TGS SPECIAL REPORT...OPENING A PANDORA'S BOX AT MIZZOU--PART II
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
(This is the continuation of a similarly-named editorial that ran in TGS Football Issue No. 12)...
There are plenty of still-moving pieces in the storyline involving the University of Missouri and the threatened boycott by its football team of the recent game against BYU. Some of those were addressed in the first installment of this piece that ran in the new TGS Football Issue No. 12, and will be revisited more at the end of this piece.
Still, even those who have voiced disappointment at the Mizzou situation must acknowledge that the threatened football boycott played a large role in the storyline and was undoubtedly the single greatest ice-breaker in the quick-moving developments of a week ago that led to the resignations of school President Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin. However dubious some of the demands and protests have been subsequently rendered will be addressed further in a moment. The bottom line, however, was the threatened football boycott was the defining element of events at Mizzou.
Though the Mizzou situation remains unique in that it is the first time we recall an actual college team threatening a boycott, it is not the first time college sports have treaded in related territory, with a handful of various past protests effectively having the same impact as a boycott. To add context and reference to a phenomenon that is likely to repeated in the near future, plus a valued reference point for actions of the past few weeks at Mizzou, a brief review of similar controversies (and their eventual successes) is in order.
That the turbulent '60s would be the flashpoint for past boycotts/protests is no surprise. Those not around in the decade who cannot recall the strife on many college campuses, much of it related to the Vietnam war, might not be able to frame the era as accurately as those who lived through those turbulent times. Especially the late '60s, when war protests began to overheat and would combine with the ongoing issues of the Civil Rights Movement to create a Molotov cocktail-like mix at many universities around the country.
The enduring memories of the wild 60s on college campuses include various protests at places such as Berkeley, Columbia, and Cornell, where the self-described Student Left occupied buildings with what they often referred to as "non-negotiable" demands. In the decades since, schools by and large accommodated many of those demands regarding academic subjects, admission policies, and, most regrettably, the ultra-aggressive and non-tolerant politics of identity and grievance. Meanwhile, college sport, especially the "revenue sports" football and basketball, have proceeded on their own paths with their own recurring controversies, some of those related to the broader concerns first voiced by the student radicals of the late 60s. Sports controversies, however, would rarely manifest in strikes or boycotts or protests...but on a few occasions, they did.
The handful of college sports boycott/protests of the late '60s tended not as much to focus upon Vietnam but rather racial strife, which reflected another aspect of American society that was undergoing upheaval in the '60s. To a point in the late '60s, however, college sport had not been considered as a vehicle for boycott or protest. That is, until the arrival on the scene of a central character in the plot who remains active and visible to this day.
The engine room of this debate was first run by Harry Edwards, at the time a young professor at his alma mater San Jose State. Edwards, born in East St. Louis, Illinois in 1942, attended Fresno City College from 1959 to 1960 as a student-athlete before transferring to San Jose State in 1960 on an athletic scholarship in track and field, where Edwards was a discus thrower of note. While at San Jose, however, Edwards and other black student-athletes confronted housing and employment discrimination and a segregated campus social life as the university funneled many of its black athletes into a physical education curriculum to keep them eligible to compete in sports. Few black athletes graduated during the years of their athletic eligibility. Determined to earn a social work degree, Edwards began challenging the system. In 1964, he became the first black student-athlete since the early 1950s to graduate from San Jose State.
Edwards would then begin graduate work in sociology at Cornell, where he was one of the first students to study black sociology. After receiving his M.A. in 1966, Edwards took a temporary leave from Cornell to teach at his alma mater SJSU as a visiting professor during the 1966-68 years, an increasingly explosive period in American politics and society.
The confluence of personality and circumstance would soon spotlight Edwards, who proved to be the first real linchpin between the broader civil rights movement and the increasing turmoil felt by college athletes.
Edwards founded the UBSA (United Black Students for Action) to protest a wide range of discriminatory practices in the fraternity system, campus housing policies, social organizations, and athletics. Although only one of hundreds of civil rights organizations to pop up on campuses in the late 60s, Edwards' innovation was to use sports to make his points.
