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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

It's past time for UW to apologize to the Black 14

One of the biggest stains remaining on the University of Wyoming's athletics department is the way it -- and the state -- treated black football athletes in 1969 when they sought to protest racism by Brigham Young University.

By Rodger McDaniel 

You may or may not agree with Colin Kaepernick’s beliefs, but the truth is he risked his career to say what he believed. When did any of his harshest critics ever take
Ten members of the Black 14 at UW in 1969.
such a risk? Instead, they sit safely in the cheap seats, screaming along with Pontius Trump, “Crucify him!”

Sports figures have often been more willing to take a personal risk than politicians. Before Kaepernick was Muhammad Ali. History proves Ali right for refusing to serve in Vietnam. Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos were ostracized when they raised clinched fists protesting racism while receiving their medals at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

Then came Wyoming’s Black 14.

In the midst of the current debate over whether black athletes have a right to express themselves in the land of the free, the University of Wyoming has some unfinished business. Another football season is nearing an end without an apology to the 14 football players whose UW careers were sacrificed to “Equality State” bigotry.

It was 1969. Skin color divided the nation. Wyoming wouldn’t be permitted to remain on the sidelines. The controversy visited Wyoming’s most sacred shrine, UW football.

The Cowboys were one of America’s best, ranked 12th nationally. The Pokes were 4-0 to begin a season after they nearly upset Louisiana State University in the Sugar Bowl, then one of the four major bowl games played on New Year’s Day. UW was preparing to play its biggest rival, Brigham Young University.

Though the policy has since changed, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints barred blacks from its priesthood. Many of the black players said that a year earlier, when the Cowboys defeated BYU in Provo, Utah, they had been subjected to racial taunts from BYU players and fans. In October 1969, BYU, an LDS school, was headed to Laramie to play the Pokes. Fourteen black UW players asked to protest what they felt was racism by wearing black armbands.

Coach Lloyd Eaton didn’t take time to hear them out. He had no interest in their concerns.

Eaton had previously demonstrated a racist penchant when one of his black players planned to marry a white woman and asked him to approve a request for married student housing. “That’s not gonna happen,” Eaton barked. “I can’t let you marry this girl on Wyoming’s money.” Eaton was apparently referring to the scholarship he believed purchased the young man’s constitutional rights.

When the black players appeared in his office, a quick-tempered Eaton dismissed all 14 from the team, depriving them of their scholarships. Everyone from UW’s board to the governor, legislators, white teammates, Cowboy fans and much of the public promptly sided with Eaton.

Much of the opposition to the 14 had unmistakable racial overtones. Many fans followed the example of the politicians taunting the 14 student-athletes. At least one proudly waved a Confederate flag during the following week’s game.

Martha J. Karnopp, a Denver lawyer, was a Laramie schoolteacher in 1969. Karnopp recalled the ubiquitous bumper stickers reading “I Support Lloyd Eaton.” She said, “I didn’t have bumper stickers, my views were known, and it was NOT fine! I later lost my teaching job, partially due to this incident. The only group in the state who saw the injustice and did NOT support the coach was the law school faculty. So, I chose to go to law school.”

It took years before UW could recruit exceptional black players and many more seasons before they won another conference title. The Black 14 incident remains a stain on Wyoming’s reputation.

Nothing ever damaged UW’s image so much as the Black 14 incident. If those men were invited to stand at the 50-yard line of the stadium where they once played to receive a formal apology from the governor and UW’s president, affirmed by a standing ovation from today’s fans, much of the stain would be removed.

It has been 48 years. But it’s never too late to do the right thing.

Rodger McDaniel is the pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne. He resides in Laramie.

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