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MacKenna On Monday: Evil Triumphing By Sportspeople Doing Nothing

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“I’m going to speak the truth when I’m asked about it. This isn’t for look, this isn’t for publicity or anything like that. This is for people that don’t have the voice.” – Colin Kaepernick

On October 16th, the 50th anniversary of Tommie Smith‘s and John Carlos’s seminal moment subtly passed by all too quietly.

That day in 1968 was, after all, one of the most iconic in sports history, as the gold and bronze medalists made their black power salute in the same year as Martin Luther King Jnr’s assassination. The world needed their courage.

But there was a third man on the podium in Mexico City that had come between them in the 200m final. If they were in the middle of their battle for the most basic human rights, then Peter Norman was about to start his own personal battle for refusing to back down.

The Australian became known simply as ‘the white man in that photo’ until his story was beautifully documented in Italian some years back by Riccardo Gazzaniga. The Genoa writer talked of how it was Norman’s suggestion that they wear one black glove, with the US duo having realised they’d only a pair between them, and he also had other words about it all.

“I believe in what you believe,” he said before they took centre stage. “Do you have another one of those for me,” he asked, pointing at their Olympic Project for Human Rights badges. “That way I can show my support in your cause.” Smith later admitted his shock. “Who is this white Australian guy? He won his silver medal, can’t he just take it and that be enough.”

As for Carlos, his recollection was of the fortitude that would be punished as if a negative trait. “We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat, and he said, ‘I’ll stand with you’. I expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes; instead we saw love.”

Smith and Carlos were of course suspended from their Olympic team and kicked clean from the village but while they’d go down in history, Norman instead disappeared into history.

Gangrene.

Depression.

Alcoholism.

Jobs in a butcher shop and as a gym teacher.

An outcast.

Indeed after those Games, the nation Norman returned home to had its own problems around human rights and apartheid laws. Australia didn’t like his compliance in challenging this racist and animalistic status quo and he was given one chance to redeem himself and was asked to condemn what Smith and Carlos had done in order to gain a pardon. He refused to budge from such decency and it cost him so much. By 2000 he wasn’t even invited to the Sydney Games.

Norman died in 2006 yet it wasn’t until 2012 – a disgusting and disgraceful 44 years after his actions – that the Australian Parliament finally apologised formally. Too little, too late.

“We recognise the extraordinary athletic achievements of the late Peter Norman, who won the silver medal in the 200 meters sprint running event at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, in a time of 20.06 seconds, which still stands as the Australian record,” they said.

“We acknowledge the bravery of Peter Norman in donning an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on the podium, in solidarity with African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who gave the ‘black power’ salutes,” they said.

“We apologise to Peter Norman for the wrong done by Australia in failing to send him to the 1972 Munich Olympics, despite repeatedly qualifying, and belatedly recognises the powerful role that Peter Norman played in furthering racial equality,” they said.

Never a man of his time, and yet a man for all time.

* * *

Remembering Peter Norman’s story around the strength and righteous belief of one person, and the weakness and bullying cowardice of the society all around him, Colin Kaepernick came to mind. So much about the quarterback and this present seem to be a repetition.

As we stand on the edge of an abyss, failing to stare ahead and thus see what will likely come next, the quarterback is the easy target the far-right have always fed on and profited from. In fact, given the stench of various elements of fascism that more and more are pockmarking the planet, we are heading into a deep, dark hole and Kaepernick may for a while become no more than ‘the black guy in that photo’. The hope is we’ll finally emerge back into the light and he’ll be admired.

That’ll likely take quite some time though, for just look around at what the narrative is.

On that 50th anniversary, Donald Trump didn’t have so much as a solitary word to say about it. Instead, he was busy on Twitter, calling the porn star he cheated on his wife with “horseface”. She responded by questioning the size of his manhood, hinted at “a penchant for beastiality” and social media loved it. And some actually think humanity is evolving.

It’s why Kaepernick is understood by so few. Many despise him for daring to take a stand against a wrong that doesn’t affect them; many more try to ridicule his reasons and point to fame and a Nike deal outside of his sport, exuding the same sort of priorities of those that talk about the markets rather than morals, and who know price but never the value.

The truth is that these aren’t mere stunts anymore, they are hugely risky stands.

That’s because of an attitude that comes from the very top and trickles on down. Trump has never had much to say about heroes in sport – or any sphere for that matter – as his message and his power is based on fear and loathing. Kaepernick was therefore always going to be on his radar for no more than daring to take a knee during the national anthem, a song that is supposed to represent amongst other things a freedom of choice and a right of peaceful protest.

