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Clint Smith of 'The Atlantic' on 'What we ask of Black American athletes'

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

At the World Cup, the U.S. next plays the Netherlands tomorrow in Qatar. The team beat Iran in a dramatic match to make it to the round of 16. And at a press conference this week, U.S. team Captain Tyler Adams came under the spotlight when an Iranian journalist chastised him for mispronouncing Iran. Adams apologized. The journalist also asked Adams if, quote, "he was OK in representing a country that has so much discrimination against Black people." The response given by Tyler Adams was widely celebrated for its thoughtfulness. And due to broadcast rights, we cannot play the audio, but he said there is discrimination everywhere and that the U.S. is making progress. We decided to ask Clint Smith of The Atlantic for his reaction. He's a poet, a bestselling author and a soccer fan. Smith has written a piece for The Atlantic titled "What We Ask Of Black American Athletes."

CLINT SMITH: First and foremost, I was really impressed that a 23-year-old who is playing in his first World Cup, who was 15 years old the last time the U.S. played in the World Cup - he's the captain of his team selected by his teammates and was asked this question sort of out of nowhere. I was impressed by how thoughtful, how measured, how nuanced and respectful his response was. And I think it's also important to note that he was asked specifically about his own experience and his own idea and his own feelings about what it meant to represent this country. And those feelings are inevitably animated by his own life experience. As Tyler said, he has a unique experience and that he was a young Black man who was raised by a white family and felt like that gave him an ability to move across different racial lines in ways that afforded him certain opportunities and afforded him a way of thinking about the world that might be different than somebody else. And, you know, there are 11 Black players on this U.S. team. And each of them, based on their own lived experience, may have given a different response than Tyler. But that doesn't make his response any less legitimate because Blackness is and always has been a diverse, pluralistic, heterogeneous entity.

MARTÍNEZ: And then you've got to factor into the U.S.'s history of, in some cases, either not recognizing the accomplishments of Black athletes going back decades or in other situations not recognizing or understanding the message behind their protests, especially when they do them either on the Olympic stage or on the professional level.

SMITH: Absolutely. And one of the things that I was wondering, too, was, you know, Tyler was asked this question by this Iranian journalist, and I couldn't help but wonder if a white teammate of his would be asked the same question. Like, why is it that Black athletes are always in the position where they are made to publicly wrestle with an answer for the sins of this country and ask what it means to represent a country that's engaged in anti-Black racism or xenophobia or any manner of state-sanctioned oppression and violence. But it is very rarely the case that white American athletes who represent the same country, who are teammates with many of the people who are subjected to so much of this history of violence and second-class citizenship - what would it look like for them to be asked that question? What would it look like for Walker Zimmerman or Christian Pulisic or Josh Sargent?

MARTÍNEZ: But why do you think specifically Black American athletes are asked to explain their stances, their positions on things, say, related to social justice or any time they have a protest against something? Why do you think it seems to be more of something that America wants to hear? Like, explain yourself to us now.

SMITH: Yeah, you know, it's tricky because I think we also have to disentangle questions of good faith and questions of bad faith. And I'm not clear that the question that was asked of Tyler Adams was necessarily asked in good faith by this journalist. And I think it was an effort to undermine America more broadly than it was a genuine interest in what Tyler's response to that question might be. It is true that Black American athletes from the beginning of Black American athletes being able to represent this country in the first place have had to wrestle both within themselves, within their communities and very publicly to the world about what it means to put on a jersey, to have the words USA emblazoned across your shirt, to have a flag on your chest, to carry that flag on your back, representing a country that for so long throughout the history of this country prevented those very people from having the opportunities to exist simply as citizens.

You know, I think of Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in the Olympics in Germany in 1936 and who came back and had to ride in the back of the bus the same as every other Black person, who wasn't invited to the White House alongside the other white Olympians who were invited to the White House by FDR because FDR wanted to maintain his fragile New Deal coalition, and that included Southern Democrats, who - and to invite a black athlete in 1936 to the White House was a nonstarter. And so, you know, he's having to publicly wrestle with the idea that he was the most accomplished Black American, the most accomplished American athlete of those games and yet was not invited to the White House to celebrate alongside other Olympians. And there are various iterations of that across American history.

MARTÍNEZ: You mentioned Jesse Owens at the Olympics in 1936. Then I think Muhammad Ali won a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics for the United States - John Carlos, Tommie Smith raising their fists against racism, wearing black gloves in Mexico City. What would you say, Clint, is the common thread between those three and even others that have dared to protest wearing Team USA's colors?

SMITH: I think that each of them recognized that they were in a unique position to bring attention to issues in their community, to history and policies of racial injustice that for so long in our country's history have been swept under the rug. And John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens, and so many others and, you know, so many Black American athletes in the last few years, especially after the murder of George Floyd, have used their platforms in all sorts of ways to make a point about where our country is versus where it needs to be. And again, they recognize that there is a unique opportunity to represent a country and to get up and say, we love this country. And because we love this country, we want it to be the best version of itself. And the version of itself that it is now is not that version, and it has a long way to go. And we need to hold this country accountable in getting where it needs to go.

MARTÍNEZ: Clint Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic. Clint, thanks a lot.

SMITH: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIANNI BREZZO AND SIMONE ALESSANDRINI'S "ALL THE PAST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.