San Jose State plans to pave over historic track and the legacy it helped create
If San Jose State University is known for anything outside the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s for its world-class track, record-shattering speedsters and a pair of gloved fists raised on behalf of human rights. The school honors Olympic medalists and protestors Tommie Smith and John Carlos with a statue on campus.
The track on which they honed their craft and, often, discussed their plans for the 1968 Mexico City Games, still stands on campus, too. But just barely – despite the promises of the school and athletic department amid the glow of plans to resurrect the defunct men’s track program and renovate the track.
Now, Bud Winter Field, named for the coach who sent Smith, Carlos and 25 others to the Olympics from the late 1940s to the early ’70s – when the program was famously nicknamed “Speed City” – is in such a shambles that it can’t even be used for practice in any track or field event. Barely passable as parking for football game because of potholes and debris, it is set for demolition as early as the end of June … to make way for a parking garage.
STEELE: An endless fight, a defining choice
Worse than the callous disregard for the history of the site and the legacy a renovated track can preserve, its planned demise has uncovered a corruption scandal that has enraged current athletes and their predecessors.
What began as anger in early April at the announcement by the university about the fate of the track had evolved by mid-May into revelations by the Spartan Daily student newspaper that the athletic department had misappropriated more than $6 million in donations intended for athletic scholarships. Less than 5 percent of the money collected ended up going to the athletes, the paper discovered.
The news prompted 44 San Jose State athletes to write a 19-page public letter to school president Mary Papazian, saying they had “endured multiple injustices that we seek to correct.” Besides the reported financial shenanigans, they detailed mishandling of sexual assault reports, misdiagnosed and mistreated injuries, and poor or nonexistent communication with coaches and athletic officials, including athletic director Marie Tuite.
It also was revealed that university officials had told athletes in 2017 there was no money in the budget to renovate the track. That was just a year after Smith, Carlos and Olympic Project for Human Rights organizer Dr. Harry Edwards had come to campus for the announcement that the men’s program would be revived, and that it would coincide with the planned 50th-anniversary celebration of the 1968 Olympics protest.
That celebration did take place last October, and men’s track did return to Division I competition for the first time since it was abolished in 1988. However, both men’s and women’s teams trained at San Jose City College and in other athletic locations around campus – while, according to the Spartan Daily, the school had been negotiating since 2017 to build the parking garage on the old track.
Moreover, according to the report, the garage would not just be used to alleviate the shortage of student parking, as the school had claimed in April, but for San Jose’s minor-league affiliates of the NHL Sharks and baseball’s Giants, whose rink and field, respectively, are near campus.
The more that has surfaced about the proposed destruction of the track, and the unveiled financial quagmire as a result, the more the frustration has risen from the names that made the university world-renowned. Edwards, who moderated the 50th anniversary celebration and curates an on-campus exhibit on athlete activism, “The Power of Protest,” took to Twitter to respond to the student newspaper reports.
Carlos told The Nation in April soon after the news of the parking garage broke: “They are trying to dispose our history with the school.” He added that he had always wondered, even as the statue honoring him and Smith was being dedicated in 2005, whether the school might someday take it down and return to the chilly relationship with their famed alumni. Smith has expressed the same concern before, also while remembering the lack of support and embrace from the school after they returned from Mexico City in 1968.
Sprinter Kirk Clayton, a teammate of Smith and Carlos and a member of the school’s 1969 NCAA championship team, told the San Jose Mercury News in April: “To take that hallowed ground and pave it over, you are committing a sacrilege.”
Indications are growing that other alumni of Speed City, and other athletes from years past, plan to individually and collectively make their displeasure known directly to school officials before much more time passes.
It has all been an ugly 180-degree turn from the optimism of the previous two-plus years, dating back to the much-anticipated announcement that men’s track was coming back. “You are going to see the rise and might again,” Smith told the crowd at the 2016 event from a podium next to the statue of him and Carlos on the grassy square in the middle of campus.
That day, school officials also announced the plans for a $5 million rebuild of the track, and a fundraising drive to pay for it. The artist’s rendition released that day portrayed a state-of-the-art layout with stands, a scoreboard and a press box, all adjacent to an equally pristine soccer field.
Several former athletes were told they believed at the time they would be active in the fundraising drive. Instead, according to the campus newspaper’s report, by the following year the school had already put plans in motion to spend money on other athletic facilities and staff, and to build the garage for an estimated $50 million.
San Jose State alumni, athletic and otherwise, and donors to both the proposed track and to the scholarship fund, have been demanding answers – not just from school officials, but from city and state politicians, with little effect so far. A Twitter account, @savesjsutrack, was started to garner support.
Papazian, the school president, sent a letter to the student body two days after the Spartan Daily expose, which read, in part: “I am looking closely into questions about whether the university’s use of funds honored donors’ intent. I will be asking an independent auditor to do a financial review relating to Athletics donations and will address any unknown problems that surface.”
Whether that will stop the bulldozers from digging up what’s left of the track that nurtured the seeds of one of the most iconic moments of resistance in American history remains to be seen.
But for the worst of reasons, at the historic home of Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Speed City and the rest of San Jose State’s track and field legacy, the finish line is approaching fast.
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