The Revolt of the “Black 14” and Free Speech in College Athletics

Sunday, January 5, 2020: 9:50 AM
Empire Ballroom West (Sheraton New York)
Tyran Steward, Carleton College
My presentation analyzes the “Black 14” controversy at the University of Wyoming (UW). In 1969, 14 African Americans were dismissed from the Wyoming football team by Head Coach Lloyd Eaton after asking to wear black armbands in an upcoming game against Brigham Young University (BYU) to protest the racial policies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). The LDS, which owns and operates BYU, excluded African Americans from its priesthood. The “Black 14” had been encouraged to demonstrate by the Wyoming Black Student Alliance and were reminded of the racial disparagement they had encountered the previous year in a game against BYU. Eaton, nonetheless, charged the 14 black players with a “definite violation of the coaches’ rule and a breach of discipline” for expressing their desire to show solidarity with the BSA protest. Whereas the dismissal of the “Black 14” reveals the staunch opposition that African Americans garnered for their activism on the field, especially in the Age of the Athletic Revolt, it also highlights questions related to black athletes’ First Amendment rights. For the “Black 14,” Wyoming cast their participation in stark terms: as scholarship athletes, they could labor on the gridiron but otherwise were not permitted to partake in any demonstrations or protests. Unwilling to accept these constraints on free speech, the “Black 14” focused their activism on a new cause. They directly challenged their dismissal at Wyoming, spurring the federal court case of Williams v. Eaton and a national backlash that rocked Laramie and forever changed the university’s athletic fortunes. This paper retells this history and demonstrates how the arguments over the separation of church and state became a battleground for the struggle over free speech in college athletics.
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