Earlier this month, ESPN awarded Tommie Smith and John Carlos the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs - the sports network's equivalent of the Oscars - for their once infamous, and now famous, black power salutes from the medal platform at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
The stench of self-congratulation surrounding ESPN's decision is thicker than the air in a locker room after double overtime. "As the passage of time has given us the opportunity to put their actions into the proper context," gloats USC professor Todd Boyd in an ESPN.com column, "their supporters can now feel vindicated while their detractors must eat their words."
The argument that Smith's and Carlos' critics must dine on their denunciations rests on an inch-deep nostalgia and the triumph of celebrity culture.
Comments by ESPN sportscaster Stuart Scott typify the inanity of ESPN's award. Scott, who was 3 years old in 1968, nonetheless told the Desert Sun newspaper that he remembers how "tense" the times were and how he remembers thinking, "Oh, that was cool for a black man to do that." He added: "As an adult, I get it even more now." Even more than when he was barely out of diapers? That's setting the bar high.
"I've got daughters," Scott said, "so I have to explain to them why that was so important, and how much - even after they did it - grief and hatred they had to face when they came back to the States, to their own country. And why that means they're courageous."
By this standard - for want of a better word - any self-indulgent protest at the Olympics is proof of courage. This is hardly surprising: Radical chic is a corporate marketing plan these days. Che Guevara is a hero suburban teens stick on their T-shirts, and once "revolutionary" music provides the soundtrack for the latest Nike ad.
In today's culture, is it even worth trying to remind people that the black power salute was, for those who brandished it most seriously, a symbol of violence - rhetorical, political and literal - against the United States? It was the high sign for a racist militia, the Black Panthers, which orchestrated the murder of innocents and allied itself with America's enemies. In today's lingo, you might even say black power was "divisive."
But even a more benign view of the salute shouldn't obscure the intense contradictions of ESPN's decision to honor Carlos and Smith. Both men were members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which wanted a complete black boycott of the '68 Olympics. The group considered an entire generation of heroic black athletes, including Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson, to be Uncle Toms.
(Does ESPN endorse this piece of history, too? Yes? No? Hello?)
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