Fifty years ago, the University of Wyoming made a mistake. And this error reverberated around our state for half a century.
Head football coach Lloyd Eaton unceremoniously kicked 14 black players off the team for asking to protest racism by wearing armbands at an upcoming game. The players didn’t demand to wear the armbands; they merely asked. And that alone was, in Eaton’s mind, enough of a sin to derail their athletic careers and the course of their lives.
Eaton was wrong, but he was not the only person who failed the players. The university administration fell in line behind Eaton. And so did much of our state. According to the Wyoming Historical Society, at the next game, fans at the stadium chanted, “We love Eaton.” At a later game, a plane flew above the stadium with a pro-Eaton banner. The crowd went wild.
Eaton’s decision had lasting repercussions on the team, which went from being among the best in the nation to among the worst. Eaton lost his job after a dreadful 1970 season. And the Cowboys’ losing ways continued through that entire decade.
But the people who lost the most were the 14 players who had wanted to wear black armbands at an upcoming BYU game. Specifically, they had sought to protest the Mormon Church’s then policy of barring African-Americans from pursing the priesthood, along with racist slurs they had been subjected to by BYU players at a previous game. The 14 players hadn’t planned to force the issue. They say they had previously decided they would have still played the game had Eaton denied their request. But Eaton never gave them the chance.
Imagine being a person of color in Wyoming in 1969 and asking to protest racial injustice, only to be told no and kicked off your team. Imagine having that done to you by someone who would never know – or understand – what it’s like to feel the sting of racism, who never had to worry about being discriminated against on the basis of his race. And then imagine losing your place on the team and the support of the community.
For 50 years, the 14 players carried scars from that awful decision. For 50 years, they lived with the result.
It would have been easy for the university to have never looked back. After all, Eaton and many of the other people who played key roles in the fiasco are long dead. The turbulence of the 1960s is not even a memory for many of us.
Instead, the university finally said the words that the players had so longed to hear.
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On Sept. 13, the university formally apologized to the players. The school unveiled a plaque at War Memorial Stadium honoring the Black 14. And for the first time in a half-century, the players walked onto the field at War Memorial, where they were honored at a special halftime ceremony.
This time, the crowd gave a standing ovation.
Apologies matter. Remorse matters. So does righting a wrong, even if it takes 50 years. Consider what the players said afterward:
“It’s like a new lease on life even though I’m an old guy,” said Ron Hill. “It’s a great feeling, man, how we sat there, ate the food and enjoyed the company of these nice people. I’m honored and grateful.”
“I never played football after this,” said Lionel Grimes. “I never even put on a helmet. But I’m going to get a helmet, and my grandson will be able to look at it. Matter of fact, I’ll probably give it to him.”
“That’s all I ever wanted was an apology,” said Tony Gibson. “That’s it.”
In the end, this episode offers lessons, not just for the students at the university, but for all of us here in Wyoming. It speaks to the importance of empathy. Had Eaton thought of what it must have been like to walk in his players’ shoes, he might have been less hasty to derail their careers – and, as it turns out, his own. The players, by the way they carried themselves during their return to the school this month, taught us about grace and forgiveness.
And perhaps most importantly, the last few weeks have shown the importance of an apology, of accepting responsibility for actions that hurt others. It’s never too late to acknowledge that you wronged someone. It’s never too late to try and make things right.
Editor’s note: Editorial board member Sally Ann Shurmur did not participate in this editorial due to a conflict of interest.