Edwards, however, waited a bit before activating the sports-related component of his protest. When Edwards felt the San Jose State administration was not listening to UBSA concerns, he began to formalize the framework for his plan. First was a rally against racism on the opening day of classes for the 1967 fall semester, though Edwards also knew that mere picketing was not a foolproof way to mobilize those in power. Correctly, Edwards reckoned that sports was the lever that brought school, community, and administrators together, and had a chance to deliver a broader message if he could harness those elements properly. The possibility of using sports as an effective vehicle for protest became clear to Edwards. Thus, his plan would include provisions to disrupt the opening game of the San Jose State football season against UTEP "by any means necessary."
Before that nuclear option, however, Edwards's UBSA presented a set of demands to SJSU administrators, among them equal treatment for black students by on-campus fraternities, elimination of closed-door sessions held by administrators to alleviate black student grievances, and various housing and admission-related issues. If not addressed, Edwards would orchestrate a picket of the administration building and PE department, then the same on fraternity row while camping on those front lawns. Finally, if the situation called for it, Edwards' protestors would march out on the field at the start of the SJSU-UTEP game...and not move. Revealing a tactic that would permeate the upcoming Black Power Movement, Edwards warned of reprisal in case of physical confrontation. "If anyone touched us, we would have sent them to the cemetery," Edwards would eventually say.
Edwards' protestors were prepared to defend themselves against threats of retaliation, a radical departure from the mantra of non-violent protest as espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders of the day.
The national media jumped on the story; would a student protest lead to the cancellation of a football game? Expecting possible problems, then-California Governor Ronald Reagan offered to send in the National Guard. But the situation was quickly getting out of hand, as several unnamed individuals and groups were threatening to burn down Spartan Stadium if the game were played. According to the San Jose Mercury..."several 'Soul Brothers' called Edwards to express their support of his proposed sit-in. They added that 'something could happen' and 'the stadium could go.'" By this time, Edwards had told administrators that he might not be able to control all of the individuals who might attend the game. So the SJSU administrators decided to cancel the game to avoid the possibility of "mass violence." UTEP thus was awarded a forfeit win and a check for $12,000 from San Jose State under a cancellation clause in the game contract (though Edwards would later claim the real costs to be closer to $100,000 for the schools involved). Interestingly, UTEP and San Jose State did not meet on the gridiron again until they happened to land together in the old WAC in 1996.
Unlike what we are apparently witnessing at Mizzou and a handful of other schools at the moment, however, there was an end-game to the various grievances of Edwards and his UBSA. Not only had Edwards mobilized his protest, but had established a black-student coalition aimed at improving conditions in an integrated setting. Edwards and the UBSA attempted to redistribute political power within the framework of the college and athletic infrastructure, without de-emphasizing integration. But Edwards had challenged the belief that integration alone was a sufficient remedy for historical inequities.
Of course, Edwards would move forward in 1968 to organize the "Olympic Project for Human Rights" that would threaten an American black boycott of the 1968 Mexico City games, as mentioned in Part I of this piece in this week's TGS Football Issue 12. When time and space and circumstance permit we may well return to the various layers of the fascinating tale of Mexico City 1968.
While Edwards (who would eventually earn his doctorate at Cornell in 1971, adding the "Dr." to his name, and begin a long career as a sociology professor at Berkeley while writing books, including the acclaimed Revolt of the Black Athlete, and giving speeches, and remaining active in capacities with the NFL and San Francisco 49ers after his retirement as a professor in 2000) obviously chafed the Establishment and has rubbed several the wrong way, he was also trying his best to work within the existing framework and had specific goals in mind. Which seems to run contrary to much of the direction of the recent events at Mizzou. We can assume that those at Mizzou, including the football team (at least those inwardly supporting the recent boycott), do not have a clue what comes next after forcing the ouster of the president and chancellor. Unless, that is, one of the student protestors wants to give it a go as school president.
