In 1964, the federal government passed the Civil Rights Act, making certain forms of discrimination illegal in the United States. Just five years later — less than 16 months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. — members of the University of Wyoming football team tried to draw attention to inequality and paid the price.
Their plight may have become a footnote in the civil rights movement if not for a series of protests in football almost 50 years later. Protests in the past 10 years have spotlighted instances of racism and provided a reminder of the issues Wyoming’s Black 14 struggled against a half-century earlier.
Fourteen black members of the 1969 Wyoming football team brought attention to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ refusal to allow black people to become priests. That group’s attempt to protest with black armbands during the BYU game resulted in all involved getting kicked off the team and brought scrutiny from the rest of the state. Wyoming fans applauded coach Lloyd Eaton’s decision at the time.
The university and many of its fans changed their stance in light of the 50-year anniversary: The university invited the players back and formally apologized, and the War Memorial Stadium crowd recognized the group with a standing ovation. But opposition to football protests remains.
There’s no better-known example of that than Colin Kaepernick. In an attempt to protest deadly incidents of police brutality against unarmed people of color, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback sat and then knelt while the national anthem played before games. That brought immediate scrutiny.
Chris Murray of Nevada Sports Net covered Kaepernick at Nevada when the future controversial figure was just an ambitious athlete open with the media. Murray, who was previously with the Reno Gazette-Journal, described Kaepernick as an intelligent person on and off the field and whose later positions may have been influenced by living at an all-black fraternity in Reno. Kaepernick didn’t start the protest until after he left Nevada but his actions left his fans back in Reno to debate themselves.
“I wouldn’t say the community at large hates him, but I’d say it’s about 50-50,” Murray told the Star-Tribune. “It’s crazy how much people hate the symbol of kneeling for the anthem. Civil rights isn’t a political issue; it’s a human issue. But it is touchy and he probably knew he was stepping into that minefield.”
In the aftermath of his protest, Kaepernick hasn’t played football since the 2016 season, which many attribute to the backlash.
Nevada hasn’t taken down any of its signage that includes Kaepernick. There have been some local businesses that removed his likeness and some fans have posted videos of them burning his jersey on social media. For a quarterback who helped put Nevada on the map, went to church and participated in community outreach, his affiliation with Wolf Pack athletics has become more unstable than anyone could have expected.
“They absolutely loved him,” Murray said. “I didn’t think there was anything he could do to make him not the greatest thing to come out of Reno.”
Kaepernick, who led the Wolf Pack to an upset of No. 3 Boise State and drew 30,000 faithful Nevada fans to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in 2010, is eligible for the school’s hall of fame next season. Murray said he’d be curious to see the crowd’s reaction to that. He also said that he doesn’t think the university will be quick to build a statue of its most famous quarterback.
The same year Kaepernick began his protest, Nebraska standout linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey was one of three Cornhuskers to kneel during the national anthem before a game against Northwestern. By the time Rose-Ivey returned to practice on Monday he’d been chastised by Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, as well as Nebraska Board of Regents member Hal Daub. Rose-Ivey also received death threats.
“This is a conduct issue, not a free speech issue,” Daub said in a statement that following week.
Mike Riley, Nebraska’s head coach at the time, said he supported Rose-Ivey and his teammates.
In August 2016, a radio host asked Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl if the school or team had a policy regarding Cowboys players joining in the protest. Bohl talked about his own admiration for America and the diversity of his Cowboys team.
“Within our football team, we have young men that are from Wyoming, and we have an African-American who’s from Baltimore and we have an African-American — (star running back Brian Hill) is from St. Louis,” Bohl said. “And we have guys that are from Compton. And I go into all these places. To have a simplistic answer — but I do think it’s important for us to have a unified stance, not stance, but feeling about our country.”
He also said the issue wouldn’t come up because most college teams aren’t on the field during the anthem.
The issue reached a new level of national attention in September 2017 when President Donald Trump criticized the players at a rally.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” he said.
In May 2018, the NFL approved a new rule requiring players to either stand during the national anthem or stay in the locker room for it.
“I think it’s a lightning rod issue on both sides,” Murray said. “It’s been politicized by our president who decided to make it our issue and drive a wedge on both sides of the aisle.”
While Kaepernick was protesting a national issue, other football players have used their platform to address things closer to home.
In 2015, a University of Missouri graduate student began a hunger strike in protest of racist incidents on campus, including a swastika being drawn in feces on a dorm wall and people yelling the N-word at the student body leader while they drove by, which he wrote about in a viral Facebook post. The graduate student was demanding, among other things, that system President Tim Wolfe resign.
Then, a number of black players on the Missouri football team said they would not participate in football activities until the hunger strike ended. Wolfe resigned before they missed a game.
That may have been the biggest showcase in the difference 50 years makes. The Wyoming players wanted to ask to wear armbands and were kicked off the team by their head coach who didn’t approve. Missouri players demanded a president’s resignation, head coach Gary Pinkel stood in solidarity with his players, and their demand was met.
Wyoming players witnessed a player protest in 2016 at Eastern Michigan, when students there protested because someone had spray-painted “KKK” on the side of a campus building. Brandon Folsom, then a freelance reporter for the Detroit Free-Press, remembered seeing papers handed out to students that instructed them to not storm the field, per the student code of conduct.
“I do know there was a heated atmosphere among the students,” Folsom told the Star-Tribune. “It was heated and they did take it seriously.”
Students stormed the field in the direction of the administration following Eastern Michigan’s win over Wyoming. There were no additional acts of protest.
Eastern Michigan is also a commuter campus with most students living off campus. Had it been more of a typical campus atmosphere, Folsom said, it may have unfolded differently. And while the atmosphere around campus deescalated after those events, students were sensitive and protective toward their own campus.
“I think the kids saw what else was happening across the country and they didn’t want it happening at their campus,” Folsom said.
Social media helped those Eastern Michigan students spread word about the graffiti, much like it has helped promote recent activism in general. Wyoming’s Black 14 didn’t have social media at the time to share their side of the story.
“I think social media is a key part in it,” Folsom said. “This kind of bridged the gap between commuter college and this group of humans interacting and taking a look at some societal issues.”
Of course, social media can hurt too. During the protests at Missouri one student was arrested for making terroristic threats on the social media platform Yik Yak. One threat, which was posted anonymously, stated he would “shoot every black person I see.”
These recent acts of protest, from kneeling to boycotting to storming a football field, all have their place within college football’s 150-year history. They’ve happened more frequently over the last decade thanks partly to social media, but the issues they surround are as hotly contested now as they were during college football’s beginnings.
“The majority of people in America don’t want to hear that minorities have different challenges and face police brutality and don’t face the same experiences,” Murray said. “The majority of the people in power, not only in the U.S. but in the NFL, are old, white males. And they live a different life than the young, black males making up the majority of the NFL roster.”
Murray said he believes Kaepernick chose the protest that would most agitate people in hopes of gaining attention and starting a conversation.
Time will tell whether his protest will age the same way as Black 14.