America’s basketball fans were thrilled when the International Olympic Committee agreed to add their sport to the roster of Olympic games, beginning in 1936, and the nation’s leading college teams (pro basketball was still in its infancy) prepared to vie for the honor of representing the United States at the inaugural competition. But when the opening round of tryouts got under way at Madison Square Garden in March 1936, the team that many considered the most likely to win was not even on the court.
In a move that stunned the sports world, the Long Island University Blackbirds decided, as a team, to boycott the 1936 Berlin Olympics to protest the Nazis’ persecution of German Jews.
Because of Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies, the LIU players believed "that the United States should not participate in Olympic Games since they are being held in Germany," university President Tristram Metcalfe announced. Therefore, he explained, the Blackbirds "decided not to compete [in the tryouts] because the university would not under any circumstances be represented in the Olympic Games held in Germany."
Several other teams stayed away from the tryouts, but for different reasons. Notre Dame did not want its players to miss so many classes. New York University explained that its players could not afford to be absent from their part-time jobs. The LIU Blackbirds were the only ones to stand on principle.
The Blackbirds’ decision was especially impressive when one considers the likelihood that they would have won the tryouts and qualified for the Olympics. At the time of the tryouts, they had won 33 straight games, including every game of the 1935-1936 season. And they won by an average margin of ‘3 points. Four of their starters went on to play professionally for the American Basketball League (as it was called in those days), and LIU coach Clair Bee later coached the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets.
For top-caliber athletes who had a serious chance of qualifying for the Olympics and competing in the most prestigious athletic event in the world, boycotting the Berlin games was an enormous personal and professional sacrifice — one that very few were prepared to make. Aside from the LIU Blackbirds, the athletes who announced they would not go to Berlin because of its oppression of the Jews could be counted on one’s hands: speedskater Jack Shea, sprinter Herman Neugass, and track and field stars Norman Cahners, Milton Green, Lillian Copeland, and Syd Koff.
The boycotters were not exactly showered with accolades. Sports columnist Frank H. Eck, for example, chastised LIU for causing "ill feelings" by bringing the German Jewish issue into the discussion. LIU’s declared reason for boycotting the games was, he wrote, "the wrong answer from a sports angle." Maybe, but it was the right answer from a human angle.
Although today’s athletes may be more aware of human rights abuses overseas and sometimes more willing to become involved, there have been no announcements by potential Olympic athletes that they are boycotting the Beijing games.
China is not the same as Nazi Germany, not even the Nazi Germany of the pre-Holocaust 1930s. Still, Beijing offers athletes with a conscience plenty of reasons to stay away, including its support for the genocidal regime in Sudan, supply of nuclear materials to Syria and missiles to Iran, friendship for Hamas, suppression of Tibet, and mistreatment of its own political and religious dissidents. Yet none of this has sufficed to inspire athletes to boycott the ‘008 games.
The LIU Blackbirds were cut from a different cloth. Some of the LIU players were Jewish. Some were not. The team’s manager was Jewish. The coach was not. They came from different religious and ethnic backgrounds, but Ben Kramer, Marius Russo, Jules Bender, Ken Norton, Leo Merson, Arthur Hillhouse, Bill Schwarz, and Harry Grant shared a recognition that some things were more important than basketball.
Today, even among sports fans, the names of the LIU Blackbirds are almost forgotten. Coach Bee is remembered by some enthusiasts for inventing the 1-3-1 zone defense and the ‘4-second shot clock, or for the "Chip Hilton" series of sports books for teens that he later wrote. And a few New York Yankees oldtimers may recall that Marius Russo switched sports and, as "Lefty" Russo, became the star pitcher in the Yankees’ 1941 season and World Series victory.
But what they and their teammates really deserve to be remembered for is their willingness to put the cause of the oppressed above their own self interest. That is a quality far more precious than the ability to excel on a track, field, skating rink, or basketball court.
Raphael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.