Martin Luther King Jr. declaiming on the Lincoln Memorial steps in Washington, D.C. The throngs at Woodstock. A woman crying over a dead Kent State student. These iconic images capture the passion and outrage of the protest movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Yet another image—Tommie Smith, head down, fist raised, standing in the center of the Olympic podium in Mexico City—reflects the theme of a movement that is largely forgotten.
The 1968 Summer Olympics protest is usually associated with the Black Power movement, but its demand for fair treatment of African-American athletes also signified a crucial component of the radical athleticism movement. The voice of this “athletic revolution,” as the title of his influential 1971 book labeled it, was athlete, scholar, and college administrator Jack Scott, whose life and early death at age 57 in 2000 became the movement’s overlooked symbol. Scott was idealistic and full of good intentions, but, as often happened with the era’s causes, the passion of noble beginnings turned into sour outrage.
Born in Scranton, Pa., Scott captained his high school football team and became a sprinter at Stanford University before eventually earning a bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University and a sociology doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley. At Berkeley, Scott became a protégé of Harry Edwards, the pioneering sports sociologist and author of The Revolt of the Black Athlete. Edwards and Scott helped organize the 1968 Olympic protest, after which a group of athletes began to organize and call for college sports reform.
Proponents of radical athleticism lobbied for several changes: humane treatment of all athletes, including ethnic minorities, at a time when authoritarian coaches took a “super-masculine, square-jawed, steely-eyed John Wayne approach,” as Scott put it, writing in the Oberlin Alumni Magazine in 1972; greater participation of women, whose opportunities expanded when Title IX—federal legislation that guaranteed gender equity in sports—passed in 1972; athlete participation in the hiring of college coaches; and the elimination of drugs and profit-mongering in big-time college sports.
Scott was hired in 1972 as athletic director at Oberlin College where he spearheaded the “Oberlin experiment,” attempting to implement the tenets of radical athleticism. Television sportscaster and commentator Howard Cosell called Scott’s short-lived time at Oberlin “the greatest democratic experiment in the history of sports.”
Scott made historic reforms that changed the national landscape of college sports as well as daily habits in Oberlin, a small town in Ohio. He gave players a vote on hiring committees and opened the college’s gym to town residents. He hired three black coaches, including Tommie Smith, the Ohio Athletic Conference’s first black coach. Cass Jackson, another African-American coach, led a mainly white football team to the Yeomen’s last 20th-century winning season.
Scott tripled funding for women’s sports. When he realized that the campus athletic facility had no women’s locker room, he hung curtains to create one from what had been the men’s faculty changing room. “You want to know what revolt sounds like?” wrote sports journalist Jay Weiner, a self-described disciple of Scott. “It’s when a chemistry teacher is told he’ll have to dress with the male students and that his racquetball racquet won’t fit in the student-sized lockers.”
Thirty years later, it’s difficult to remember—or to imagine—how radical these reforms were. That men were not allowed to play varsity sports with long hair or facial hair seems quaint, so it’s easy to overlook Scott’s commitment to ensuring that all athletes were treated fairly, even those with mustaches or ponytails. When he allowed women to run with men in cross-country meets, other college coaches were outraged despite the fact that Title IX vindicated his stance on gender equity.
A living contradiction
It was not easy, however, to work with Scott. “He was one of the scariest men I ever met,” recalls Robert Longsworth, emeritus professor of English at Oberlin. “He advocated humanism in sport, but he didn’t always treat people in a humane way.” While women got a locker room and a larger budget, Scott bullied women coaches into resigning. Local lore has it that an elderly female coach suffered a fatal heart attack after repeatedly receiving threatening phone calls from Scott at 3 a.m. Many believed that Jackson achieved his winning football season with students who were admitted to Oberlin despite poor academic records and never graduated. According to Longsworth, “He wanted teams to win because he . . . wanted to expose the racism in American sports . . . but he was somewhat racist and sexist in his actions. He hired Cass Jackson and Tommie Smith, but did nothing to support them.”
Scott formally resigned in February 1974, following the 1973 resignation of Robert Fuller, the radical president who had invited him to Oberlin less than two years earlier. Scott’s abrasive personality and propensity to physical violence—he reportedly attacked a young boy he caught urinating outside the gym—had alienated the faculty, who otherwise supported his positions.
Scott moved to Berkeley, eventually rooming with Bill Walton, the countercultural National Basketball Association star; reporters referred to Scott as Walton’s “guru.” Shortly thereafter, Scott became involved in another iconic moment, our nation’s most glamorous captivity narrative, by driving Patty Hearst—who had been captured by the radical social protest group the Symbionese Liberation Army—across the country to Pennsylvania. He never served time for his complicity in the abduction and once insinuated that Hearst orchestrated the kidnapping herself. Two of Scott’s associates, Oberlin student Jay Weiner and longtime friend Phillip Shinnick, also guided fugitive SLA members and eventually went to jail.
By then, Scott had been out of the public eye for some time. He lived his last 25 years quietly with his wife Micki and three children in Oregon, where he mastered microcurrent therapy, a process he used with athletes to aid circulation and healing.
Shortly before his death, 13 former friends and “Oberlin experiment” participants gathered in Berkeley to pay homage. Among these sportswriters, coaches, and athletes, Scott’s legacy endures, both for what radical athleticism accomplished and what it still cries out to change, particularly the role played by money and drugs in college and professional sports.
Like many revolutionary causes of the time, Scott’s personal history is marred by morally muddy actions yet remains instructive and emblematic. King’s impassioned face, Woodstock’s joyous celebration—these images offset those of Hearst toting a gun, fists flying at Altamont, wreckage from a Weather Underground bomb. Radicals like Scott enabled change, but in employing any means necessary they risked leaving a nasty taste in the mouths of those who otherwise supported their causes.
Anne Trubek is associate professor of English at Oberlin College and is the co-author of Writing Material: Readings from Plato to the Digital Age.