Whatever it is that is being sought for the late Native American athlete and icon Jim Thorpe, justice isn’t the right word for it.
My father told me about Jim Thorpe in one of his dinner table discourses when I was about 8. The story sure seemed unfair to me then. Thorpe (1887 – 1953), a full-blooded member of the Sac and Fox Nation, had finished first in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics pentathlon and decathlon events, becoming the first Native American to win a gold medal for the United States. Thorpe also played collegiate and professional football and professional baseball to earn a still current reputation as the most versatile great athlete in U.S. sports history. But Thorpe was stripped of his Olympic titles after it was discovered that he had been paid for playing two seasons of semi-professional baseball before competing in the Olympics, thus violating the strict amateurism rules that the Games then embraced.
How technical of those mean Olympics people. This misfortune for Thorpe has always been represented as a horrific injustice and an example of anti-Native American bigotry, but neither is true, and was never true. Thorpe wasn’t eligible for the Olympics under the rules then in place, and in place for what was then believed to be good reasons: the Olympics were for amateur athletes only. Thorpe wasn’t one. All of the arguments for why it was unfair for him to lose his medals (the silver medal winners in both events were bumped up to gold and the official records altered), including the way the story was told in the film biography of Thorpe starring Burt Lancaster, are based on sentiment and flawed ethical reasoning.
The main fallacy involved is Rationalization # 30. The Prospective Repeal, or “It’s a bad law/stupid rule.” I don’t believe it was a stupid rule at all, and today’s Olympics, where NBA stars are trotted out to beat Lithuanian college students in basketball by ridiculous scores as Americans cheer, don’t stand for anything anymore except nationalism and money. Whether it was or was not a stupid rule, it was the rule, Thorpe broke it, and he was legitimately stripped of his titles. His status as a Native American wasn’t the reason for the decision; if Thorpe were not one of America’s most famous Indians, I doubt anyone would have been agitating for his medals being restored. When laws are repealed, we typically don’t go back and declare that those who were convicted of violating those laws are now innocent, or that those who engaged in conduct later made illegal are criminals. For some reason, this is a basic principle that much of the public just can’t seem to grasp. (When slavery was legal, slave-holders were law-abiding citizens.)
Other features of the Thorpe medals story are as irrelevant to what happened as the prejudice against Native Americans. It doesn’t matter that Thorpe didn’t know he was disqualifying himself from the Olympics when he agreed to play baseball for money. It is irrelevant that Thorpe wasn’t paid very much (mostly room and board) by the semi-pro baseball team. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t intentionally break the rule. It doesn’t matter that the non-American athletes who were awarded first place after Thorpe’s disqualification felt terrible about taking Thorpe’s medals. It definitely is irrelevant how great an athlete Jim Thorpe was: this one is an attempt to give him The King’s Pass. There was a strict rule about Olympic athletes being amateurs as defined by the Olympics, and under those rules, it was completely proper and reasonable for Thorpe’s victories to be voided and his medals taken away.
From 1912 on, Native American activists as well as sentimentalists kept calling for the Olympics to remedy the “injustice,” so long after Thorpe was dead, the International Olympic Committee gave in to public relations considerations in 1982 and agreed to posthumously return Thorpe’s gold medals.
That was nice. The men who were elevated to first after his disqualification, Hugo Wieslander of Sweden in the decathlon and Ferdinand Bie of Norway in the pentathlon, remained officially gold medalists as well under the change. Now, a new movement is underway to award Thorpe his titles on his own and remove Wieslander and Bie’s golds from the record books. I assume this is gaining momentum because of the George Floyd Freakout, although the 2020 death of an African American criminal in Minnesota resulting in the loss of two gold medals awarded to a Swede and a Norwegian in 1912 deserves to be an all-time Butterfly Effect classic. The International Olympic Committee has been asked to revisit the matter, and a decision may come by the end of the year.
“Is there half justice?” asked Nedra Darling, a citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation whose father was a longtime friend of Thorpe’s. “It’s outrageous that the records were not corrected in 1982.” No, in fact it’s more outrageous that the records were changed at all after Thorpe’s violation was properly dealt with….except for a wrinkle. Florence Ridlon, an advocate for Thorpe, discovered in 1982 that the Olympic rules in effect in 1912 required that protests against gold medalists had to be made within 30 days of the completion of an event. Thorpe’s professional baseball activities were not discovered until six months after the Stockholm Games.
Technically, then, the Olympic Committee broke its own rules by punishing Thorpe for breaking their rules. It was like trying, convicting and imprisoning someone for a crime he committed even though the statute of limitations had run before the crime was discovered.
The Ethics Alarms verdict: Jim Thorpe deserved to lose his titles and records, but the Olympics were wrong to take them away, and the titles and medals should revert to where they would have been if Thorpe’s days as a professional baseball player had never been discovered.