Black History Month

February was Black History Month. I’m a bit late to the game but I figure we should learn about black history at any time of the year since it wasn’t taught in school. Real-life stories need to be told and shared. And that’s why I want to share this BBC podcast, Amazing Sports Stories and in particular a 4 part series on The Black 14.

American writer and audio producer, B.A .Parker, takes us back to the turbulent 1960’s. She explores the unjust dismissal of 14 young, black American football players from their University of Wyoming Cowboy football team. B.A. Parker is also the co-host of NPR’s Code Switch, one of my favourite podcasts. That’s how I came across the Black 14 story.

Back to the 60’s

The year is 1969. Remember this is the time of the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated the year before. Black Student Unions and Alliances had taken issue with the Church of Latter Day Saints’ policy that African-American men were not allowed to become priests in the church and African-American women could not enter the church.

The 14 University of Wyoming African-American players decided to silently protest by wearing black arm bands at the next game at Brigham Young University (BYU) which was owned and operated by the church. They were not protesting civil rights per se, but the treatment they, themselves, had received on the field at BYU. They wanted to take a stand against the unnecessary roughness specifically targeted at them while officials turned a blind eye; the no shaking of hands at the end of the game; and the sprinklers being turned on before they left the field so they had to run through the water on their way to the locker room.

The protest that never was

The players decided as a group that they would talk to their head coach, Lloyd Eaton aka Lord Eaton, first. If he said no, then they would still play and not wear the armbands. As it turned out, Lord Eaton fired them all from the team. And not in a calm “your services are no longer required” way but in a rampage of racist, degrading, and demoralizing words of anger. They didn’t even get a chance to ask, respond, or explain their intent.

Of course, the players’ scholarships and thus their education was tied to them being on the team. In one fell swoop, Lord Eaton changed the course of their young lives. The Governor of the State of Wyoming and the President of the University called an emergency meeting between the players and their coach. However, Eaton refused to attend so the Governor and President went to him. He had that much power. The players knew they were doomed. Football is king and as long as you’re winning, you can do and say whatever you like.

Many lies, untruths and fabricated stories emerged. The players were suddenly treated like pariahs not only on campus and in the small town of Laramie, but the whole state. Nationally though, the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum. The Black 14 were swept up in a legal battle that would last for years.

The surviving players

B.A. Parkers speaks with 8 of the surviving players during this podcast series. They revisit that dark time more than 50 years ago and the years that followed.

It turns out their courageous stand had an impact. The Black 14 incident had quietly sparked change within BYU. The university got their first African-American football player the very next year. BYU eventually extended an apology to the Black 14 and an unlikely alliance formed.

However, it took until 2019, the 50th anniversary of the Black 14 incident, for 8 out of the 11 surviving players to finally receive a Letter of Apology from the University of Wyoming. As they walked onto the field with the current team, every person in the stadium stood, clapped, and cheered for the reinstated cowboys. They had come full circle. Back in a stadium they had once played in, then were hated in, and finally honoured in. It may seem like too little, far too late. But, all those years ago, they made a statement without actually making a statement, and it reverberated across the country even if they didn’t know it at the time.

On the other hand, Lord Eaton, who had all the power, fame, and glory was fired the following year after a 1-9 losing streak without the talented black players. He had but 2 victories after kicking the Black 14 off the team, leaving them without a future…so he thought. He died in 2007 without ever returning to Wyoming University where he was once so celebrated.

Progress since then

And the sad truth is, have we made much progress since then? Racial inequality seems to be alive and well within the NFL. Think Colin Kaepernick, NFL quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. Only 8 short years ago, in 2016, he took a stand and knelt during the national anthem in silent protest of police brutality and racial inequality in the United States. He was fired for protesting during the national anthem and has remained unsigned by any professional football team to this day.

How absurd that people can storm Capitol Hill in violent protest and one black man cannot silently take a knee during the national anthem.

Yet, sticking together like the Black 14 and speaking up for what’s right is never the wrong thing to do. It may seem like it’s all for naught. And more often than not, it results in great sacrifice. But, at some point, it will make a difference, just like the Black 14 made a difference.

Listen to the Black 14

I hope you will listen to all 4 episodes of the Black 14. It’s a necessary real-life story that needs to be heard, remembered, and shared.

The Black 14

Until next time,

~ Colleen

Colleen Kanna, Photo by Anna Epp Photography

I’m a recovering Chartered Accountant and Breast Cancer Champion turned Fashion Designer. My COKANNA Canadian-made bamboo clothing is all about comfort and style. Giving back to the community is important to me so I support local breast cancer organizations who treat the whole person and not just the disease.