it—Kaepernick will be seen for what he is: someone who stood up for a cause by kneeling; someone who had, to quote Brewer again, the audacity to do something to get attention.

Like Smith and Carlos, he drew attention to a very difficult and painful issue. Like Smith and Carlos, he has dealt with a good deal of hatred and anger.

Fifty years after their moment in Mexico City, Smith and Carlos are now viewed as heroes. Avery Brundage is viewed as a venom-spewing bigot.

Someday I believe Kaepernick will be viewed as a hero. And Donald Trump will be viewed as exactly what he has repeatedly proven himself to be.
John Feinstein’s new book is, “The Prodigy,” a novel about a 17-year-old who has a chance to win the Masters and must overcome the actions of the adults in his life on and off the golf course. His next work of non-fiction is, “Quarterback,” which will be published on November 13th. His website is