SETTING THE STAGE: Syracuse 8’s legacy lies in progress, evolution in athlete activism

first_img1992: Arthur Ashe publicly announces he has HIV/AIDS 1907: Jack Johnson becomes first Black world heavyweight champion 1970: Syracuse 8 boycott spring football practice 1967: Muhammed Ali refuses to be drafted to the military, citing his religious beliefs Comments 2016: Colin Kaepernick begins protesting police brutality by kneeling during the National Anthem 1973: Billie Jean King defeats Bobby Riggs in the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ Published on April 26, 2020 at 10:40 pm Contact Danny: [email protected] | @DannyEmerman,Cancel replyYou must be logged in to post a comment. 1967: Kathrine Switzer becomes first woman to complete the Boston Marathon 1947: Jackie Robinson breaks the color barrier in the MLB Fifty years ago, nine SU football players boycotted spring practices because their demands for equitable treatment weren’t being met by the athletic department and head coach Ben Schwartzwalder. This three-part series tells the stories of the following scholar athletes who risked their futures for what was right: Dana Harrell, John Lobon, Richard Bulls, Duane Walker, John Godbolt, Ron Womack, Clarence McGill, Greg Allen and Alif Muhammad.Across from Ben Schwartzwalder in the head coach’s Manley Field House office, Greg Allen took a seat.“What’s this I hear about you and this Black sh*t?” Allen remembers Schwartzwalder asking him.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textTwo days earlier, Allen had joined a group that advocated for the implementation of a Black studies program at Syracuse University.“You’ve got a decision to make,” Schwartzwalder told Allen in February of 1969. “You can be Black, or you can be a football player.”Allen didn’t see how one would interfere with the other. “I’ll be Black all my life, and I’ll only be a football player for a certain amount of time,” he told his coach.For Allen and his eight other Black teammates, the decision to boycott spring practice one year later was about their principles, about making Syracuse more inclusive for everyone. After months of their demands being largely ignored, they walked off the field together. Often painted in the media at the time as dissidents, none of the Syracuse 8 returned to the team in full capacity, and they’d be blackballed from the NFL.The discrimination the Syracuse 8 endured at SU tested their identities as both athletes and human beings, something marginalized athletes still face today. The Syracuse 8’s boycott 50 years ago wasn’t the first instance of athlete advocacy in America, but they see their impact embodied in the progress made in sports and in the evolution of activism since.“We’re part of a whole mosaic,” Dana Harrell, a Syracuse 8 member, said.,That timeline of athlete activism features Jack Johnson, the Black heavyweight champion during the Jim Crow Era, Clarence McGill said. It includes Muhammad Ali, who resisted the Vietnam War due to his religion in 1966, and Arthur Ashe, the only Black man to win three Grand Slam singles titles.And it also includes Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run in the Boston Marathon, who was pursuing a master’s degree at SU during the Syracuse 8’s boycott. Switzer called the Syracuse 8’s legacy “wonderful” but empathizes that they were forced to give up their prime as athletes and fight for the greater good.“Athletes have a particular role,” Alif Muhammad said. “I mean, people look up to athletes — always have and always will.”In 1968, about a year after Ali was arrested for draft evasion, Allen came to Syracuse to be the next great Black running back, following in the footsteps of Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Floyd Little. He and his Black teammates enrolled to play football and get an education, not to join the growing list of athletes seeking change.But they quickly learned that Syracuse wasn’t immune to widespread racism. The day Allen arrived at the airport in Syracuse as a freshman, one of the first things Schwartzwalder told him was that he couldn’t date white girls. It was a rule Schwartzwalder had for all his Black players.Eventually, Allen and his Black teammates followed outspoken athletes like Ali by making four demands to the athletic department. They did it at a time when American universities were “on fire” with Vietnam War and civil rights protests, Harrell and Ron Womack said.First, they demanded improved medical care for every player, regardless of race. The team physician, Dr. William E. Pelow, was a practicing gynecologist who had repeatedly operated on players’ healthy body parts instead of injured ones.