Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Musburger and the 1968 Olympics

Dave Zirin has a column at The Nation calling on Brent Musburger to apologize for the column he wrote for the Chicago American criticizing Tommie Smith and John Carlos after their protest at the 1968 Olympics. (H/T: Deadspin. Zirin reprints Musburger's column, which he uncovered after some digging, in full).

In the column, Musburger referred to them as "a pair of black-skinned stormtroopers" and their protest as "juvenile," "ignoble," and "unimaginative." He also belittled their efforts to explain their protest, saying, more-than-somewhat condescendingly, that "[p]erhaps it’s time 20-year-old athletes quit passing themselves off as social philosophers.” In a 1999 documentary on the '68 games, Musburger acknowledged that his words were "a bit harsh," but questioned the value of the protest. He is quoted as saying: "Did it improve anything?' . . . Smith and Carlos aside, I object to using the Olympic awards stand to make a political statement.''

A couple of thoughts.

First, I'm not sure of the answer to Zirin's basic point about an apology. Most of the mainstream (read: white) sports media were critical of Smith and Carlos. In fact, sports reporters were harshly critical of all the athletes in the late '60s and early '70s who were speaking out on social issues, especially race, seeking greater freedom, greater negotiating power, etc. Muhammad Ali was not a beloved media figure around this time. While Musburger's rhetoric is particularly harsh (especially the "stormtrooper" thing), he was writing what most everyone else was writing and saying, especially in its condescending tone. So if we demand an apology from Musburger, do we demand apologies from the other commentators and the publications for which they wrote, about Smith and Carlos or about any of the other politically active athletes of the day.

Second, I do agree with Zirin (and Barry Patchesky at Deadspin) that Musburger still did not get it in 1999. Look again at his quotation. He asked if the protest improved anything? Perhaps not, if we look at it alone and immediately. But Musburger must have been smart enough to know that one single act does not immediately change or improve everything and it is absurd for him to expect differently. But every act of expression and protest builds towards improvement. Next he said he objects to using the Olympic awards stand to make a political statement. This is fundamentally silly. It is impossible not to understand the political nature of the Olympics, including the medal awards. Why does he think we play the national anthem?