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Black athletes and social justice

California Governor Ronald Reagan was livid in September 1967. Protesting racism, black football players at San Jose State College had threatened to boycott the opening game of the season against the University of Texas-El Paso.

They were encouraged by Harry Edwards, a radical black sociologist at San Jose State who later attempted to organize a boycott of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City and authored “The Revolt of the Black Athlete,” a seminal text on the rise of athlete protest. (Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the two sprinters who gave the iconic black power salute at the 1968 games, were former athletes at San Jose State.)

What really angered Gov. Reagan was the decision of the school’s president, Robert Clark, to avoid the confrontation by cancelling the game. Reagan called it “an appeasement to lawbreakers” and deemed radical faculty like Edwards unfit to teach. But even he couldn’t force the game to go on: the New York Times announced that for the first time ever college football was canceled “because of racial unrest.”

Related: How can Mizzou heal? A 1996 campus incident offers some lessons about race

This week’s protest at the University of Missouri is a unique, substantial event: it appears that the football players played a key role in removing the university’s president and chancellor. But it’s not as significant as you may think. There is a long history of black football players organizing and coordinating with campus groups to engage in dramatic protest. True, football has always had a traditional reputation for conservatism. And college players (of all races) have always been less likely to engage in social activism than their peers, be it in the 1960s or today. But in 1968 alone there were over 100 publicized examples of black college athletes doing just that, most of them football players.

In fact, for four years a wave of “black football protest” swept the country. It coincided, of course, with the period’s general student movement, in which campus clashes over everything from free speech to the Vietnam War sometimes escalated to full-blown violence (like at Kent State University in 1970, when national guardsman fired on a crowd of protesting students, killing four). But football protest also featured black players voicing their own, more specific grievances, including a lack of academic support, overbearing coaches, racist athletic directors, or even complaints of “stacking” (schools refusing to recruit black players for certain key positions, like quarterback).

Along with the controversy at San Jose State there were dozens of other instances that drew national attention. Perhaps the largest came in October 1969 at the University of Wyoming, when the coach kicked all fourteen of the team’s black players off the team because they wanted to wear armbands in an upcoming game against Brigham Young University, protesting discrimination at BYU and in the Mormon Church. At the time Wyoming was unbeaten and ranked 12th in the nation – unlike Missouri’s team today. (Like it or not such things matter in the world of sport protest. Would the world have responded to Ali if he wasn’t winning fights?)

“True, football has always had a traditional reputation for conservatism. And college players (of all races) have always been less likely to engage in social activism than their peers, be it in the 1960s or today. But in 1968 alone there were over 100 publicized examples of black college athletes doing just that, most of them football players.”

At Wyoming the students brought their demands directly to President William Carlson, who later had a lot to say about the controversy in his memoir: “Athletics were a real nemesis to me,” he wrote. I suspect Missouri’s now-former President Tim Wolfe might say the same, perhaps not as understated. Yet despite players at schools around the country coming to the defense of Wyoming’s “Black 14,” President Carlson stayed, the players were never reinstated (most left the school), and the team immediately tanked – going 1-9 the next season. As is often the case in the world of college football, the only employee who faced any real consequence was the coach: he was fired for losing. For years after many black athletes tried to avoid the University of Wyoming.

The list of similar events from 1967-1970 is long.

The University of Washington football team briefly suspended all thirteen of its African American players after they refused to take a loyalty oath mandated by the coach. Fourteen black players were dismissed from Indiana University’s team after boycotting practices, claiming the climate on campus was “mentally depressing and morally discouraging to blacks.”

Fourteen at the University of California, Berkeley, refused to practice over scholarship support and accusations of stacking.

At Iowa State University, twenty-four black athletes submitted a list of grievances, including demands that the school hire more black coaches and administrators; two football players refused to play and left the team.

Thirty-eight footballers at Michigan State University held a one-day strike, as did nine at Syracuse University. Football protest even infiltrated the Ivy League, where athletics were supposedly de-emphasized in the name of austere academics. Five players at Princeton University made national headlines when they publicly accused the coach of racism.

Related: Five things to know about Wash U.’s plan to become more socioeconomically diverse

As was the case this week in Missouri, such historical protests also achieved real, immediate victories. Chaos erupted at Oregon State University after a coach insisted that one of the football players shave his goatee. A statewide controversy ensued and yet, eventually, the student’s battle over his own facial hair forced OSU to appoint a Commission on Human Rights and Responsibilities.

It’s thus ironic to hear many wondering if the specific grievances at Missouri warrant the “drastic” measure of threatening to shut down football. The history of athletic protest is filled with much more dramatic demonstrations over far smaller issues. Black players at Kansas University once flatly refused to play until the school recruited a black cheerleader; within days it did and all was well in the world of Jayhawk football.

So I wouldn’t overstate the significance of this week’s events just yet. More dramatic would be if this became a true, national movement among athletes at schools across the country. We are talking about a relatively small group of people; “big-time” college football is actually a pretty small world. There are perhaps several hundred or so players participating on major Division I teams at any given moment; historically that’s a small number to organize a national protest – if they really wanted to, of course.

“Imagine the implications if a large number of football players at schools all over the country refused to play,” I heard someone say this week.

Actually, we don’t really have to imagine. It already happened.

Lane Demas is a professor of history at Central Michigan University, where he specializes in the history of race and popular culture in America, specifically sport and African American history. He is the author of Integrating the Gridiron: Black Civil Rights and American College Football and is currently writing another book titled The Game of Privilege: An African American History of Golf.

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