Even before his election, Trump was using this man standing up for those who can’t stand for themselves in his country as a punchbag and a vote winner.

“The NFL is way down in their ratings,” Trump taunted. He said that politics was “a much rougher game than football,” and “we’ve taken a lot of people away from the NFL”. If it was broad, subtlety was removed when he next went after the poster-boy of the protest campaign directly.

“The other reason is Kaepernick! Kaepernick! Maybe he should find a country that works better for him.”

Since then he’s continued to bully and it is working as the number of NFL athletes protesting during the US anthem has fallen rapidly with just two of 2,880 players on the sidelines this preseason kneeling with another one choosing to sit.

The NFL is quite a place for someone to take a stand though (and we should not forget the San Francisco cheerleader who took a knee on Thursday, and no doubt will face a torrent of bile and hate for expressing beliefs via basic rights).

Of all the major leagues in the States, it is the closest to the base Trump pours petrol on the fire for. Research shows that more than four-fifths of its fans are white, the vast majority are more likely to vote Republican than Democrat, and yet more than 70 per cent of the players are black.

It’s the modern-day dance-for-me-boy effort, but Kaepernick refused to dance and was ostracised.

One front-office executive even told Bleacher Report, “I don’t want him anywhere near my team. He’s a traitor.”

In this era, people are blocked from work because of their beliefs.

That’s worth digesting for some while.

That’s surely worth standing up for.

* * *

There are many things that America exports.

Some products. Some services. Some attitudes.

Take the political revolution that is happening before us right now, pulsing out from the States like a radar signal. For a country that cries crimes over Russia interfering in their election, they’ve done some serious damage elsewhere. To various extremes and degrees, their lead and interference has played a part in a shift from Italy to Austria, Hungary to Poland, the Philippines to Brazil. Those last two are perhaps the most severe cases we’ve seen thus far.

Rodrigo Duterte has for instance now managed to normalise police executions and his reward is a well done and a handshake from the most powerful man on the planet. Expect more of the same as Trump has already backed up Jair Bolsonaro who has said homosexual children should be whipped straight, that black people are fat and lazy and that their activists should be in zoos, that migrants are scum, that he will cleanse political opponents as he has threatened media, and told a congresswoman twice she was too ugly to rape.

He isn’t the only supporter though for there’s been a fair old trail of big sports stars that backed him in advance of his election win last weekend. Ronaldinho may have been the most high profile to laud promises similar to the early 1930s, but there was a line behind him from Felipe Melo to Jadson to Lucas Moura. Opening the doors to the darkest powers.

Of course, we shouldn’t care what they think of politics and we shouldn’t get our moral guidance from sportspeople to begin with, but that’s one more export of the States too. The idea that celebrity is something we should listen to on all matters as if experts.

Slowly in this political climate that enters a new era, there’s no room for debate. Facts that supporters of the far-right don’t like can online can be destroyed with the click of a block button. The media have been vilified to the point they are seen as people to attack and not engage with. Even in person, it’s grim.

Recently in the United States, talking with a couple in their late 20s about Trump’s immigration policy, some truths saw the female stand up and start screaming “lock her up”. It’s one more learnt term to save engagement with reality. It’s the same elsewhere with “fake news” a knee-jerk worldwide reaction to a differing opinion, while in Brazil highlighting instances of fascism is usually met with screams of, “Communist”.

Yet we listen to celebrity. Only celebrity. It’s why Kanye and Kim have both been to the White House and it’s why Kaepernick is so important right now. The problem is where are the others?

When you are good at sport, this is something that wasn’t part of the deal. It’s easier to take the wages and not offend your employer, and take the endorsements without controversy threatening the zeroes tagged to the end, but is that good enough anymore?

This isn’t some healthy debate between social democracy, socialism and conservatism where all that’s at stake are tax rates and dole rates. That’s not to minimise that normal political discourse, it’s just that it pales beside the severity of what’s at stake now.

It’s not sportspeople’s duty but given their numbers and growing status, you’d think more would be troubled enough to stand up and talk because people listen. Sadly though if the politics is cyclical, so is the opposition in this sphere and reaction to those who speak. Before there were three men on a podium. Now there’s one American footballer out of a job.

It reminds of the basic wisdom that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is good people doing nothing and today there are plenty of good sports people doing nothing.

In this era, Kaepernick is largely lonely in never being a man of this time, but being a man for all time.

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Author: Ewan MacKenna

One of the country's top sports journalists, and a recipient of Irish Sports Journalist of the Year.