Padecky: Olympian Tommie Smith knows the price of an athlete's protest

The man who risked it all - and lost most of it - the man who made Colin Kaepernick’s social protest last year look like an afternoon tea, was talking about Fruit Loops, the cereal that was his breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“I had nothing,” Tommie Smith said.

Athletes, like sportswriters and 7-year-olds, are prone to exaggeration.

“Nothing!” said Smith, raising his voice. “You hear me? NOTHING!”

Yes, Tommie Smith may have left Mexico City in 1968, but it’s clear Mexico City has not left him. How could it? More so, why should it? Smith in Mexico City is Jesse Owens in front of Hitler, Muhammad Ali in front of the draft board, Jackie Robinson in front of white baseball players. Smith and John Carlos complete the five-person athletic advisory board for social justice.

A concept worth revisiting today.

When Smith stood on the Olympic podium in 1968, having just won the 200 meters with a world record, with Carlos behind him on the third-place platform, both men raised their straightened arms, their black-gloved fists clenched.

The reaction was swift and uncompromising. Everyone flee to the bunkers. America had just come under attack.

“A Nazi-like salute,” wrote the Los Angeles Times. “An embarrassment … an insult to their countrymen,” wrote the Chicago Tribune. “A pair of black-skinned storm troopers,” wrote Brent Musburger, then a sportswriter.

“I knew there would be problems,” said Smith, 72, who spoke at Sonoma State University’s Student Center Tuesday night. “My life was threatened before I ever left for Mexico City but, still, I didn’t know how bad it would get. I didn’t know it would get so harsh.”

A brick was hurled through the plate-glass window of his home. It flew into the room that contained a crib and his six-month-old son, Kevin. Smith’s head was on the proverbial swivel, looking front-and-back every day, every moment, at every face, to see what was on it.

“I watched everything,” he said. Smith said it with a Biblical finality. He was kicked off the U.S. Olympic team. Medals taken away. Told to go home. They were athletes. Didn’t they know their place? Perform. Keep your mouth shut. Keep your opinions to yourself. Keep your actions PG-13. Hug babies and cancer kids. Otherwise, keep us amused by being a physical specimen. You’re on stage; stay on stage. A suffocating mentality, Smith believes, exists to this day.

“We’re entertainers,” Smith said simply of athletes.

Truth to tell, there’s not a pro athlete today who would do what Smith and Carlos did in 1968. Not one. Oh, you say, I’m wrong? There’s a lot of courage out there. Look at Kap. Look at what he went through. Let’s examine that. First, let’s see what Smith had going for him.

“I wasn’t on scholarship anymore (at San Jose State),” he said. “I didn’t have a job. I had no coach. I was still a junior in college, so I had no education.”

But Smith did have Fruit Loops.

“When Puma (the shoe company) came to me and asked me how much money I wanted,” Smith said, “I said I didn’t want money. I wanted Similac for my baby. I didn’t even have baby food.”

Last year, when Kaepernick took a knee or sat for the pregame National Anthem, he was under contract with the 49ers for $11.9 million. Of course the NFL is harboring a grudge and Kaepernick is still paying for it, without a team in April. It won’t last. The NFL is a quarterback-desperate institution. A team will take a chance on a quarterback with two left feet if he can throw a 50-yard slant. Someone will even take a chance on Johnny Manziel if he swears on a bottle of Jack he’ll never be a knucklehead ever again.

“Promises were made before the Olympics,” Smith said. All he had to do was remain an entertainer. All he had to do was ignore the America around him, the angry America. He couldn’t and the NFL walked away. Smith, 6-foot-4, 195 pounds, was a high school All-American in football, basketball and track and field.

His phone stayed silent - until Bill Walsh called in 1969. Walsh was an assistant coach at the time for the Cincinnati Bengals. Wanna a job? It pays $300 a week if you make our taxi squad.

“I got the NFL record for the biggest yard-per-catch average by a wide receiver,” Smith said. “One catch. 41 yards. I came over the middle, reached for the pass and George Atkinson (Oakland Raiders) clobbered me. Dislocated my shoulder. I saw George last year and I asked him why he hit me so hard. He said, ‘I had no choice.’”

Smith spent a little time in the Canadian Football League but he was still persona non grata in this country. In 1972 Smith hit as close to bottom as he could imagine. He called sprinter Lee Evans, his former Olympic teammate. He needed a place to crash for a while.

“All I had was a ’65 Chevy,” Smith said. And the memory of working in the fields in San Joaquin County with his sharecropper father. Twelve-hour night shifts after going to grammar and high school during the day, with five hours to sleep in the middle of the shift if the irrigation water was flowing. And damned if he was going back to that hardscrabble. So he got his bachelor’s and master’s in sociology. He started teaching at Oberlin College and then at Santa Monica College, 34 years as a sociology professor.

Opinion toward him softened. He was a black man raising a fist, but people learned it was Smith protesting injustice for all - his being more noticeable because he was an African-American at the Olympic Games and, gosh, no one since Jesse brought the real world into the Olympics and that had been 36 years ago.

“I’d rather be disliked for who I am,” Smith said, “than loved for who I am not.”

And so Smith took the heat. He didn’t ask for bodyguards. He went out there and didn’t hide. He answered all the questions, even the ones he heard a million times. He never blanched, never hid, and for the people old enough to remember, they responded. When he was introduced Tuesday night, SSU baseball coach John Goelz, 62, was the first person to stand and welcome him with applause. The other 250 people soon did the same.

“Today I’m not scared anymore,” said Smith, who lives in the Atlanta area and does about 15 speeches a year. “I look for smiles now, not snickers.”

The way he spoke, issuing self-deprecating humor for sometimes losing track of a question, Smith came across as this kindly old gentleman who has a story to spin. But the activist in him has never died. You don’t do what Smith in ’68 and leave it.

“In my day, when we protested,” Smith said, “we pulled out a knife. Today we pull out history books. So you (people for social justice) can step on my shoulders anytime. But if you do me wrong, I’ll kill you.”

No grandfatherly smile crossed his face when he said that. This was Tommie Smith, age 24, talking. This was Tommie Smith, born on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and maybe that’s when the world might have guessed what was coming. This was Tommie Smith who found his life in just 19.83 seconds. If Tommie Smith doesn’t make that podium, he doesn’t raise his closed fist above his head. He becomes just another Olympic athlete. His name and the never-delivered message fade into history.

So Tommie Smith found his life in those 19.83 seconds. He found his calling, his direction and if some still find his actions an embarrassment, Nazi-like, an athlete masquerading as a storm trooper, they need to look inside their anger - because Tommie Smith has none.

“I’d do it all over again,” he said.

To contact Bob Padecky email him at

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