At this juncture the Edwards portion of this story hands the baton to an unlikely outpost that would become the center of controversy in 1969.
Whereas Harry Edwards' San Jose State-UTEP 1967 would more threaten protest and not involve the football team directly, things were different at Wyoming in 1969 when a planned protest by 14 black members of the Cowboys football before an October 18, 1969 home game against BYU would become a national storyline. The players, whose plight has been recorded in the recently-published book entitled Black 14 by Ryan Thornburn, wanted to wear black armbands in protest of the LDS policy of not allowing blacks into the priesthood, and of course targeted the game against the LDS school, BYU, to implement their subtle protest.
At the time, HC Lloyd Eaton's 1969 Wyoming squad had gotten off to a flying 4-0 start and would climb as high as 15th in the polls that season, but the events in and around the BYU game would haunt the program for years.
While the remote Laramie locale was considered as somewhat hostile to students of color, the Wyo campus was mostly free of the racial tension and anti-Vietnam war strife that had gripped many campuses in the late '60s. There were sporadic but small anti-war protests in Laramie, such as a march in the fall of 1969 in support of an anti-war moratorium. But inspired by actions of students on other campuses, a small number of black students at Wyo formed a Black Student Alliance, whose influence soon spread to the black members of the football team.
As detailed in the excellent book, College Football, by John Sayle Watterson, on the Thursday prior to the BYU game, Eaton had heard from the Alliance of a demonstration planned for the clash vs. the Provo, Utah-based Cougars. Summoning Joe Williams, one of his team captains and a member of the BSA, Eaton warned that any players who wore the black armbands on the field for the BYU game would be dismissed from the team.
On Friday morning, Williams and the other 13 black members of the Cowboy team appeared in Eaton's office, wearing their armbands, and asked for a meeting with the coach. Eaton obliged--sort of--leading the players to the bleachers of the adjacent War Memorial Flieldhouse and thus delivered a lecture. At the outset, Eaton laid down his law. "I can save you fellows a lot of time and a lot of words," said Eaton to the assembled 14. "You are all through at Wyoming." When the players tried to plead their case, they were told to shut up.
(Hardly the Gary Pinkel example we saw at Mizzou less than two weeks ago!)
Remember, these were sensitive racial times in 1969, not long after urban unrest had resulted in devastating riots in locales such as Watts, Detroit, Newark, and Washington, D.C. And even though Laramie was off the beaten path, news spread quickly. State authorities reacted as if their university had come under siege; the board of trustees rushed to Laramie to hold a special session with Governor Stanley Hathaway, Wyo president William Carlson, and the dissident players. The meeting, which lasted for hours, failed to reach a settlement with the 14 athletes, who would not back down from their vow to wear their armbands in the game. Eaton's decision to dismiss the players was thus upheld.
Meanwhile, a contingent of National Guardsmen had been summoned to Laramie amid rumors that busloads of paramilitary Black Panthers from Denver might raid the stadium during the BYU game. The Guardsmen waited under the grandstands for the trouble, but the buses from Denver never arrived. The 14 dismissed players were in the stands for the game, which an energized Wyo won 40-7, but the seeds of disruption had been planted. After a win the next week over (ironically) Harry Edwards' alma mater San Jose State to push their record to 6-0, the Cowboys lost their next four games, and Eaton's regime ended the following season after an unsightly 1-9 mark. It would not be until later in the '70s that the Cowboy football program would again be able to attract black recruits in numbers and finally recover.
Years later, the "Black 14" were honored with a statue that now stands in the Wyoming Student Union. And the LDS changed its policy regarding black priests in 1971. That adjustment might have been coming soon anyway, but in a small way perhaps the Wyo football players accelerated the change.
