In 1966, Calvin Hill was preparing to play football at Yale University. Hill, an African American, was a star quarterback at his high school. But upon arriving at Yale, his coaches told him that he would be playing running back instead. One day a group of black student activists showed up at his dorm room and asked him to lunch. As Hill remembered in 1988, they said to him, “‘How would you feel about us picketing the offices because they shifted you from quarterback?’ I’d [just] been there four or five days.… What the hell was happening at Yale?”
This is one of many stories from the 1960s of campus activists trying to connect with student athletes. These groups were traditionally rivals, but the black freedom struggle and the fight against the Vietnam War had created a common generational cause. These struggles also inspired many players to take actions of their own.
This largely forgotten history has taken on a new urgency following the Missouri Tigers football strike against racism, which ended after University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe resigned. Some commentators have called these actions unprecedented, but they’re not. In addition to recent examples of restive college football players, which includes the recent union battle at Northwestern and the 2013 players strike at Grambling, there is also an extensive history of student-athlete activism from the late 1960s. It’s a history worth knowing, one that could tell us something about our own future.
- In 1967, 35 black players on the University of California, Berkeley, football team boycotted spring practice until more black coaches were hired. John Erby was soon named as the first black assistant coach at UCB.
- In 1968, players at Michigan State delivered a list of demands to athletic director Biggie Munn Biggie Munn. They refused to play unless a search was conducted for a black coaches, trainers, and cheerleaders. Munn refused to even take their demands to the school president. Twenty four players walked out of spring practice and two more were purposefully disrupted and cancelled. They won.
- At the University of Washington, athletes won a study of racism in the athletic department after accusing the football trainer of making racial slurs and providing inadequate treatment for injuries.
- In 1972, the Huskies refused to take the field for the second half of a game on homecoming weekend, unless a statement was read by the stadium sound system against the war in Vietnam.
- In May 1969, athletes and coaches at Howard University threatened to quit unless athletic director Samuel Barnes was removed. They also wanted “better food, more medical attention, streamlined means of transportation, more equipment, better living conditions and a full-time sports information director.” Student assembly president Ewart Brown Jr., a member of the track team burned his Howard varsity sweatshirt. As it went up in ashes, football player Harold Orr said, “This is what we think of the athletic program. [We need a] cremation of the old system.”
- At Syracuse, nine black players, the “Syracuse Nine,” walked out of spring practice because their coach, Ben Schwartzwalder, reneged on a promise to hire a black coach. The school president ordered Schwartzwalder to hire one black coach and he did, but the coach also kicked all the players off the team. By the 1970 season, Syracuse had a black coach, and no black players.
Up until this era, sports were used to differentiate the “disgusting hippies” from the “All-American” majority. As then congressman—and former football star—Gerald Ford said: “Personally, I’m glad that thousands of fine Americans can spend this Saturday afternoon ‘knocking each other down’ in a spirit of clean sportsmanship and keen competition instead of assaulting Pentagon soldiers or policemen with ‘peace’ placards and filthy words.”