It wasn’t so much that the five St. Louis Rams who gave the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” signal during pregame introductions were using sports to make a statement – it was the sort of statement they made that set them apart.
American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos set the standard for athletes hoping to take a political message to the highest level of sports – raising their gloved fists while atop the medals stand at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968.
Carlos applauded the gesture made Sunday by the Rams – Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Jared Cook – saying if an athlete “thinks something is unjust, he has the right to say something about it.”
“You have a right, as an athlete, to express who you are,” Carlos said in an interview with The Associated Press. “People can make their own determination as to whether you were right or wrong.”
Carlos and Smith got booed out of the stadium and kicked out of the Olympics. During the racially charged 1960s, their Black Power gesture was deemed too political and divisive, both by a large segment of the public and the leader of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage.
Not everyone agreed with the Rams’ stance, either. The St. Louis Police Officers Association called on the NFL to apologize and discipline the players. The NFL and the Rams said Monday that the players would not be punished.
The pose has come to symbolize a movement, even though witnesses offered conflicting accounts of whether 18-year-old Michael Brown had his hands up in surrender when he was killed by Ferguson officer Darren Wilson in August.
The fact that the five Rams weren’t taking an easy stance could lend their moment a bit longer shelf life in this, the age of the 24-hour news cycle and the easily distracted consumer. They are the latest in a long line of athletes who have spoken out for political and social change: Among them, Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King and, more recently, LeBron James and the Miami Heat, who took a team picture wearing hoodies, the same thing Trayvon Martin was wearing when he was shot to death in 2012.
“This doesn’t have anywhere near the impact of doing what Smith and Carlos did on the Olympic medal stand, but NFL players in the middle of a heated controversy, that imagery will be remembered,” said Arthur Caplan, a doctor at New York University who serves on the school’s Sports and Society program. “It becomes part of the lore when athletes take a moral stand. It also has staying power because others reacted to it critically.”
The officers association called the gesture “tasteless, offensive and inflammatory.”
The exact circumstances surrounding Brown’s death will remain in dispute. Wilson, who is white, shot and killed Brown, who was black and unarmed, on Aug. 9. A grand jury’s decision last week not to indict Wilson set off renewed protests, some of which turned violent.
Wilson told the grand jury that he shot Brown in self-defense. But several witnesses said Brown had his hands up in surrender. Within hours, “Hands Up. Don’t Shoot!” became the rallying cry for protesters.
Cornerback Chris Harris of the Broncos said he didn’t think the players should be punished, but knows they could pay a price in different ways.
“It’s freedom of speech. This is the USA, and they had a choice of what they did,” Harris said. “But you’ve got to understand, the St. Louis police protects them, too. So, they’ve got to be careful of what they’re doing.”
The Rams didn’t make players available for interviews Monday. After the game, those involved in the gesture said they stood by what they had done.
“I don’t want the people in the community to feel like we turned a blind eye to it,” Britt said. “What would I like to see happen? Change in America.”
That’s what Smith and Carlos were hoping for, as well, back in the 1960s, and it’s why Carlos was supportive of what he saw Sunday.
“An athlete eats, sleeps, breathes and he’s going to die, just like anyone else,” he said. “If an individual gets hurt or killed, he’s as concerned as anyone. If he thinks it’s unjust, he has the right to say so.”