ATHLETES AND SOCIAL ACTIVISM
Powered by: Alan Kasujja, Presenter, Newsday, BBC, Uganda
Panelists: John Carlos, Olympic Medalist in Track & Field, Activist, and Coach, United States
Etan Thomas, Former Professional Basketball Player, Activist, and Author, United States
Della Britton Baeza, President and CEO, Jackie Robinson Foundation, United States
Adonal Foyle, Former NBA Player, Author, Consultant, and Activist, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
A highly-charged and emotional session saw Olympic medalist and track legend John Carlos take to the stage to discuss his now-famous actions in the 1968 Olympics, and why he felt he had to act to engage in social activism to force change.
Having claimed bronze in the 200m in Mexico City, Carlos and gold medalist Tommie Smith each raised a clenched fist with a black glove on while standing on the podium during the medal presentation as the American national anthem played.
The episode, which was in support of oppressed African-Americans in the US, became one of the most symbolic moments in Olympic history.
“In my heart and in my soul, if things were bad, I tried to fix them,” Carlos said. “I wanted to try and learn why things were the way they were and why individuals allowed certain things to take place and didn’t try to fix them.”
The gesture and subsequent discussion had a visible impact on the rest of the panel – particularly Della Britton Baeza, President and CEO of the Jackie Robinson Foundation.
She talked about Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play Major League sports in the modern era, who also faced discrimination due to his skin color.
She said: “Jackie would feel he was in good company with John Carlos because he was the black man who broke down the color barrier through Major League sports.”
But Baeza insisted that there was much more work to be done, and she called on modern-day athletes to be more proactive in using their influence and reputation to bring about social justice.
Former NBA Player Adonal Foyle conceded that athletes in the present day were under an obligation to ‘keep the trails burning’ as they followed in the footsteps of Robinson and Carlos.
“I think that the most important thing we have as athletes is the carrying of the legacy of the people who have gone before us and laid the groundwork,” he revealed to the panel.
But he did question whether it was right or fair to expect young, highly-paid sports stars to act as spokesmen for ethnic minorities or oppressed groups.
Fellow former Professional Basketball Player Etan Thomas concurred, although he drew encouragement from the stand made by Kobe Bryant and his LA Lakers teammates in wearing ‘I Can’t Breathe’ shirts in the wake of Eric Garner’s recent and controversial death.
“Something I still see the spirit of John Carlos in current athletes,” he said. “You see athletes using their positions as platforms in ways you never saw before.”