Nicholson, James C. 1968: A Pivotal Moment in American Sports. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2019. Pp. 149. $34.95 hardback and ebook.
Reviewed by Łukasz Muniowski
The year 1968 is often considered a vital year for America. A year known for unrest and protest, it also was marked by technological progress and assassinations of two progressive icons, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. The year thus pushed a lot of young people into action, as they decided to stand up for their beliefs and create a new, more inclusive society.
As argued by James C. Nicholson in his book 1968: A Pivotal Moment in American Sports, the importance of 1968 also applies to American sports. Sharing the opinion that it is impossible to separate sports and politics, Nicholson reintroduces various sporting events to the reader, providing the context necessary to explain how they were influenced by the cultural, social, and political occurrences of the day or how they transcended sports and led to change outside the field, court, ring, or track. Instead of distracting the general public from what was happening, athletes participated in the events that made change possible.
On the forefront of the fight was Muhammad Ali, who famously refused to participate in the Vietnam War and was stripped of his championship, as well as barred from competing in boxing events. Instead of laying low, Ali used his voice to express his political opinions on various college campuses. He was still fighting, just in a different ring. Nicholson estimates that “The Greatest” visited around 200 universities, which only gave more publicity to his cause.
Nicholson’s retelling of the cheating scandal at the Kentucky Derby further illuminates how deeply political the sports world was in 1968. The winner, a horse owned by Peter Fuller, tested positive for Bute. Since Fuller was from Boston, and the Derby an event associated with southern culture and tradition, stripping Fuller’s horse of the title was seen as a politically-motivated act to punish a northerner, even though Fuller was a Republican and many (white) Kentuckians, like much of the (white) South, was beginning to abandon the Democratic Party in favor of a more socially-conservative Republican Party.
While the disqualification was a huge shock, it was nothing in comparison to the MLB’s unwillingness to respect players’ desire to commemorate the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy. Following Kennedy’s murder, two Houston Astros players refused to play in the next game; they were fined for their refusal. Amongst Black players, the lack of commemoration for the death a King was seen as another instance of the establishment neglecting to acknowledge what they considered to be their basic rights. Most journalists did not side with the players, instead producing articles in the vein of the more recent, infamous “inmates running the asylum” statement regarding NFL players’ protests against police brutality.
Staying in baseball, the 1968 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals caused an uproar. The national anthem performance by blind Puerto Rican-born singer Jose Feliciano before Game Five outraged people in the stands and viewers in their homes, who called the television station to complain. Vietnam War veterans voiced their anger and baseball players blamed their poor performances on the singer’s rendition of the anthem. Still, the song was later put out as a single and was quite popular. The World Series also would turn out to be the last played on the old field dimensions. Soon thereafter, MLB owners agreed to implement a higher mound and a wider strike zone in an effort to make their game more exciting, as football finally had surpassed “America’s pastime” in the battle for fan interest.
The man significantly responsible for football’s surging popularity was New York Jets’ quarterback Joe Namath. The youth of the day saw in Namath one of their own––a man who simply was not afraid to live and, more importantly, was free of prejudice towards other races. In a time of racial tensions, Namath unified all of those who opposed the establishment. When he drunkenly guaranteed that his Jets would beat the heavily-favored Colts in the Super Bowl––and later delivered on that guarantee––it was an open challenge to the stereotypically humble, silent, and bland athlete afraid to speak his mind. Namath proved that one could be cocky, enjoy a party or two, and still deliver on the field.
Of course, the most important sporting/political event occurred during the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City. American track medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos protested the oppression of African Americans on the podium, removing their shoes and holding their gloved fists toward the sky. While the act and its consequences have been covered and discussed extensively, Nicholson takes care to emphasize the role of San Jose State College sociologist Harry Edwards in both athletes’ lives. Edwards was a celebrity in his own right, standing up for the oppressed and delivering talks on the academic circuit. Himself African American and a former athlete, he was the reason why Carlos enrolled at San Jose State, as well as why Carlos and Smith decided to stage their protest.
All in all, Nicholson’s 1968 makes for a short, yet captivating read. His narrative disrupts the cyclicality of sports; as the saying goes, “There is always next year.” Yet, some years are just too special to be overlooked.
Łukasz Muniowski recieved his Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Warsaw. He is the author of Three-Pointer! A 40-Year NBA History (McFarland, 2020), Narrating the NBA: Representations of Leading Players after the Michael Jordan Era (Lexington, 2021), and The Sixth Man: A History of the NBA Off the Bench (McFarland, 2021).