Nearly 50 years after a group of black Wyoming football players were kicked off the team for even contemplating a protest, a new documentary gives their courage an overdue spotlight
Before there was Colin Kaepernick, there were the Black 14.
It was the fall of 1969 and black athletes across American sports were becoming more visible than ever in acts of overt political protest. A year earlier, Tommie Smith and John Carlos had raised fists at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City to protest racial oppression and the conditions of poverty and disinvestment in black communities. Two years earlier, Muhammad Ali had met with a delegation of mostly Cleveland-based black athletes to discuss his ongoing activism as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war.
And in the high plains of Wyoming, another athlete protest – a subtle gesture intended to shine a light on an injustice in their own backyard – was shut down before it could even get off the ground. Fourteen black members of the Wyoming Cowboys football team had the idea to wear black armbands to protest the racism they had encountered the last time they faced their upcoming opponent, the Cougars of Brigham Young University.
“We wanted to wear armbands to say your … beliefs have no place on the gridiron, that was it,” said Guillermo “Willie” Hysaw, one of the would-be demonstrators.
So they showed up to the clubhouse with black armbands over their street clothes to let their coach Lloyd Eaton, who was white, know what they were thinking, hoping they’d have a conversation. They were mistaken.
“It was a monologue, not a dialogue,” Hysaw said. “We never got to ask the question and we never got the state what we wanted.” The coach ‘fired’ all 14 players, triggering an uproar that consumed the rest of the football season and much of everything else in the tiny college town of Laramie, Wyoming.
It’s that drama that filmmaker Darius Monroe has captured in a new documentary short: Black 14, which can be streamed now on the web platform Topic.com.
Monroe, the award-winning director of Evolution of a Criminal, uses only archival footage to tell the story, mostly from local ABC and NBC affiliates in Wyoming, letting the principals – from the students, to the coach, to the school president and even the state’s governor – speak for themselves.
“When I saw how great the material was, it made sense that all the people who were present at the time speak on their own behalf,” Monroe said.
Cleansing the field of evil
The first time Hysaw faced the Cougars in 1968, there were the usual cheap shots and taunts of “nigger” that were de rigueur for black collegiate athletes of the era. But what really got to him and his fellow black team-mates was what happened after the Wyoming victory. During the time when players traditionally shake hands and say “good game”, the all-white Cougars instead retired to the locker room prematurely. Then they cut on the sprinklers.
And as Hysaw and his team-mates, which included more black players than most NCAA rosters at the time, jogged in though the soaking wet, there they saw a taunting caricature of an ape and a black man posted at the threshold of the visitors’ locker room. After the game a local paper in Salt Lake City ran with the headline “BYU cleanses field of evil” after the loss, Hysaw recalled.
Brigham Young University was, and remains, an appendage of the Church of Latter-day Saints, and the school’s founder taught a virulently white supremacist theology. As the second president of the Mormon church, Young canonized the belief that blacks were a cursed and inferior race, banning them from the priesthood and judging death a fitting punishment for any of God’s favored whites who would be so debased as to “mix his blood” with blacks. The ban would not be lifted until church leaders received “revelation” from God in 1978.
“They could believe what they wanted to, that when we die we don’t go to heaven,” Hysaw, now 69, said. “All we were saying was that, what they believed, relative to black people, didn’t have any place on the football field.”
The Black 14 weren’t the first black athletes to bristle at competing against BYU. In 1968, black members of the San Jose State football and basketball teams refused to play in matches against the Mormon school. That same year, eight track and field athletes from the University of Texas El Paso did the same.
But because of their high-profile immediate dismissal, none entered the public sphere quite like Wyoming’s Black 14. By January 1970, Sports Illustrated observed that “the protests [against BYU] have grown in intensity to the point where they have almost transcended all else.”
An institution that wanted to shut them down
The Black 14’s activism against the engrained white supremacy of the LDS church quickly instead brought them face to face with the engrained white supremacy of their team, school and the state of Wyoming – officially nicknamed, of all things, the equality state.
Because it was a public university, the kerfuffle made it’s way to the state governor, who like virtually all white Wyomingites took the side of the coach over the players. The Black 14, all but one of whom had been recruited to Wyoming from out of state to play football, were outcast as ingrates by the lily-white campus community. In the documentary, ebullient whites can be seen brandishing sashes emblazoned with Eaton’s name, and the satisfaction over keeping the black students in their place is evident.
“They didn’t know what tomorrow would bring,” Monroe said, “and yet they were willing to risk their careers, risking future economic possibilities to stand up and physically push back against an institution that wanted to shut them down, marginalized and oppress them.”
With athlete activism resurgent once again in the post Black Lives Matter landscape, Hysaw reflected on how the modern anthem protest movement is different from the Black 14’s, as much of it is using sports as a platform to talk about broader societal issues. “For us, It was about football,” Hysaw said.
But he added: “The same types of things that are being experienced by black folks today was also being experienced by black folks in the 60s, though. That’s the connection.”
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