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The Black Athlete—A Shameful Story
Jack Olson
July 01, 1968
Sport has long been comfortable in its pride at being one of the few areas of American society in which the Negro has found opportunity—and equality. But has sport in America deceived itself? Is its liberality a myth, its tolerance a deceit? Increasingly, black athletes are saying that sport is doing a disservice to their race by setting up false goals, perpetuating prejudice and establishing an insidious bondage all its own. Now, when Negro athletes are shaking numerous college administrations with their demands and a boycott of the 1968 Olympics is no idle threat, Sports Illustrated explores the roots and validity of the black athlete's unrest and finds them well founded. In a five-part series Jack Olsen reports on the shockingly frustrating life of the black college athlete, the vast gulf between black and white sportsmen, how a Southwestern university treats the Negroes who are making it famous, black-white problems among the pros and what racism has done to one NFL team
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July 01, 1968

The Black Athlete—a Shameful Story

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The first house we lived in in Brooklyn was a second-floor apartment at 454 Vanderbilt. It belonged to my grandmother. My mother and father were separated, and I slept alone in the living room and nine others slept in the two bedrooms. It was a typical ghetto house with roaches and rats and mice and everything else you can imagine. When I was little it was hard to get into the house because of what was going on downstairs. There was a restaurant downstairs that used to have a jukebox playing and dope addicts and drunks and everything possible were in the halls. People used to get shot and stabbed, and there were prostitutes all around, but this didn't bother me—they were just making a living. I remember the roaches better than the prostitutes.

When I was 11 we moved to a project at 135 Richards Street in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. I went with my mother and my sister and brother. This was a better apartment than the other one, but we only stayed a year because I got us kicked out. If you get an accumulation of fines they kick you out. You used to get fines for messing with the elevators or being on the grass or on the roof. We were kids and we played football on the grass and that was illegal. We were supposed to play at the park, but that was usually taken by the older people. We used to go on the roof to look around, and we used to stop the elevators between floors and drink wine. One day I was gone to this rock 'n' roll show in Manhattan and when I came home that night and knocked on the door there was no answer. So I went outside and climbed up this lamppost and looked inside and saw that there was no furniture, so I took it for granted we had been kicked out. I went to my grandmothers house and, sure enough, everybody was there.

They started calling me " Duck" because my feet were so big. One of my friends was Cemetery and another was Knife, because he was so sharp, and another was Nutt. Cemetery is a Muslim now. I don't know where Knife is. Nutt died of an overdose about three years ago. Some of the guys are still on the corner, drinking wine and taking dope.

The first junior high school I went to was P.S. 9, but I got kicked out because I was implicated in a stealing incident. I didn't have any thoughts at all about stealing. It was like a game to me, played by just about everybody. I remember the first thing I stole was $20 from my grandmother, and that was when I was 8.

As a kid I was always out. When I would go to Manhattan it usually was to steal. I used to take anything I could get my hands on: jewelry and toys. I used to keep them or sell them. I used to keep the baseballs I stole and play with them. If I couldn't steal anything else I'd steal candy bars—just to be stealing something. When I would get caught in a store I wouldn't go back. I would go steal somewhere else. They wouldn't press any charges; they would just tell me not to do it again. I used to stay out all night and sell newspapers. I stole the papers off the back of a truck and sold them for 5� or 6� each.

I hardly even knew there was a white community or a white society. When we watched TV it was another world and it never dawned on me that this was reality. Once when I was about 10 I was hitching a ride on the back of a bus and a white cop saw me and told me to get off and stop. I got off and ran and he ran after me. He hit me on the neck with his billy club and yelled, "Stop, you black nigger!" This was really the first time that I knew there were two worlds. Later, when I was around 14, we were stealing in a bakery and a cop came up and told us to stop. We ran, and he shot up in the air and we stopped. I was arrested a lot of times. Once I was arrested for jimmying open a parking meter. They sent me to the Youth House for about two months. It was nice. They had three meals a day. They taught lessons, and you had your own room.

When I was 16 I used to hang out with this guy who burglarized houses. One day someone saw him up on the fire escape in a Jewish neighborhood. A friend and I were sitting waiting for him to come down, and the cops picked us all up. They asked us if we knew anything and we denied it. Then they took us down to the police station and beat us with their fists. Huge cops. When we would say we knew nothing they would hit us in the face with these big fists. So we told. I went to jail for two months after that. I didn't like it at all. Hardened criminals were there. The police used to say that I was so bad I was going to wind up in the electric chair.

I smoked pot in high school, but I think I did it just because everybody was doing it. I used to get a $5 bag that would make 20 joints. I never did get into the heroin stage. A lot of my friends are now junkies out on the street. We used to fight a white gang called the Hill-toppers all the time. I used a car aerial or a Molotov cocktail. We had zip guns and .22s. Once in a while somebody would get killed. One day I dropped my guard and went out in the wrong territory and another gang, the Chaplains, caught me and stomped me.

The last time I stole was in my junior year of high school. Some friends and I mugged a white man looking for a black prostitute. We got $320. I was an average kid on the block. The bad kids would mug people all the time. I just did it on weekends.

This was the Don Smith that Iowa State took into its sheltering ivy halls and called its own. He did his best for Iowa State: All-America, Big Eight Player of the Year. But did the college do its best for him? He recalls feeling lost from the moment he arrived. He moved into a dormitory and had a white roommate with a farming background. "Every weekend he'd go home," Smith recalls, "and he'd leave little notes behind like, 'Don't touch my razor!' It was always don't touch this or don't touch that. One day I saw something he had written and it said how hard it was for him to live with a nigger."

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