Which brings us to 2015, and the aftermath of the situation at Mizzou. Among the many differences between San Jose State in 1967 and Wyoming in 1969 and the current situation at Mizzou is an increasingly polarized political climate and a vastly different media structure that is unrecognizable from five decades ago. We suggest that if the Internet and Twitter and other social media, not to mention the countless cable news channels, had been around in 1967, Harry Edwards and the San Jose State protest would have dwarfed the coverage that the recent controversy at Mizzou generated. Ditto for Wyoming's "Black 14" in 1969; a similar storyline today would dominate news cycles far longer than the recent Mizzou tale.
It is how such stories are covered by the sports media, however, that is such a change from decades ago. And for the most part, the modern-day sportswriter and sports columnists adhere to shallow politically-correct doctrines that are as predictable as they are uninspiring...which was not the case in 1967 or 1969. Last week, however, we had little doubt that most of the sports media would trumpet the outcome at Mizzou as a wonderful development while letting other more responsible elements of the media dig a bit deeper into the story. Unfortunately, in the slightly more than a week since the Mizzou story broke and then exploded, various factoids of the on-campus protest and football boycott began to surface that hardly portrayed much of the exercise in a heroic light. Including reports that at least half of the team, including several African-American players, did not support the boycott, though the sports media has mostly ignored those developments and stayed on its original message.
How no sports writers, at least that we have noted, could mention the other side of the Mizzou story and the potential Pandora's box that it has opened, providing a new and wide expanse for the political activist and professional agitator to manipulate, suggests either ignorance, or, perhaps, fear, on the part of those at Yahoo Sports and countless other sports journalists who have slanted their coverage one way on the Mizzou situation. As we also pointed out with our mention of former Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz in Part I (check out his recent, post-Mizzou "fog of fascism" commentary online), there has been much condemnation of the situation at Mizzou and the capitulation of its administrators from both the Right and the Left. Most of the American sports writers would never mention that those cheerleading loudest over the recent developments at Mizzou are probably limited to a small faction that would like to see their grievances bleed indefinitely.
As mentioned in Part I, the most-responsible review of the Mizzou situation came in a Wall Street Journal editorial entitled "Bonfire of the Academy" in the November 11 issue. Near its conclusion, the editorial issued a warning. "The progressive activists of today, unlike their liberal antecedents, believe that ideas with which they disagree or which they deem morally repugnant don't deserve to be heard. And so they shout them down or tell their speakers to "shut up" or "resign." They believe that the free-speech protection is a quaint obstacle to getting what they want, which is total control." The WSJ also pointed out that festering behind the dispute between school administrators and grad students (like the hunger-striking Jonathan Butler) was a cutback to their health-care coverage, again one of many important angles to the storyline that the majority of sports writers has ignored.
There are plenty of opportunities for the American sports media to express indignation, but they choose those fights selectively, and usually only under protective cover from the mainstream media. Which is why it has been left it up to a handful of publications like the WSJ to dig deeper. While we recoil at the thought of political activists and professional agitators infiltrating college sport and manipulating entities such as Mizzou's football in supporting causes that fit their often-narrow political and social agendas (and don't think those sorts aren't feeling like a kid in a candy shop with the new opportunities presented by college sport), we also know that a lot is wrong with college sports. Yet the sportswriters of the nation almost collectively choose to overlook stories of academic fraud at places like North Carolina, or the startling arrest records of football players at countless schools, or the continued exploitation of many student-athletes (including significant numbers of minority student-athletes) who continue to be exploited by the college sports machine. And as it relates to Mizzou, where was the indignation of the nation's sportswriters at the cases of sexual assault involving Tiger players a few years ago?
As we conclude, we have to circle back to Harry Edwards and his ideas about sport being used as a vehicle for protest. Edwards was right, there is awesome potential power yielded by sport, and especially college sport, due to its confluence of mighty interests. But in the wrong hands, like those of the political activists and agitators, it can easily be manipulated for dubious cause by the agenda-seekers. The seeds first planted by Edwards almost 50 years ago are finally beginning to flower. Except that those fields now include many thorny bushes, ones that we cannot trust the mainstream sports media to warn about.
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