When Springfield College senior Kristian Rhim learned that his school had awarded an honorary degree to the late International Olympic Committee head Avery Brundage, Rhim felt that it was time to reconsider the award because of Brundage’s history of anti-Semitism, sexism and racism. Ultimately, at the end of March, the college Board of Trustees voted through an executive committee to revoke Brundage’s honorary degree.
“I’m really happy and proud of the college for moving so swiftly,” said Rhim, who is a student member of the Board of Trustees as well as a four-year varsity athlete in track and president of the Men of Excellence Club.
“It was brought to the president in early March and the degree was revoked at the end of the month,” Rhim said. “I’m pretty happy and proud to be a part of Springfield College.”
Reflecting on Brundage, he said, “I think it’s just sad … I will not say I’m not surprised … I’m just upset that people have so much power to do the right thing and it’s so disappointing to see people often choose to do the complete opposite of that.”
Brundage’s decades-long relationship with the Olympics included being the head of the U.S. Olympic Committee before his elevation to the head of the IOC. His tenure in both posts included controversial moments in Olympic history.
For example, Rhim cited the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, which at that point in time was the capital of Nazi Germany. Then-USOC head Brundage opposed a boycott of the Games despite Nazi oppression of German Jews, and claimed that it was a Jewish-Communist effort that aimed to keep the U.S. out of the Games that year.
Brundage, Rhim said, did not want “Jews to use the Games as a war against Nazism. In the same Olympics, [the U.S.] benched two American Jewish sprinters [from a relay event].”
In the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, two Black athletes from the U.S. – Tommie Smith and John Carlos – gave the Black Power salute after finishing 1-2 in the 200 meters, with Peter Norman, the Australian athlete who finished third, showing solidarity with their social-justice organization, the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Brundage, by then the head of the IOC, pressured the U.S. to take action against both American athletes.
“Brundage told the U.S. that he would ban it from competition if Smith and Carlos were not shortly banned from the Games,” Rhim said.
Brundage’s final Olympics as IOC head were also marked by controversy: the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, in which terrorists from the Palestinian organization Black September took hostages from the Israeli team, resulting in the deaths of 11 hostages.
Rhim said that Brundage also discriminated in favor of men against women at Olympic events.
It was a talk at Springfield College by former Olympic gold medalist Smith that sparked Rhim’s initiative to have the college reconsider its honorary degree to Brundage.
“[Smith] spoke about how racist [Brundage was], describing him as a bad person,” Rhim recalled.
A Springfield College alumnus, Dr. Donald Brown of the Class of 1969, subsequently passed information on to Rhim that Brundage may have received an honorary degree from the college. Rhim researched the matter. As it turns out, the college had awarded Brundage an honorary master of physical education degree in 1940. Rhim reached out to the college president, Dr. Mary-Beth Cooper.
“The college does a lot of work with diversity and inclusion,” Rhim said. “This was something we had to do if we were committed to it. She moved the ball forward.”
Citing his role on the Board of Trustees, Rhim said, “We discussed how to move forward. I found more research into what specifically happened, more examples of his discrimination.”
The Board of Trustees voted to revoke Brundage’s degree on March 30.
“The College’s Honorary Degree Committee, comprised of the provost, deans, a faculty representative, and a student representative, investigated Springfield College community complaints regarding Brundage’s statements … and recommended to the Board of Trustees that it be revoked given the antisemitic, racist, and sexist behavior in words and actions Brundage displayed finding that his conduct was inconsistent with the values of Springfield College,” Cooper said in a statement.
Rhim said that a tragedy from earlier in life in his home city of Philadelphia impacted his interest in social justice. A friend and former competitor in track was shot and killed the day he was scheduled to leave for college at Penn State. Rhim reflected on the loss of his friend in an article for a local news site he interned at, Billy Penn.
“I used data [to show] it was not isolated in this country,” Rhim said. “Young Black men like me hope we’re not next.”
Rhim has continued to look at the intersection of sports and social justice as an undergraduate, including through a podcast, “Liberty, Justice and Ball,” with one of his professors, Marty Dobrow. They have interviewed basketball Hall of Famers such as Grant Hill, Bob Cousy and most recently Spencer Haywood. The podcast is done with the Basketball Hall of Fame, which is also based in Springfield and reflects the city’s role in the founding of the sport, as well as of the YMCA. He will intern at the Boston Globe this summer.
“I want to leave a legacy here, making an impact in a positive way,” Rhim said.