8/6: 50 years later, Tommie Smith & John Carlos are LeBron James

This just in: 14x All Star, 4x League MVP, 3x Finals MVP, Founder of I Promise School, Husband & Father LeBron James is executive producing a three part docu-series titled “Shut Up and Dribble” to air in October on Showtime and it will highlight the ever growing intersection of sports and politics.

Okay, read that sentence. One. More. Time.

From the 1968 Mexico City Olympic track stars and protesters Tommie Smith and John Carlos to present day LeBron James, the receipt of athletes using their platform as a politically charged voice has drastically changed. For Smith and Carlos, their raised fists came just six months after the assassination of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Junior and it was meticulously situated within the political climate at the time. More often than not, protests are indicative of the time and place from which they are held and the chain of progression for which they aspire to reach.

When recalling the “moment of truth,” Carlos writes in his 2011 book “The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World,” co-authored by Dave Zirin, “I looked at my feet in my high socks and thought about all the black poverty I’d seen from Harlem to East Texas. I fingered my beads and thought about the pictures I’d seen of the ‘strange fruit’ swinging from the poplar trees of the South.” His unzipped jacket with the deliberately covered “USA” logo was in defiance of Olympic etiquette, in support of all working-class people, Black and white, and as a reflection of the shame to represent a country that moved with molasses speed toward human decency.

The anthem started and Carlos and Smith alike raised their opposing fists, each covered with a Black glove. The buzzing crowd silenced immediately, dropping a veil of scrutiny on the gold and bronze medalist, only to be reinvigorated with “boo”s and “SOB”s, a similar welcome that would meet the stars upon returning to U.S. soil. And the backlash held a domino effect: After being ordered to leave the Olympic stadium, they were suspended from the U.S. track team and received countless death threats. They both played short stents in the NFL, but other than that, their careers ended.

Fast forward fifty years and look how far we’ve come… oops, my mistake, I mean look how much further we have to go. But, we’ll start with the former first.

LeBron James can compete as one of the top athletes in his profession while being very vocal against the current administration. He can wear a “I can’t breathe shirt” for Eric Garner in December of 2014 and still go ball out. He can refuse to “shut up and dribble” after Fox’s Laura Ingraham attempts to call him out and he still secures the bag. He can executive produce a docu-series detailing his political journey and that of other athletes and fully expect to start for the Lakers. The previously held notion that athletes are somehow barred from political opinions is currently burning in the crossfire of James’ I Promise school.

All of this is to say that because Smith and Carlos trailblazed and reached their hands back to bring up the next generation, James stands on their shoulders with the autonomy to do the same for the current up and comers while, most likely, averaging 35 plus points this upcoming season. But of course, not everything is rose colored: James has been tweeted at by the POTUS and surely his conservative supporters are also reducing James’ growing capacity for greatness by questioning his intellect.

(Remind you, this is a president whose college *still* has not verified his receipt of a degree. So just what it is “look[ing] smart”?)

More than that, however, the issues that Smith and Carlos protested fifty years ago almost exactly overlap with everything that James is fighting against now. Directly, it’s about poverty and the reincarnation of what lynching looks like today i.e. the new normal of more “Eric Garner”s, education and the prison industrial complex. Indirectly, but equally as important, it’s about athlete’s political and social issues being taken just as seriously as their ability to put up 51 points in a finals game but have that game go down in history as J.R. Smith’s night.

So congratulations LeBron James. I am grateful to be able to look into the historic mirror of sports activism and see you, Tommie Smith and John Carlos as platform pushers for change.

There’s more work to be done.

And we’re just getting started.


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