Editor's Note: The following editorial was printed this week in the Laramie Boomerang newspaper in Laramie, Wyo. It was written by the paper's editorial board.
Almost 50 years after the Black 14 incident at the University of Wyoming, Laramie for the second time in 2019 welcomed back some of those football players to campus this week. And what a week it was as healing and amends took place that made those athletes feel like they were once again home at UW.
The Black 14 incident occurred during the 1969 football season. Fourteen African American UW football players came up with an idea they wanted to discuss with their head coach, Lloyd Eaton. With a game coming up against Brigham Young University, those African American players wanted to protest racist behavior exhibited by BYU football players in the previous season. Additionally, the team and members of the Black Student Alliance wanted to protest the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which had a policy at the time prohibiting black priests.
Black armbands, they decided, could be worn on the field to protest the bigotry they felt when confronting the BYU players. But when those players approached Eaton wearing the armbands prepared to propose their idea, the 14 African American athletes were removed from UW’s football team.
People in Laramie and across the nation took sides on the issue. Some felt the players had been mistreated and were the victims of racist policies enforced by an unsympathetic authoritarian coach. Most people in Wyoming, on the other hand, took the side of the highly-revered Eaton, saying the players should have kept their political stance off the football field.
The most recent accounts recall the players approaching the coach floating the idea of wearing black armbands to gauge Eaton’s perspective on the matter. But before any civil discussion could begin, the players say Eaton informed them they were no longer on the football team, advising them to “shut up” when attempting to explain the situation. “Eaton told us we can go back (home) on color or Negro relief,” one of the Black 14 said during a February visit to UW. “You can go back to the Gramblings and Morgan States (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). You can go back to picking up cigarette butts.”
For those on this board who remember when this all happened and the following years, this was not always the narrative most people understood. There was an understanding that there was a confrontation between the players and the coach that resulted in their removal, with many believing the players had quit or boycotted the team. University officials at the time stood by their coach, and some reports of correspondence from people in Wyoming saw almost total support for Eaton’s position. People in power, including members of the media, deserve a great deal of blame for advancing this narrative.
This 1969 controversy came at an extremely tumultuous time for the United States at-large. The nation was still in the throes of the Vietnam War, where people across the world were increasingly opposed to the administration’s policies. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated the previous year, leading to unrest over racial injustices. In 1968, the world responded to one of the most memorable political protests in sports history with the clenched fist salutes of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the victory podium at the Mexico City Olympics. It was overall a time of deep divisions where political statements were commonplace and varied in the severity of their approaches.
As we can observe today in our contemporary socio-political situation in the United States, deep differences in points of view can lead to people becoming entrenched in their corners, unwilling to hear out those with opposing viewpoints. We tend to categorize others and see their points of view as an attack on our own freedoms and cultures. It really brings out the worst in us.
Looking back given that context, one might imagine Coach Eaton immediately seeing his football team getting dragged into a scenario that would bring down his team. He reacted, it seems, without listening or trying to understand what his football players were trying to say to him. Wyomingites probably largely saw racial political statements in the national news as troublesome and having no place in the Cowboy State. As such, they believed Eaton did the right thing.
But let’s take a moment to walk in the shoes of those 14 football players. They say they were targeted by the opposing team for the color of their skin and could only expect the same thing to happen again when playing BYU in the 1969 season. Additionally, imagine how you would feel as a black person playing against a university sponsored by a religious denomination that openly discriminated against African Americans. Would you just feel it adequate to say, “We’ll just go out there and play football and do our best to win and turn the other cheek” or would you feel it appropriate to wear a symbol on your uniform that confronted those racist positions without inhibiting your ability to play the game? Speaking for ourselves, the members of this board would prefer the latter.
Ultimately, the benefit of hindsight allows us to see the Black 14 were mistreated by the UW football team, its leaders and by many others in the state of Wyoming. While those men went on to see successes in their lives, there’s no doubt the incident had negative effects that reverberated throughout the last five decades.
But the events of the past week were truly remarkable. On Friday, just a few hours after the dedication of a plaque honoring the Black 14 at War Memorial Stadium, a dinner was hosted by the university at the Wildcatter Club and Suites. UW Athletics Director Tom Burman made the closing remarks where he read a letter from himself and former President Laurie Nichols officially apologizing for the treatment of the Black 14. The players in attendance seemed genuinely moved and accepting of the amends. Kudos to UW, its administration (past and present), faculty, staff and students that made that day come to pass.
The best thing to be taken away from any negative experience we regret is what we learn. How will UW and Wyomingites react if another political protest comes up among our athletes? The history of athletes making political statements is far from over it seems and it’s certainly possible it could manifest in Wyoming again. In that event, people should take a deep breath and not instantly react based on emotion and misinformation. We should talk to one another to truly understand grievances and feelings of injustice. We should walk a mile in other people’s shoes, always remembering that we at our cores have the same wants and needs for our lives. People are people and we make better communities when we listen to one another.