Inside Colin Kaepernick and John Carlos’ everlasting bond: ‘Players change but the game stays the same’
By WALLACE MATTHEWS New York Daily News
March 04, 2019 12:00 AM
Taking a knee: How Colin Kaepernick started an NFL movement
Nearly a half-century before Colin Kaepernick took a knee, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised a fist.
The sight of two black American athletes, one a gold medalist and the other a bronze, standing on the podium with their heads bowed and their black leather glove encased fists in the air while the National anthem played at the Mexico City Olympics, became one of the most iconic images of the 1960s.
So it is hardly surprising that 50 years later, fate and a similar set of circumstances have brought Kaepernick and Carlos together to discuss how far race relations in this country have come since that explosive summer of 1968 – and how much further they still have to go.
“Mr. Kaepernick is one of those individuals who step out from the norm and make their presence known because no one else is doing it,” Carlos, 73, said by telephone from his home in Atlanta. “It was a very courageous thing he did and I support him.”
The two first came together shortly after Kaepernick began his protest in 2016 when the two were in New York on separate business matters. It was Carlos who first reached out to Kaepernick but soon, the younger man was asking the older man for a guidance and a sense of what was to come for him.
“He wanted to know what it was like for me and Tommie 50 years ago,” Carlos said. “I told him it was pretty much the same scenario he’s in now, that only the dates have changed. I told him I’m sure it was the same for Jack Johnson, and for Paul Robeson, and Jackie Robinson and anyone else who came before us. The players change but the game stays the same.”
For Carlos and Smith, it meant immediate expulsion from the Olympic Village by IOC Chairman Avery Brundage, who had no problem with the Nazi salute when he headed the USOC at the 1936 Berlin Games but was outraged by what was called a “Black Power” salute in 1968.
And there was a bitter irony in the treatment of Carlos and Smith by the compliant USOC. “They excluded us from the team,” Carlos said, “but they didn’t exclude us from the medal count.”
The expulsion meant Carlos and Smith had to pass up attending George Foreman’s gold medal final bout for fear of physical harm directed at them and their wives from the crowd. It meant years of unemployment and stigma. And, like Muhammad Ali, who was enduring his own exile at the time, it meant a gradual acceptance by White America.
Over the past 10 years, Carlos has been awarded three honorary doctorates. A bronze statue of him and Smith on the medal stand now stands on the campus of San Jose State University. The two men have been honored with the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the 2008 ESPY Awards, and both delivered eulogies and served as pallbearers at the funeral of Peter Norman, the Australian sprinter who took the silver medal in their 200-meter final and stood in support with them on the medal stand.
Carlos believes that at some point, a similar destiny may await Kaepernick, who recently accepted a settlement in his anti-collusion lawsuit against the NFL.
“I think he did it for the same reason Tommie and I did it,” Carlos said. “For his children and for individuals who come after him. Maybe someday people will realize that.”
Of course, Kaepernick’s situation is quite different from Carlos’. Despite being kept off the football field for the past two years, Kaepernick did earn $14 million in his last NFL season and has since scored an endorsement deal with Nike. The terms of the settlement with the NFL were not released but is safe to assume there were monetary considerations, which has led some to criticize Kaepernick as a sellout who abandoned his principles for some NFL cash.
“Anyone who thinks that hasn’t really thought the situation through,” Carlos said. “All those years that he sat out no one was concerned about the millions of dollars he was losing. Nobody was worried about the sacrifice he was making. So now it’s not right to criticize him for settling the lawsuit.”
One bit of advice Carlos did give Kaepernick was one that the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback may not have wanted to hear.
“I told him that if he was going to stick to his principles, to not even consider going back to football,” Carlos said. “He had his hopes and prayers that he was going to play again, but I told him that once he was out, it was going to be very difficult to get back in. And if they did let him back in, it would only be to crush his ego, to show him that he’s not good enough anymore.”
With the settlement, Kaepernick is now free to pursue a return to the league, but at 31 years old and with two years of inactivity behind him, the chances of a successful return are probably slim.
“I told him that once he was out, it was going to be very difficult to get back in. And if they did let him back in, it would only be to crush his ego.”
“I don’t think that was crystal-clear in his mind when he made this decision,” Carlos said. “I don’t think he realized how when you make a statement like he did, it spills over into far greater than yourself. It affects everyone around you.”
Carlos said that after the protest, he and Smith found themselves pariahs in the world of track and field, despite their athletic dominance. They found that long-time friends on the Olympic team avoided them. Much the same way most NFL players refused to join Kaepernick in his protest against police brutality, no one wanted to share the taint of being a “troublemaker” with Carlos and Smith.
“It hurt at first but you can’t hold a vendetta against people who walk away. Instead, you have to try to understand why they walked away,” Carlos said. “It took me awhile to understand it wasn’t personal, it wasn’t because they didn’t like or respect me. It was the fear of reprisals. They saw what was happening to me and my family and they didn’t want that to happen to them.”
Over the years, Carlos has reconnected with Foreman, who made a stir of his own by parading around the ring waving a tiny American flag after winning his gold medal bout, a move some thought was in answer to Carlos and Smith’s protest.
“George is my best buddy in the world,” Carlos said. “Pappy Gault (the U.S. Olympic Boxing Coach) stuck that flag in his hand and told him to wave it. That made George a star and he thanks me for it to this day.”
Carlos said he and Kaepernick have not spoken since he settled the lawsuit two weeks ago – “He’s a kind of reclusive type of guy,” – but said that the next time one of them picks up the phone, he will have some advice for the exiled QB.
“This thing is your train and you’ve got to drive it,” he said, referring to the need for Kaepernick to keep up the fight. “Now that you’ve proved your point, you can’t go dormant. Now’s the time to turn the volume up.”
The same way he and Smith raised their fists while the world was watching, John Carlos believes Colin Kaepernick must raise his voice while the world is listening.
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