Black History Month: Wyoming's Black 14 Showed the Power of Principle

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This February, Sports Illustrated is celebrating Black History Month by spotlighting a different iconic athlete or group of athletes every day. Today, SI looks back on the legacy of the Black 14.

The 14 African-American members of the 1969 University of Wyoming football team showed what the power of protest and principle.

Earl Lee, John Griffin, Willie Hysaw, Don Meadows, Ivie Moore, Tony Gibson, Jerry Berry, Joe Williams, Mel Hamilton, Jim Isaac, Tony Magee, Ted Williams, Lionel Grimes and Ron Hill proved that, often, protest and sacrifice can help bring down—and will assuredly outlast—the institutionally racist policies that create and maintain oppression.

The Black 14, as they'd later be known, were kicked off the football team for doing nothing more than asking to protest the Mormon church's policy barring black members from the priesthood. 

As the undefeated, No. 16 ranked Wyoming was due to play Brigham Young University, the 14 players—vital to the team—entered head coach Lloyd Eaton's office with black armbands around their civilian clothing and requested the forum to speak. 

They asked if they could draw attention to the racism inherent in the hierarchy of the Mormon church—the church of BYU—by wearing black armbands at Saturday's game. At the time, civil rights activists across the country were wearing black armbands in solidarity with the nationwide fight for civil rights. 

The coach would later say that he heard their opinions "for 10 minutes" and considered them before kicking them off the team. But the 14 heavily dispute that account. 

These are two players' accounts in the pages of Sports Illustrated from 1969:

"Like hell he gave us 10 minutes," said Williams. "He came in, sneered at us and yelled that we were off the squad. He said our very presence defied him. He said he has had some good Neeegro boys. Just like that."

"Then he said it was stupid for us to be protesting against a faith and a religion none of us knew about," said Willie Hysaw, an ex-receiver. "Talk about stupid! Do you know that Ted Williams [another of the 14] is a Mormon?"

The coach summarily dismissed the 14 players for insubordination.

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It's clear which side had more credibility in the fight. Regardless, Eaton's decision stood. State legislators threatened to defund the university if administrators backed down on the dismissals. 

From the same Sports Illustrated story from 1969:

When seven members of the faculty said they would resign unless the 14 were reinstated, the Touchdown Club in Casper said it was raising money to get the seven out of the state. The student senate came out in favor of a hearing on the issue—which caused the rest of the students to call for an impeachment of the senate. A faculty-student ad hoc committee was formed to investigate, and then was never heard from again. The school paper came out for the 14, and then Phil White, the editor, resigned.

A flurry of backlash continued, but it proved to be a watershed moment, capturing a moment in time when protest against oppression and the regressive actions of the government were plentiful and powerful.

The 14 were made martyrs in the process, forever changing college sports—and Wyoming, for that matter. Between 1950-69—the 20 seasons before the dismissals—Wyoming played in five bowl games and never posted a losing season. From 1970-86, the Cowboys made just one bowl game and had only four winning seasons.

Litigation was filed on behalf of the Black 14, which reached federal courts. Ultimately, the U.S. district judge in charge of the case—who had been a guest at a Wyoming booster event held to honor Eaton—dismissed it two separate times.

Still, change ensued. The NCAA started to integrate steadily as the years went on, as did BYU, which finally saw its first African-American player in 1970. The Mormon church decided to lift its ban on black priests in 1978.

From the SI Vault:

"No Defeats, Loads of Trouble," by Pat Putnam (Nov. 3, 1969)