Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar join with San Jose State to launch social activism institute
Hotbed of ’60s activism to look at challenges for today’s athlete-activists
It’s been hard to spot a headline lately that doesn’t include the words activism, protest, boycott or social justice.
Some conditions have improved, but racial tension and pleas for equality prompt plenty of unanswered questions.
To help find answers beyond the headlines, sociologist and civil rights activist Harry Edwards and San Jose State University (SJSU) launched the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change on Tuesday.
The kickoff event, held on SJSU’s campus, featured Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tommie Smith, Takeo Spikes, Chris Webber and Anquan Boldin, along with The Undefeated’s editor-in-chief, Kevin Merida, senior NBA writer Marc Spears and others. Two panels discussed what modern activism looks like, and how protest can be turned into progress.
Panelist Danielle Slaton, a former member of the U.S. women’s national soccer team and current sideline reporter for the San Jose Earthquakes, said she hopes that athletes use their platforms to pursue change. Sports columnist Ann Killion agreed, but said activism is something that can’t be forced.
“It’s got to come from the heart,”Killion said. “It’s got to be real. You can’t force anyone to be an activist … Sometimes you have to get shocked into taking action, and that’s for athletes too. I don’t think because someone is an athlete that we can expect just because they have a platform, we should insist that they use it.”
“In 2017, there are a lot of things that are new but there are a lot of things that are still the same,” Slaton added. “But I feel like my personal mantra and what I hope for athletes, what I hope for media, what I hope for everyone is don’t let what I can’t do stop me from doing what I can. It might not be perfect, it might not come out in the right way all the time, but there’s always something I can do. It’s not always knowing what to do, but doing what I know is right.”
The panel of athletes, including Brown, Spikes, Abdul-Jabbar, Webber, Boldin and Smith, addressed the point of view of athletes who have been spoken out against social injustice.
Abdul-Jabbar believes the power and influence athletes possess are enough to raise the consciousness of those who look up to them. For instance, it was NBA Hall of Famer Bill Russell who led Abdul-Jabbar to find his own voice.
“A lot of young people really admire athletes, they want to be like them,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “They’re interested in what [athletes are] interested in and just by being curious about what the athletes they admire are doing, a lot of young people find their way to social activism. I know in my life, just reading some of the things Bill Russell wrote enabled me to understand how I had to approach my activism and it really helped me. People didn’t want to hear about how angry you were, they wanted to hear what the issue was. Communicating your anger can really lead people not to listen to what your issues are.”
Boldin, a veteran wide receiver for the Detroit Lions and the panel’s only current athlete, said that players who fear fan backlash or losing endorsements for speaking out should look at the bigger picture.
“You just have to put in perspective what’s important,” Boldin said. “Yeah, you may lose endorsements or something like that, but I think it’s more important to be able to shape the world your kids are going to come up in. You have to be unselfish. We have a great life, but think about the ones that came before us that didn’t have the opportunities that we have now. It’s because of what they stood for and what they stood against, so we have to do the same thing for those behind us.”
Smith reflected on the similarities and differences from his time as an activist in the 1960s and activism today. Smith wants modern athletes to stretch beyond themselves and the fear that keeps them from speaking on issues they strongly believe in.
“There’s always going to be some type of challenge after you make any type of stand, so you must be ready for that stand,” he said. “I think there’s redemption in positive challenges a lot of us don’t take because we’re afraid.”
The former SJSU track and field star was grateful to be back on the grounds of a place he calls home. In the center of the campus stands a 23-foot-tall statute of Smith and teammate John Carlos made of steel, fiberglass and colorful ceramic tiles. The two men stand frozen atop an Olympic podium, heads bowed and fists to the sky — a silent protest during the medal ceremony of the 1968 Mexico City Games that led to their suspension by the U.S. Olympic Committee and expulsion from the Olympic Village.
“I look at it and cry almost every time I see it because I see the eyes of that 24-year-old youngster Tommie Smith back then, fighting for a cause which he understood but could not get directly in the limelight of explanation because I didn’t have words for the feeling I had,” Smith said. “I didn’t find it until the spirit made me do what I did in Mexico City. History is repeating itself, and I want to be part of that repeat.”
The statue represents a movement and fight that continues today. With the founding of the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change at a university with a rich history of social activism, Smith hopes that he’ll be around to see the impact he knows the institute will make on society.
“There’s a lot of people with the ability, with the resolution, and action that Dr. Martin Luther King had,” Smith said. “They’re still here, we just haven’t found it, but it is coming. We are not in this forum in San Jose where the Olympic Project for Human Rights first started almost 50 years ago just for television. … This forum, this school of social change is going to bring about some magical solutions. We’re not looking at 20 years. We’re looking at five years or less. I hope God keeps me here so that I can come back, look at you in the face and say, ‘Do you see what I mean?’ ”