Throwback Thursday: College Football Coaches, the Ultimate 1 Percent

This week’s throwback is a selfish one, considering it’s my own story from earlier this year. But after the University of Missouri football team joined other campus activists in protest and helped oust the school president, and with other college protests very much in the news, it’s worth taking a look back at how college football players have used their positions to push for social justice in the past.

While the article goes all the way back to the nineteenth century, it’s the 1960s and 70s that saw (mostly black) players standing up for themselves, boycotting games against then-segregated Brigham Young University and publicly feuding with racist coaches. The movement fundamentally changed the way big schools viewed their football programs and coaches. One of the best examples is the story of the Black 14 at Wyoming:

The group of Wyoming players, who came to be known as the Black 14, had decided to wear black armbands during the BYU game to protest the Mormon church’s teachings. When [Coach] Eaton warned them after practice that athletes were forbidden from participating in protests, they decided to see him the next morning and talk it over. The players showed up to Eaton’s office wearing their armbands. Eaton later said he gave them ten minutes to explain themselves before dismissing them. “Like hell he gave us 10 minutes,” running back Joe Williams, one of the team’s three captains, told Sports Illustrated a few weeks later. “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.” While the administration stood behind Eaton, faculty and students protested. The next year, after a 1-9 season, Eaton was fired. He would never coach again.

To college students in the 1960s, it was harder to sell an old football coach as the moral center of the school. That was especially true for black students and athletes, who were even more cognizant of what it meant for a rich white man to be handing down orders to a team of unpaid players. “Some of those athletes start to see this disparity between who’s in charge and who’s actually producing the product,” says Ingrassia. “It looks a lot like indentured servitude.”

You can read the whole story right here.

Matt Connolly

Matt Connolly is digital managing editor of the Washington Monthly.