They are not alone. Across the country Black athletes are mobilizing, threatening to boycott, leaving programs and speaking out to force institutions to reckon with racism and take actionable steps on creating safe and healthy environments for Black students, athletes and non-athletes alike.
These demonstrations reflect a rich history of Black college athletes pushing for social change and reforms to the racist and exploitative systems they labor within. While athletes’ collegiate activism in the 1960s and 1970s produced limited wins, today’s movement echoes many of the still-unanswered demands of that time. Yet the terrain of college sports has shifted considerably in the past 50 years, and this current crop of athletic activists may be poised to challenge the very foundation of college athletics as we know it.
The first revolt of Black college athletes at predominantly White schools occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s, reflecting how the recent integration of college sports had resulted in a growing number of Black players at these universities. Schools had no problem using Black athletic talent but showed little or no desire to integrate athletic departments or other parts of the university.
When Black athletes began to show dissatisfaction with their conditional acceptance and isolation on campuses, coaches, athletic directors and journalists were quick to blame the “new militants demanding that athletes serve as symbols in the black struggle,” as one Sports Illustrated writer put it. However, college athletes understood themselves as more than symbols; they were raising real grievances.
In 1967, Black athletes at San Jose State threatened to disrupt the football season opener if the school did not address segregation, racism and hiring disparities across campus. A few Black athletes on the opposing team, the University of Texas-El Paso, indicated they would boycott in solidarity with their peers at SJSU. The threat of this action led the president to cancel the game, a decision that infuriated then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. But it also demonstrated the threat of athletic action was a useful tactic infused with power and possibilities.
Later that fall, the same group at SJSU launched the Olympic Project for Human Rights, an organization that debated an Olympic boycott and later supported individual protests at the coming Olympic Games. The following year, Black college athletes used the 1968 Olympic Games to revolt. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then called Lew Alcindor, refused to play in the Olympics all together. At the Games themselves, SJSU athletes, John Carlos, Tommie Smith and Lee Evans, and Tennessee State’s Wyomia Tyus all protested individually, and Carlos and Smith raised their fists on the medal stand. Later, Tyus and her teammates, Cal State’s Barbera Farrell, Alcorn State’s Mildrette Netter and high schooler Margaret Bailes, dedicated their gold medals from the 4 x 100m relay, to Carlos and Smith in a show of support and solidarity.
Even without the Olympic spotlight, Black college athletes continued to rebel. At Oregon State in 1969, a Black football player balked at facial hair requirements on the team, insisting his hair was cultural and the dress codes were racist. When he was dismissed from the team, the 47 other Black students enrolled at the school (which had a total enrollment of 14,500), staged a walkout in protest and many left the university altogether.
Black athletes around the country paired concerns about athletics with larger institutional critiques, especially around the lack of commitment for integration beyond the playing field. At Michigan State, 38 athletes threatened a boycott across all sports, demanding the university hire Black coaches, professors and academic counselors. This demand was echoed by athletes at Iowa, Syracuse, Arizona State, University of Washington, University of Kansas, Indiana and Marquette University.
In 1968 Black athletes at the University of Texas-El Paso revolted after their athletic director, George McCartney, used a racial slur to say Black athletes were “a little hungrier and we have been blessed to have some really outstanding ones. We think they’ve done a lot for us and we’ve done a lot for them.”
On the heels of those comments, Black track athletes at the school also refused to participate in a meet against Brigham Young University due to the LDS church’s racist policies toward Black people. Indeed, games against BYU were frequent sites of protest for Black fans and athletes in the Western Conference.
In 1969, a group of 14 football players at the University of Wyoming, later known as the Wyoming 14, attempted to wear black armbands during a football game against BYU. However, all 14 players were dismissed from the team by Coach Lloyd Eaton. They watched as fans poured into the stadium wearing yellow armbands proudly displaying “EATON” in support of the coach rather than the Black players.
The Wyoming 14 learned firsthand that athletic activism could leave them in a precarious position. The players insisted on their constitutional right of speech, but their failed lawsuit and dismissal sent a clear message about where power was concentrated in college sports. In Iowa, Black athletes who were removed from the football team for voicing concerns about their treatment had to apologize and beg their way back on — but not before being subjected to a vote from their White teammates to see if they would be welcomed back. In 1969, when eight Black Syracuse football players demanded a Black coach, the school relented, but also released all of the players. During the 1970-71 season, Syracuse had one Black coach, and no Black players.
By the end of 1968, individual schools and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, were searching for ways to quiet the growing seeds of discontent. Just nine days into the new year, the NCAA decided to allow schools to revoke athletic scholarships based on “rule violation,” an intentionally vague policy that afforded coaches the power to dismiss players who engaged in protest. In 1973, the NCAA passed another rule that damped the ability of Black college athletes to protest. By making athletic scholarships into one-year renewable contracts, the NCAA further tipped the scales of power away from athletes.
In recent decades the college sports industrial complex has grown with TV deals, new stadiums, corporate sponsorships and ballooning salaries for everyone — except the players. College sports is a billion-dollar industry built on the back of unpaid labor that is disproportionally Black.
However, Black athletes are now recognizing the power, harking back to the protests of the late 1960s. During the past few weeks, several Black college athletes led efforts on their college campuses to address systemic racism on campus. The coronavirus pandemic has further fueled resistance among Black athletes who are especially concerned about their health and safety in a system that has shown them repeatedly it only cares about their labor and the profit it generates.
While Black male athletes in football, basketball and track and Black women in track and cheerleading were the primary drivers during the 1960s, Black college athletes today are uniting across all sports. They are using their platform to amplify other concerns, particularly those of Black students across campus and in the broader community.
History suggests the NCAA and those who profit from the current system will fight to hold on to power. When the Pac-12 Unity statement came out, it was quickly followed by reports that players who signed it were confronted, threatened and even dismissed from their teams. The pressure to relent is considerable: money, access and careers hinge on allowing the system great power over college athletes.
Yet, the revolt is growing. Black college athletes are coming together, insisting on their safety, their humanity, their futures and fighting back against a system that seeks to commodify them, control and exploit their labor. The political economy of college sports has changed since the first revolt. The house of cards that is college athletics has been teetering on the backs of Black college athletes. As they are rising, the whole system is shaking. Maybe this time it comes tumbling down.
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated with a clarification about the 1968 Olympic Games protests.