On October 17, 1969, 14 black football players at the University of Wyoming asked to speak with their head coach, Lloyd Eaton. They intended to discuss a possible protest against Brigham Young University, an upcoming opponent whose players had hurled racial slurs in their direction in the past and whose school was operated by the Mormon church, which had long practiced racial discrimination. The discussion ended with Coach Eaton kicking all 14 black players off the football team.
Darius Clark Monroe’s documentary Black 14 is the story of what happened next.
I’m not a stranger to thinking, and writing about, the intersection of sports and political protest. I spent the better part of 2017 profiling Colin Kaepernick for Bleacher Report, an experience that gave me the opportunity to comb through every public statement I could find about the former professional quarterback, both by people in the NFL and people from his hometown of Turlock, California.
I quickly learned that, though the statements about why he wasn’t on an NFL team were somewhat varied in substance, they shared a consistent tone: betrayal.
Why would he do this to us?
You’re successful—why are you complaining? You’re a distraction.
Unify, don’t divide.
We gave you everything.
We let you in.
You ungrateful nigger.
If progress is simply measured by being called a nigger less often than my mother, a child of the southern civil rights movement, was, then yes—congrats to America—racism is over. But coded language and the pernicious undertone of Aren’t you people happy yet? persist. Looking back on that piece I wrote about Kaepernick, I can see the chilling similarities between the way the former San Francisco 49er was discussed and the way the black players at the University of Wyoming were talked about, almost 50 years apart.
In that Kaepernick piece, I leaned heavily on a James Baldwin profile of Martin Luther King Jr., noting that an observation Baldwin made in the late 1960s held up disturbingly well in 2017. That passage, which originally appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1968, described the silent indignation Baldwin witnessed among whites as they watched black bus riders sit wherever they pleased.
The whites, beneath their cold hostility, were mystified and deeply hurt. They had been betrayed by the Negroes, not merely because the Negroes had declined to remain in their “place,” but because the Negroes had refused to be controlled by the town’s image of them. And, without this image, it seemed to me, the whites were abruptly and totally lost. The very foundations of their private and public worlds were being destroyed.
This observation of being unbought and unbossed is in ample evidence in Black 14, as white people from all corners of Wyoming grapple with this newfound—and to them, hurtful—distraction brought on by the black players.
One woman, a supporter of Coach Eaton, discusses the protests following the dismissal of the 14:
Oh, I think it’s kinda sad, well, that we have to do things like this.
Her husband, in response to a query about the whether the athletes had the right to protest:
I think you probably have the right, but I hate to see it in Wyoming.
According to the 1970 census, African Americans made up 0.8 percent of the population of Wyoming. Only one of the Black 14 was a Wyoming native. Not only did the players stand out, they did so in unfamiliar territory, making their willingness to put it all on the line, risking not only their collegiate—and potentially their professional—careers, but also their safety.
In the film, we learn that Eaton’s rules for his team included “forbidding football players from taking part in student demonstrations” and “barring the formation of factions or groups within the team.” These were the rules the university used to uphold Coach Eaton’s stance, keeping the 14 black players off the field for the remainder of the season.
When I first learned of the broad contours of the story of the Black 14, I assumed, wrongly, that the players had given Coach Eaton an ultimatum or a list of demands—something, of course, they had every right to do. Later, I discovered that the players had simply gone to Eaton to gauge his opinion on a potential protest. Their removal wasn’t about something they did; it was about something they wanted to do. It was about silencing their opinions before anyone fully knew what those opinions were.
It’s clear that in 1969 a black athlete with an opinion in a white space was frowned upon, and as we saw with Colin Kaepernick over the past two years, it still is. It’s a disapproval that goes deeper than athletics, and it’s even more complex than a need to simply control “distractions” and silence opinions. What was true then, and what is true now, is that the idea of black people challenging the existing conditions of black people is seen as evidence of being wholly ungrateful and representing pure and utter disrespect for white people.
We heard it in 2016, when then-candidate Donald Trump said that Kaepernick should “find a country that works better for him.” We heard it less than a month later, when Congressman Steve King of Iowa, discussing Kaepernick, said “[He is] representing the San Francisco 49ers when he puts on that uniform. When he steps out on that stage, the world stage, he’s taking advantage of that and he’s undermining patriotism.”
And we heard it back in 1969, according to University of Wyoming player Guillermo “Willy” Hysaw, Coach Eaton told his players, “You’re not going to use the legislature’s money to demonstrate. If you want to carry on this kind of action, then you can go to the Morgan States and the Gramblings,” both historically black colleges. Additionally, player Jerry Berry stated that Coach Eaton said that “were it not for him, we would all be on Negro relief.”
That’s code for welfare.
But even after absorbing blow after blow, the players never conceded, and, even in moments of self-doubt, they never bought into the narrative that they didn’t belong. Hysaw said it best in Black 14:
Coach Eaton is scared that in the past he’s had some good “colored” boys, some good Negro boys. But now he’s dealing with black men. And he doesn’t know how to cope with it.
That moment, described in 1969, is one that still exists today: White America wondering why black people would ever ask for more.
White people of every generation, ideology, and class have continued to act confused and insulted by black people wanting more, wanting what they deserve. But the story of white people thinking black people are ungrateful for their current situation is the story of America. It’s the slave master, confused as to why the house slave might still want to rise up because they were gifted with the opportunity to leave the field. It’s the boss, confused as to why black indentured servitude might be protested, after being white-blessed with the opportunity to be free. It’s the politician, confused as to why institutional changes might still be demanded, after black folks were graciously granted the opportunity to attend integrated schools. It’s that boss’s grandson—also a boss—confused as to why his lovable, safe black employee might start to speak out about practices in the office, after being charitably presented with the opportunity to work and be paid.
This long legacy of treating black opportunity as a white favor has always been an exercise in keeping black people in their place. Each “gift”—freedom, books, jobs—is supposed to nip unrest in the bud, bring calm, create control.
The craziest part of such an assumption is that white people still think there’s some quick-dry solution to get us satisfied. But that loud and proud dissatisfaction is spreading, shaking the very foundation of white supremacy. And it’s not just Latinos and Asians and Native Americans calling out White America with increased power and influence. And it’s not just the LGBTQ community refusing to shut up. And it’s not just feminists of all creeds refusing to stay quiet.
It’s anyone that’s sick and tired of being sick and tired.
Watch Black 14 on Topic now: