The NFL sideline protests have just commenced their third straight season. Defying league officials who in the off-season imposed financial penalties for demonstrating during the national anthem, some players during the first weekend of preseason games held up their fists or knelt, a silent protest over police brutality and other forms of institutional racism. President Trump’s willingness to jump back into the fray of the national debate, mockingly questioning whether the players even knew what they were outraged about, signals how divisive the issue remains across the country and across racial lines. This week, just days before the start of the new NFL season, Nike named Colin Kaepernick to its list of iconic athletes for launching the sideline protest, sparking a bitter social media campaign of people destroying their Nike apparel. If nothing else, the persistent furor surrounding the players’ activism demonstrates that when it comes to anthems, one man’s legitimate grievance is another’s grievously unpatriotic insult.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this came 50 years ago this autumn, in the politically charged climate of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Violence and repression captured headlines across the globe—from riots in America to clashes in the cities of Eastern Europe. In Mexico City, three winning athletes protested on the medal stand as national anthems played. Most of us know the story of two track stars, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who were lambasted for holding up black-gloved fists in a black power salute during the playing of the United States’ anthem. But few recall those games’ third protest, one that Americans, indeed much of the world, cheered unreservedly. Our differing reactions to those two moments reveal an uncomfortable truth about us, the viewers, more than anything about the athletes. And they help explain why common ground has proven so difficult to find on the NFL controversy. It turns out many of us love it when an athlete protests during a national anthem, so long as that anthem isn’t our own.
Before there was Simone Biles, Nadia Comaneci or Mary Lou Retton, Czechoslovak gymnast Vera Caslavska captured the world’s imagination. Winner of 11 Olympic medals (seven gold), Caslavska was the first charismatic, world-famous gymnast. In the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Caslavska took top honors in the women’s all-around gymnastics competition. In 1967 she became the first female gymnast to earn a perfect 10 in international competition. In 1968, she placed herself squarely at the center of one of the most significant events of the Cold War.
Starting in 1948, communist and totalitarian Czechoslovakia acted as a loyal satellite of the Soviet Union. For years the Czechoslovak government had strictly controlled the behavior of its people, prohibiting all dissent in the country and most travel to the West. But during the “Prague Spring” of 1968 the government reversed course to the delight of its citizens. New Communist leader Alexander Dubcek permitted genuine freedom of expression, released the press from government censorship and allowed travel without restriction.
Caslavska emerged as one of the most high-profile Czechoslovaks to come out in favor of the reforms, signing onto a widely-distributed manifesto that advocated for even greater freedoms and openness. The Soviets were quick to condemn the document and its signatories, fearing that Czechoslovakia’s break with Soviet orthodoxy might create a brush fire of rebellion among its satellites.
Early in the morning of August 21, 1968, thousands of Soviet tanks and a half a million Warsaw Pact troops rumbled across the Czechoslovakian border, crushing the incipient liberalization experiment. They arrested numerous Czechoslovak political leaders. People who had publicly supported the reforms appeared at risk as well.
Rightly fearing imprisonment for her advocacy of the reforms, in September Caslavska went into hiding. She trained in isolated secret in a small town in the Czechoslovakian mountains. Missing standard equipment, she reportedly lifted sacks of potatoes to keep up her strength, shoveled coal to build calluses, practiced her floor exercise in a meadow and solidified her other routines by both swinging from and dancing across tree branches.
In October, just days before the start of the games, she gained last-minute approval from the government to head to Mexico City. Her goal was not just to defend her all-around title. In her words, she planned to “sweat blood” to beat the representatives of Czechoslovakia’s invaders. Victory became essential to highlight her country’s plight at the hands of the Soviets.
In the U.S., what we most remember about those Games occurred during the first week of competition. After winning gold and bronze, respectively, in the men’s 200-meter dash, African-American athletes Smith and Carlos each raised a single black glove-covered fist on the medal stand to highlight problems of racial discrimination. Untold numbers of Americans at home reacted with shock and disgust at what they perceived as the athletes’ lack of decorum. Led by American Avery Brundage, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) openly censured the men for bringing politics into the Games and forced the U.S. Olympic Committee to expel Smith and Carlos from Mexico City.
Then all eyes turned toward Caslavska, who won her second straight overall women’s gymnastics title. Next, Caslavska dominated the four individual gymnastics events that followed, but twice found herself the victim of controversial judging decisions. A questionable ruling threw the gold medal in the balance beam to a Soviet, leaving Caslavska with the silver. And after Caslavska completed a floor exercise routine that brought down the house, an unusual retroactive upgrade of a Soviet gymnast’s score created a rare tie for first place.
In both cases, already enraged over the Soviets’ invasion of her home, Caslavska lashed out on the medal stand where she created a visual image to project her people’s voice. As the Soviet anthem played, Caslavska turned her head to the right and down, away from the raised Soviet flag. Shown widely on television, Caslavska’s defiance caught the attention of the international press, which made clear the gesture represented her disdain for the repressive regime that occupied her country.
Caslavska’s political stands made her more beloved than ever at home, but trouble awaited her there. She refused to withdraw her support for the country’s reformers and even bestowed her gold medals upon them. The new Soviet-backed government purged dissent from Czechoslovak life and banned Caslavska from all official gymnastics activities and foreign travel. At 26-years old, Caslavska was unlikely to compete much longer, but she had expected to become a coach. Instead, now blackballed by the government, she struggled to make a living over the coming years.
Yet the world has viewed Caslavska and her protest in an overwhelmingly positive light. Caslavska broke out as the clear star of the Games, and one poll reportedly showed her to be the world’s second most popular woman, behind only Jackie Kennedy. In the 1980s, while the Soviet Union still maintained control over her homeland, the IOC awarded Caslavska the “Olympic Order” for her “particularly distinguished contribution to the Olympic Movement.”
Why was the reaction to Caslavska’s defiance so different from what Smith and Carlos faced and the backlash against the NFL protesters today?
First, it is hard to dismiss the significance of the fact that the Caslavska protest was somewhat subtle and carried out by a small white woman rather than large black men. Like Smith and Carlos, nearly all of the NFL protesters are African-American. Meanwhile, the public perception of the NFL protests diverges sharply along racial lines, with most blacks supporting them and an overwhelming majority of whites opposing such acts.
Second, the targets of the protests were very different. Caslavska’s stand aimed at a specific act committed by a despised, bullying, external Goliath, who was the enemy of much of her audience. In contrast, the American protests turn a mirror inward, toward problems of racial injustice in America. By targeting ills of American society, the protests implicitly indicted America and Americans at the very moment they wanted to feel pride in a national victory.
People don’t like to feel criticized when they sit down to watch a sporting event, so they push to restrain the expression of such indictments. Indeed, 1968 American critics of Smith and Carlos did not dispute the runners’ message. Rather, they lashed out at the runners’ “conduct,” their act of political expression on the medal stand. Most critics today do not challenge the merits of the issues raised by the NFL protesters. Instead, they attack the protests as unpatriotic and outside what is considered acceptable behavior. (In a little remembered footnote to the 1968 controversy, Peter Norman, the Australian silver medalist in the 200-meter sprint, was rebuked by his countrymen for wearing a badge on his jacket in support of the Americans and their anti-racism message. He was left off the 1972 Olympic team, despite running qualifying times.)
Strikingly, such critiques tend to come from those who feel targeted, even if indirectly or symbolically, by the protests. The comparison to the Caslavska protest is telling. Caslavska’s anthem etiquette was similar to that of the American protesters, but her statement was not aimed at us. Her story reminds us that, despite constant claims to the contrary, we do not always decry the entry of politics into sports or even into the playing of a country’s anthem. At times, as long as we do not see ourselves as the target of the protest, we even salute it.