Free Speech ‘Actually More Important Than Sports’

Corporate media may have belatedly embraced the historic black power gestures of 1968 Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos, but sports media critic Dave Zirin tells (Nation, 11/7/08) of how a modern-day version by one NFL player drew immediate condemnation:

[Denver Broncos receiver Brandon] Marshall’s plan was to score a touchdown on Thursday night and then take out a black-and-white glove and hold it up to the sky. “I wanted to create that symbol of unity because Obama inspires me, our multicultured society,” he said after the game, choked with tears…. “I wanted to make my own statement and gesture to represent the progress we made.”…

But Marshall was blocked from making his statement, mainly by two white teammates, Brandon Stokley and Tony Scheffler, who feared that NFL refs, who typically frown on displays of individuality, might penalize the team and cost them the game. “The image of two white players surrounding a black player to block his political statement is the antithesis of the very ideas Marshall was attempting to communicate, Zirin notes….

Yet the reaction from ESPN was even worse. The first talking head back at the SportsCenter headquarters took a shot at Marshall’s emotional press conference saying, “Well, the sentiment is exactly right, even if the speechwriting needs some work.” His partner then said of Marshall, “It’s not about you or what you think. It’s about the team and what they need to do.” Ex-player turned broadcaster (and sometime soap opera star) Mark Schlereth called it “the best play of Stokley’s career.”

… But maybe Marshall thought that the moment was more important than the game…. Instead of derision, Marshall merited our respect–sports fan or not…. The image of a pro football player raising a black-and-white hand to the skies 40 years after Smith and Carlos and two days after the election of a black president in a country built on slavery could have echoed through the ages. Someone should tell the suits and ESPN: Some things are actually more important than sports.

Listen to FAIR’s radio program CounterSpin: Dave Zirin on Politics & Sports (10/21/05)