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Talking to all athletes, Olympian John Carlos says ‘it’s time for us to wake up’

He tells Coaches vs. Racism panel that athletes should realize their true worth

WASHINGTON — John Carlos sat a little bit more upright in his chair as the panel discussion he was a part of shifted to the empowerment of athletes, because he had a story to share. That story was about the wife of one of his coaches, who told the Olympic medalist that Carlos would be appreciative of all that her husband had done for him.

“I said, ‘the steaks on your table, I put those steaks on your table,’ ” Carlos remembers telling her. Carlos asked her to invite her husband to join the conversation.

“Coach, I told your wife I put those steaks on your table,” Carlos recalls saying. “When I run and when I’m breaking records, you eat good. 

“Don’t tell me about you giving me, I’m giving you.”

Carlos’ point, which he made during a panel on Friday put on by Coaches vs. Racism, the organization that launched the HBCU Roundball Classic: that athletes have to begin to realize their true worth and their true power when it comes to the decision-makers in sports.

“We’re not just this windup toy … that you send to the Olympics to represent America,” Carlos said. “Where would these coaches be if these Black athletes did not attend their colleges and universities? Where would America be if we chose not to go to the Olympics? Do you feel America would be as great as it is today without you?”

The panel on which Carlos appeared was held before the inaugural Coaches vs. Racism game where Michigan played Prairie View A&M. Before the panel, Carlos met players from both teams during a tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where there’s a statue of the iconic moment at the 1968 Games, when Carlos and Tommie Smith raised gloved fists on the victory podium following their 200-meter race.

That moment of activism at the 1968 Games caused great sacrifice for Carlos, who was banned from the Olympic team and forced to leave Mexico City. Despite facing death threats upon his return and having his livelihood impacted by his stance, Carlos has remained an outspoken activist for more than 50 years.

“Some people get into this for the moment,” Carlos told The Undefeated following the panel. “I’ve always been in this movement.”

For Carlos, the people who attach themselves to social causes “for the moment, and not for the movement” extends to the conversations about historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and whether there’s an opportunity for top high school players to play at Black colleges, such as five-star recruit Makur Maker’s decision to attend Howard University.

The moderator of the panel suggested that if enough athletes decided to play at HBCUs, it could result in swift change. Carlos told The Undefeated that’s not necessarily the case.

“While I think we’re working to the point where star athletes from all levels are starting to recognize they can go to a Black institution, it all depends on the balance of those schools,” Carlos said. “Well, balance in terms of institutions working in the best interest of those kids to get an education, in the sense the leaders of these institutions divide the money properly.

“You can get the door open and stick your foot in there,” Carlos said. “But it’s what you do afterwards that will determine if you’ll be successful, and I don’t see why it can’t be successful.”

That success, according to Carlos, will depend on Black athletes and Black institutions fully understanding their collective power.

“As I’ve always said, it’s not time for those in power to wake up,” Carlos said. “It’s time for us to wake up.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.