Following the stunning resignation of University of Missouri president Tim Wolfe, and the support of head football coach Gary Pinkel for his players who joined the student protest against racism at the school, it appears that changes to the culture at Missouri and other academic institutions may be coming.
It wasn't too long ago, however, that a protest led by black football players at a public university led to a markedly different result.
In 1969, 14 black players at the University of Wyoming attempted to show solidarity with a protest against the treatment of African-Americans in the United States. In response, the players were immediately kicked off their team by an unsupportive coach, with thousands of Wyoming fans taking the side of the university and the football program instead of the student-athletes.
High-profile protests in sports were common in America in the late 1960s. Most famously, at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, black American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith wore black gloves and raised their fists in the "Black power salute" on the medal stand while the Star-Spangled Banner played. Also in 1968, San Jose State football players boycotted a game against Brigham Young University for the Mormon church's racial policies, especially a policy that disallowed Black clergy. That spring, the San Jose State basketball team boycotted BYU as well. These protests made headlines.
In 1969, a year after SJSU's protests against BYU, the University of Wyoming football team opened the season 4-0. The team had visions of an undefeated season. Its hurdle for a fifth victory: conference rival BYU.
A week before the BYU game, a black doctoral student at Wyoming named Willie Black learned of the Mormon church's policy toward black clergy. He decided to hold a campus-wide protest on that Wednesday. Black had invited African-American athletes to participate in the protest; players on the Wyoming football team could not join, however, because of a policy against taking part in demonstrations put in place by Coach Lloyd Eaton.
14 football players agreed to discuss the matter with the coach in his office that Friday. The meeting led to 14 instantaneous dismissals. Via Wyoming History:
About 9:15 a.m. on Friday, the 14 black players gathered at Washakie Center in the dormitory complex. They donned black armbands and walked to Memorial Fieldhouse where Eaton had his office, hoping to persuade the coach to allow them to show some solidarity with the BSA call for a protest.
Seeing them together, wearing armbands, Eaton led them into the upper seating area of the fieldhouse and, according to the players, immediately told them that they were all off the team. After that, according to the wife of a faculty member who was walking on the fieldhouse floor below, the coach insulted the players in an angry manner, which further polarized the situation.
The dismissed players became known nationally as the Black 14. The resulting lawsuit made its way to federal court, where Eaton testified that he told his players "that if the program at Wyoming was not satisfactory then perhaps they had better think about going to Morgan State or Grambling (State)." Morgan State and Grambling State are historically black colleges, and were football powers at the time.
The players cleared out their lockers and soon met with University President William Carlson, student leadership, and athletic director Red Jacoby. Though Coach Eaton was invited, he did not appear. The players also met with the school board of trustees and Governor Stanley K. Hathaway. The school would not budge. In a statement released after 3 a.m. Saturday morning, the board said, the students would "not play in today's game or any during the balance of the season,” and added: "The dismissals result from a violation of a football coaching rule Friday morning."
AD Jacoby noted the football coach had "no recourse" in his actions because the team had been given advance notice about the anti-protest policy. He had "no choice" but to support the dismissals, saying "It is unfortunate this happened, but an open defiance of a coaching staff regulation cannot be tolerated."
The story quickly became national news, with a column in the November 3 issue of Sports Illustrated leading with the note that Wyoming had won its homecoming game. "Coach Eaton had shown those protesters he could win without them," SI columnist Pat Putnam wrote. "Good riddance, and never mind a lot of talk about civil rights, because this is Wyoming, and out here we do things our way."
During the game, a plane carrying a banner with the words "Yea Eaton" flew over the stadium and many wore armbands with the coach's name. On the other sideline, most of the San Jose State team wore armbands in support of the Black 14.
The tumult continued. The athletic department announced that it had modified school policy to make illegal only instances more similar to Smith and Carlos' protest at the Olympics the year prior; in other words, its policies would only apply to on-field demonstrations. When asked at a press conference if the Black 14 would have still been dismissed under the amended policy, Eaton abruptly left the scene. Elsewhere, professors threatened to resign if the students were not reinstated; the school paper's editorial board also called for the players to rejoin the team.
In solidarity with their fellow athletes, four black track team members, including two conference champions, withdrew from the university.
In late November of that year, Eaton supporters held a rally for the coach that was attended by U.S. District Court Judge Ewing T. Kerr, a member of the state bar since 1927. Judge Kerr also just happened to be presiding over a civil rights lawsuit filled by…the Black 14, against Coach Eaton. Kerr denied NAACP lawyer William Waterman's attempt at an injunction that would have reinstated the players immediately. He dismissed the case five months later without a trial. Even after the Circuit Court of Appeals reversed his decision and forced a trial, he ruled in favor of the school and state on Oct. 18, 1971.
"From my observation of almost half a century in Wyoming,” Kerr said at the hearing, “I have never known of any prejudice against any race in the state of Wyoming and I think the fact that the coach went out and solicited and gave scholarships to a large number of colored people is strong evidence that he was not prejudiced against any race."
The players lost the battle, but Eaton ultimately lost the war, and his career. The 1969 team lost its final four games—all on the road, all met by protests—dashing their national title hopes. The 1970 team finished 1-9 and Eaton was fired, replaced by one of his assistant coaches and given a role in the athletic department. He left the school in 1971 to a marginally successful career in the NFL as a scout and player development executive. The football team was devastated, however, and would not return to competitive relevance for over a decade.
In response to all of this, BYU became relatively more accepting to black students. Black players joined the football team; in 1978, several Latter-day Saints church leaders had a revelation that members of other races could join the priesthood. The school's history with and treatment of black student-athletes, however, remains troubling; Luke O'Brien's Deadspin article from 2011 is required reading on the issue.
In May 1982, the Denver Post, in a feature by future Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly, reflected on the Black 14 incident. Reilly found and interviewed Eaton, who said he had never regretted what happened and that he would do the same thing again if given a second chance.
You can read more about the Black 14 here. It includes the players' testimony from the federal trial that they eventually received and updates the whereabouts of the Black 14 members who are still alive. Eaton, meanwhile, died in 2007.
David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on Fusion.net—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org