“(Pelow) said he hated touching Black people,” McGill said.At one point after Womack complained about a lack of playing time, Pelow — likely at the direction of Schwartzwalder, Womack said — altered the nose tackle’s treatment so drastically that he was ruled medically ineligible. Since Womack was sidelined in 1970, local media at the time didn’t include him as a boycotter and named the group the Syracuse 8.They also asked for the same academic resources as their white teammates and improved educational access for athletes overall. As freshmen, players had assistant coaches serving as academic advisers, and Allen, a biology major, wasn’t allowed to take his mandatory labs because they interfered with practice. Syracuse 8 members often wrote down their classes in pencil to get approved by their “advisers” but then later changed them to more relevant courses. They also said the same access to tutors as their white teammates wasn’t available.We don’t talk in terms of success and failure. I talk in terms of progress. Evolutionary progress.Dana Harrell, Syracuse 8 member`The last two demands aimed to break down unfair quota systems and to integrate the coaching staff so Black players could have someone to relate to. At the time, Syracuse and several other teams followed unspoken rules about how many Black players could play at once, and at which positions. The Syracuse 8 wanted playing time based on merit, not skin color.“The Syracuse 8 took action and risks on behalf of themselves in a way that was designed to benefit others. Did they succeed? Look at the things they were asking for in 1970,” Brown wrote in the foreword to David Marc’s 2015 book titled “Leveling the Playing Field: The Story of the Syracuse 8.”After the boycott, Brown visited campus over the summer to try to help the two sides find a compromise. He confirmed the racism within the program, but recommended the boycotters rejoin the team. Ultimately, Schwartzwalder wouldn’t reinstate them for the 1970 season.By skipping spring practices, the Syracuse 8 were suspended from the team and continued their boycott for the entire 1970 season. Schwartzwalder later used his connections to prevent any Syracuse 8 member from playing professionally.Athlete activism through the years: 2014: LeBron James wears an ‘I Can’t Breathe Shirt’ in memory of Eric Garner An independent report by a special investigative committee published in December of 1970 called the suspension of the Syracuse 8 “an act of institutional racism unworthy of a great university.” The 38-page document also declared that racism in SU’s athletic department was “real, chronic, largely unintentional, and sustained and complicated unwittingly by many modes of behavior common in American athletics and long-standing at Syracuse University.”Since the boycott, the NCAA has implemented regulations for higher academic and medical standards. There are no more quota systems. Syracuse hired Carlmon Jones in the summer of 1970, becoming one of the first integrated college football coaching staffs. Since then, Black coaches at every level have won championships, and the NFL has instituted the Rooney Rule that requires teams to interview diverse coaching candidates.At Syracuse today, the 1970 boycotters see Dino Babers, the first Black head coach in program history, as a product of their protest and a part of their story. Babers, who declined to be interviewed for this series, is one of 14 active Black head coaches in the 130-program FBS, the top level of college football.“We don’t talk in terms of success and failure,” Harrell said. “I talk in terms of progress. Evolutionary progress.”The Syracuse 8 have also noticed how “athlete advocacy has ebbed and flowed” through periods of relative inactivity from prominent athletes, Harrell said. He pointed to Michael Jordan, who avoided commenting on social issues to build his brand, as an example of a lull in high-profile athlete activism. Jordan “didn’t have to fight” to play at North Carolina, Harrell said, because the Syracuse 8 and other movements won equal rights to play.,They’ve seen contracts for professional athletes skyrocket and the subsequent risks of standing up for their beliefs increase. “Today, if athletes protest, they’re the exception to the rule,” McGill said.Still, sports and politics have continued to intersect, from the 1980 Olympics boycott and Ashe’s AIDS demonstration to kneeling during the national anthem.“The Syracuse 8 were just as impactful during that period of time, in that era, as Colin Kaepernick is now,” Allen said. “I think (we) did set the stage for activism for athletes, that you’re not just an athlete in this closed society, you know. You have to understand your impact on the world and use your celebrity — like a LeBron James — to make change. To make this world a better place, period, for everybody.”As protests in sports continued through the years, so has backlash. For the Syracuse 8, it was hate mail calling them “dumb,” “lazy” and “N-words.” More recently, athletes receive criticism for standing up at all — an idea that’s been tested on multiple occasions recently at SU. They’re just athletes, some say. After James discussed politics in a 2018 interview, one conservative pundit said he should “shut up and dribble.”It comes back to the same question of identity the Syracuse 8 faced in 1970. “Because you’re in sports doesn’t mean you don’t have a voice,” John Lobon said. The First Amendment doesn’t afford rights to athletes any more or less than anyone else, Allen said. The Syracuse 8’s role in the “continuum” of sports activism, as one member put it, helped set an example for athletes to speak up for those who can’t.“I think if you’re an athlete, it’s more incumbent on you to speak out,” Allen said.Cover photo illustration by Talia Trackim | Presentation DirectorPhotos courtesy of Syracuse 8 Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Librarieslast_img

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