If you don’t think politics and sport mix, consider what happened at the University of Missouri. Mizzou first admitted black student in 1950. Sixty-five years later, blacks are only seven percent of the 35,000-member student body. They’ve tired of the racial slurs they often hear hurled from passing whites, usually in a stereotypic beat-up old pick-up truck.
They tried traditional political routes. Attempts to speak to the white University president failed. Tim Wolfe gave the obligatory statement. Racism exists. It’s unacceptable. As for giving the concerns of the black students the dignity of his personal time, no. White boosters have backed Wolfe.
Football players backed their fellow students. Their coach backed his players. They vowed not to play another game until Wolfe resigns. He did. They will play. Their next game is today against Brigham Young University.
That ought to stir some Cowboy memories of a time when UW played its cards differently.
In 1969, Wyoming was 12th ranked nationally. Fourteen players walked into Coach Lloyd Eaton’s office. They planned to wear black armbands during their next game, Their opponent was BYU
The school was largely Mormon. The LDS Church had then a policy prohibiting black men from entering the Mormon priesthood. Wearing black armbands during the game was intended to be a subtle objection to that policy.
Coach Lloyd Eaton had a policy against players exercising their first amendment rights. He kicked everyone of the 14 arm-banded black players off the team. The Governor and UW board of trustees sided with Eaton. Many fans flashed “We Support Eaton” bumper stickers. Politicians and Cowboy booster clubs across the state piled on the 14.
Later, the Cheyenne Quarterback Club, according to wyohistory.org, held Cowboy Night “and a large crowd was on hand to honor Lloyd Eaton, his staff and his seniors.” U.S. District Judge Ewing T. Kerr, who was then presiding over a civil rights lawsuit brought by the 14 players, was one of the evening’s “special guests.”
Wyoming beat BYU with their now all-white football team. They won the following weekend too. But victories grew tougher and fewer. The Cowboys lost the last four games of the year by huge margins and then they lost all but one of their games in 1970, the first UW losing season in a generation. They were defeated in 26 of 38 games following the Black 14 incident and had one lonely winning season through the 70s.
Few seemed to care when the 14 lost their places on the team. Fewer cared that they had lost their educations. But when the football team lost all those games, fans couldn’t take it. Eaton was fired, his career ended.
Meanwhile at BYU, things changed. Wyohistory.org recounts a 2009 Salt Lake Tribune article saying the Black 14 incident had provoked changes at BYU. Tom Hudspeth, BYU head coach in 1969, was quoted as saying how he was “made aware that LDS Church leadership wanted him to add African-Americans to his team, and fast. The following year, BYU's team included Ronnie Knight, a black defensive back from Sand Springs, Okla."
While Wyoming’s football team continued to suffer post-Black 14 era defeats, LDS policy also changed. On June 9, 1978, LDS leaders “announced that a divine revelation had been received to open the Mormon priesthood to African-Americans, ending the longstanding tenet.”
In the early 1990s, University of Colorado Coach Bill McCartney learned that his black players faced ugly racial taunts like those at Mizzou. He sided with the players. An enlightened white man, McCartney went to the booster clubs and other civic organizations, educating them on what the players faced and the role of white privilege.
McCartney was a winner. So was his team. Sports can change politics, but it does take enlightened leadership.