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Musburger and the ’68 Human Rights Salute

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No voice in college sports is as ubiquitous and widely known as Brent Musburger’s. He has provided play-by-play for the biggest college football and basketball games since the 1980s, first with CBS and now with ABC Sports/ESPN. Now 73, He’ll be calling games at the highest level of the former for at least two more years.

Ironically, the man whose down-home mannerisms and sayings have made him entwined with college sports didn’t put himself on the map with something that he said. But rather something he wrote.

Does the phrase “black-skinned storm troopers” ring a bell? That was how an article for the now-defunct Chicago American described sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith following their “human rights salute” on the medal stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics, a testament to the Civil Rights movement.

The author of that story? None other than a 29-year-old Musburger.

Over time, that phrase has become synonymous with the ignorance that the public-at-large possessed in ’68. Forty-four years later, Smith and Carlos are almost universally revered for their bravery in taking a stand on the world’s greatest sporting stage, risking their athletic careers and reputations in the process. There’s even a statue of them posing at their alma mater of San Jose State.

Yet Musburger has yet to issue a mea culpa for what, in retrospect, is a column that epitomizes “shortsightedness.”

Although the storm troopers comment made it through time, the entirety of Musburger’s column receded from memory until The Nation’s Dave Zirin dug it up on microfilm this past June. When reading it and comparing it to the fun-loving play-by-play announcer on ESPN every Saturday night, they seem like two different people.

“Perhaps it’s time that 20-year-old athletes quit passing themselves off as social philosophers,” he wrote. He ended his column with, “The way things are going, someone better save all of us before it’s too late.”

Thirteen years ago this month, Musburger offered a pseudo-apology by saying the statement was “a bit harsh,” only to then trivialize the moment by asking, “Did it improve anything?’’ Speaking with the New York Times’ Richard Sandomir he added, ‘‘Smith and Carlos aside, I object to using the Olympic awards stand to make a political statement.”

The frustratingly ironic part of Musburger’s stubbornness is that he himself has been given several chances during his lifetime to redeem himself. And not for once-misunderstood-but-brave gestures like Smith’s and Carlos’. For “no doubt about it” missteps that could have been his undoing.

A January 1984 story for Sports Illustrated reveals how a 12-year-old Musburger and his brother stole a car belonging to their mother’s cleaning lady. He was later kicked out of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism for owning and operating a car without a license. He was cited in 2005 for driving with an open container.

And here he stands today as one of the most well-known faces and voices in sports broadcasting. It is unreasonable to expect someone who has taken full advantage of those multiple chances to straighten out to acknowledge the incorrectness of what he wrote 44 years ago?

Those “unimaginative blokes” that Musberger wrote about in 1968 have turned out just fine. Smith taught at both Oberlin and Santa Monica College. Carlos became a counselor and track coach at Palm Springs (CA) High School. Both endured death threats and stigma from society but have since been given countless awards for their bravery.

Needless to say, the incident still irks Carlos, who told The Nation last month:

“We are talking about someone who compared us to Nazis. Think about that. Here we are standing up to apartheid and to a man in Avery Brundage who delivered the Olympics to Hitler’s Germany. And here’s Musburger calling us Nazis. That got around. It followed us. It hurt us. It hurt my wife, my kids. I’ve never been able to confront him about why he did this. Every time I’ve been at a function or an event with Brent Musburger and I walk towards him, he heads the other way.”

At 73, Musburger’s legacy is secure as one of the greatest broadcasters of our generation. But in terms of owning up and apologizing for what he wrote 44 years ago, it’s unfortunate Musburger isn’t big enough all these years later to finally utter just two words: “I’m sorry.”

 
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