It stands as one of the most symbolic images in the history of social activism - Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on the podium in Mexico City in 1968, adorned by Olympic gold and bronze medals and raising black-gloved fists
Smith, the gold medalist, and Carlos, the bronze medalist in the 200 meters, caused a firestorm of controversy by their actions and succeeded in bringing attention to the troublesome state of race relations in America. It was a risk both athletes felt was worth taking, and they were prepared to face the consequences.
Fast-forward 44 years, and several NBA stars are creating a symbolic image in protest of the killing of an unarmed 17-year-old. Trayvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman on Feb. 26 in Sanford, Fla., while walking home from a convenience store. Zimmerman, who claims the shooting was in self-defense, has yet to be arrested or charged.
Martin was wearing a hooded sweatshirt - a hoodie - when he was killed. In support of the Martin family, Miami Heat players recently posed for a team photo wearing hoodies. Other NBA stars who have posed for photos wearing hoodies include Kevin Durant, Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony.
Somewhere in between the black-gloved fists of 1968 and the hoodies of 2012, athletes speaking out on social injustice took a back seat to issues of a more corporate and capitalistic nature. Or so it seemed.
“I think athletes have always been socially conscious,” said Bobby Dandridge, 64, who played in the NBA from 1969 through ‘82, and was a member of the Washington Bullets from 1977 through ‘81.
“I like what the Heat players did, stepping up and taking a stand. I think for them, that shows an air of confidence. There’s never been a period where guys haven’t done that, but there’s been a period where the media hasn’t covered it. Athletes have for years done a lot of things in their communities, but those positive things are rarely portrayed.”
Dandridge cited Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown as two athletes during his time who never hesitated to take a stand on social issues, along with Carlos and Smith. But as the years passed and the fires of overt racism cooled to a beneath-the-surface simmer, athletes seemed to feel less of a need to speak out.
“There used to be a point where athletes didn’t support social issues, or speak out on issues as a whole, and we should have,” said Dominique Wilkins, 52, who played in the NBA from 1982 through ‘99. “Athletes weren’t forced to be more socially conscious when I played, but I think it’s a choice for each and every individual. If you want to speak out, you will. As for what the Heat did, I think it’s honorable.”
The former league scoring champion and nine-time All-Star acknowledges that speaking out is easier for star players. For role players, it’s riskier.
“I thought it was excellent that Miami took a stand, especially guys like LeBron [James] and [Dwyane Wade] and Chris Bosh,” said Tracy Murray, 40, who played in the NBA from 1994 through 2004, and was a member of the Bullets/Wizards from 1996 through 2000.
“They have the power that us role players don’t have. If they take a stand, what’s going to happen to them? Nothing. So it’s easier for the role players to take a stand along with them, if they take a stand first. They are the people who have the power.”
But along with that power comes the inevitable criticism from those who believe athletes should “shut up and play,” accuse them of being ill-informed, improperly educated, or of having a self-serving agenda beyond any social cause they might support or any injustice they might oppose.
For many athletes, choosing the right course of action can be like walking a tightrope.
“One of the great advantages of social media now is that I think athletes are definitely using their voices,” said Roger Mason Jr., 31, a Wizards veteran who began his NBA career in 2003. “[Athletes] have a great instrument to really reach out to the masses. I love what the Heat did. I think sometimes it’s tough for athletes to speak out, because I know a lot of guys want to be politically correct. At the same time, we have a great voice and a great influence in our culture. A lot of people look up to us, and it’s a responsibility that we have.”