Beautiful Protest

This month marks fifty years since the 1968 Mexico Games, most often recalled for the athlete protests they spotlighted as part of that year’s global turbulence. But while popular memory focuses upon the Olympians and professionals whose actions, rhetoric, and examples helped draw attention to injustices, what about the athletes they inspired?

I’ve previously written about Bill Cain, the New York-born Iowa State Hall of Famer who, though selected by the Portland Trailblazers in their maiden 1970 NBA draft, instead embarked upon a professional basketball career in France. My New Yorker piece, “French Basketball From Cain to Batum,” focused on the unique links between the naturalized Frenchman and one of the Charlotte Hornets’ ‘Frenchies,’ Nicolas Batum, while my Franco-Chinese hoops diplomacy work is informed by Cain’s experience with Les Bleus when they toured the People’s Republic in August 1980. Yes, crazy stuff on the sport-identity-cultural exchange front! But before any of this intriguing backstory began, Cain was a student-athlete at Iowa State who in Fall 1968 was inspired to ‘do something’—one example of how Carlos and Smith had an impact well beyond the professional and Olympic domains.

It was a ‘hot’ semester on campus in Ames, Iowa, with increased tensions between students, faculty, and the university administration over civil rights and social injustice. On October 25, 1968, Cain’s letter to the editor about Carlos and Smith’s “Beautiful Protest” was published by the Iowa State Daily, a move that kicked off his activist student-athlete stance.  

“If you are a Black American and watched the Olympics this past week,” Cain wrote, “you would have been proud of the black unity demonstration by trackmen Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Both these men dared to expose white America as it really is and to show the black people of America they should be proud of being black.” 

Cain congratulated the men for their stand and noted that the Olympics were hardly free of political controversy. “Nothing was said about the conflict between Russia and the Czechs bringing their political issues to the Olympics,” he wrote, “or for that matter the Mexican student revolt which has put the Olympics on an unstable foundation.”

But for Cain, Smith and Carlos’ actions were personal.

“As a black athlete here at Iowa State, I think the demonstration was beautiful,” he wrote. “It made me proud to be part of this black generation and movement and to be a black athlete.”

It was an unprecedented move for the player nicknamed “Mr. Steady” on the court, and he received some backlash on campus. One student wrote, “Bill Cain has again ‘done his thing’ – opened his mouth and stuck his basketball shoe in it!!” Another responded, “I am sickened by the fact that any athlete regardless of color uses his moments in the public spotlight as a sounding board for a moral political problem.”

As one of the first of the student-athletes to vocally speak out against social injustice, Cain cut a unique path. “This is college. We’re supposed to learn and expand,” Cain told me in October 2014 of why he wanted to spread his wings. Cain pointed to the people from different backgrounds and countries who he met in classes around campus. “When you’re in college, it really makes you think,” he said of how these classmates’ experiences and divergent views of issues like the 1967 Six Days’ War introduced him to diverse ways of thinking.  

But Cain’s outspokenness didn’t stop with that first letter. In response to attacks on his “Beautiful Protest” letter, the 6-6 center asked:

“What will be the students’ reaction if I failed to salute the American flag? My answer to that,” he wrote, “is to come to the first home basketball game and watch number fifty!”

While the point was meant to be rhetorical, many people around campus took it verbatim, including Cain’s coach, Glendon Anderson.

 “Bill, what’s this story?” was Coach Anderson’s reaction as his player tried to explain how his sentiment was taken out of context.

When the basketball player approached the ISD editor about writing a rebuttal, he was instead offered a regular column through which to voice his opinions. Thus, “Cain’s Scrutiny” was born, a bimonthly column that explored topics such as race, patriotism, struggles of African American athletes, and the Vietnam War.

Cain maintained his newfound public voice even as the Big Eight’s basketball schedule got underway. “Cain’s steady play has helped the Cyclones gel early in the season,” wrote Tom Vint, ISD’s Assistant Sports Editor that December. “His performances thus far have proved he is the ball player capable of doing the job and doing it well.”

Collective memory of athlete activism in 1968 is focused on professionals and Olympians, but the stories of NCAA student-athletes inspired to take action should also be part of how we remember this seminal year. Their experiences help contextualize how the actions of a few in the media spotlight trickled down and provoked grassroots activism across the country.