COLUMBIA, S.C. --- Measuring the amount of pride you have in your state and its only university’s football team is impossible to gauge. I believed at ages 12 and 13 that there was no greater place to be a college football fan than in the state of Wyoming.
My Cowboys were riding high in the saddle, on the verge of establishing the program as nationally elite. Wyoming concluded the 1966 season with a 10-1 record after defeating Florida State in the Sun Bowl. Then in 1967, the Cowboys climbed to No. 6 in the final Associated Press poll with an undefeated regular-season, only to lose narrowly to LSU in the Sugar Bowl.
There was a slight slip back to 7-3 in 1968, but everything pointed to another New Year’s Day bowl game and undefeated season when Wyoming opened 1969 with four consecutive victories and climbed to No. 18 in the AP poll.
Then it all came crashing down.
On Oct. 17 of that season, 14 black members of the Wyoming team approached Coach Lloyd Eaton in his office. The players asked for permission to wear black arm bands in the next day’s home game against Brigham Young in protest of the Mormon church’s discrimination against their race.
Eaton interpreted the silent protest as an affront to his leadership and represented a statement against the football program and the university. He believed athletes should not participate in demonstrations of any kind.
Eaton kicked the players off the team.
Before the weekend was over, Eaton gained the support of university officials and the state legislature. While the players did not lose their academic standing in the university, they quickly realized that Wyoming athletes were not permitted to exercise their first amendment rights.
Wyoming defeated BYU without the players, who forever are known in the state as the Black 14. The Cowboys turned back San Jose State the following week, then lost the final four games of the regular season. The following season, Wyoming won one game and lost nine.
Eaton was fired following the 1970 season. You could make the case that Wyoming football has never fully recovered from what happened midway through the 1969 season. If nothing else, it forever made recruiting black athletes to Laramie, Wyo., extremely challenging.
The early reaction to the incident, especially in a conservative state like Wyoming, was that the Black 14 forever ruined Wyoming football. Over the years, the university and members of the state legislature recognized the errors in the way the proposed was handled. Today, a monument honoring the Black 14 with an armband around a black raised fist stands in the university’s student union.
Wyoming’s Black 14 protest became more relevant in recent weeks as athletes, first led by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, began kneeling before games during the playing of the national anthem in protest of discriminatory practices by police against blacks.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who rightfully is gaining more of a voice for college football coaches, recently addressed the issue of athlete’s silently protesting during the national anthem.
“We don’t seem to learn from our mistakes,” Swinney said. It might not have been his intent, but he was essentially addressing how we consistently fail to learn from previous silent protests among athletes.
Wyoming is probably the least known of those protests over the years. More famously, there were the raised fists of black track athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the medals stand at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. There was Muhammed Ali’s protest of the Vietnam War. Now comes the Kaepernick-led charge.
In every one of these instances, the issue was immediately reframed to be a question of the patriotism --- or lack thereof --- of the protesters. Talking of patriotism conveniently deflected the discussion from the reason for the protest.
It took years for the public to recognize that in each previous instance the athletes had every right to protest, and all were later celebrated for standing up for what they believed in. Perhaps we will someday learn to listen intently to athletes, rather than merely deflect attention.
I am not holding my breath.
Longtime sports columnist for The State in Columbia, SC, Ron Morris is former NSMA Board member and five-time South Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.