Wyoming football players fought racism on the field decades ago

LARAMIE, WY— A new short film “Black 14” tells the story of a group of University of Wyoming students who tried to stand up against racism on the football field. Spoiler alert: it didn’t go well for them. But the legacy of their struggle resonates.

It was 1969 in Laramie, Wyoming. The University of Wyoming Cowboys football team was preparing to play the Brigham Young University Cougars.  But for a group of 14 black players, the Cougars were more than just athletic rivals. During previous games on BYU turf, members of the all-white football team shouted racial slurs at UW’s black players and harassed them on and off the field.

It became too much for Willie Hysaw and his black teammates. They planned to wear black armbands to the next game as a subtle form of protest against the racism they felt they had experienced. But first, they wore the armbands to their coach, Lloyd Eaton’s office. They expected to have a conversation with their coach—about racism, about their idea, about the next game. Instead, Eaton fired them on the spot.

What followed was a series of legal actions, protests, and media frenzy surrounding the “Black 14.” Wyoming was suddenly in the spotlight. The University of Wyoming largely sided with Eaton, as did Wyoming’s Governor at the time. The Cowboys went on to defeat the BYU Cougars without the 14 black players, and then defeated San Jose State—as the opposing team wore black armbands in solidarity. It was UW’s last victory of the season. Coach Eaton resigned the following season, and never coached again. The Cowboys entered a six-year losing streak, according to a video on ESPN. Today, the Wyoming 14 are remembered as some of Wyoming’s most prolific social justice warriors and anti-racism activists, in part thanks to Darius Monroe’s film.

Coach Eaton stated that in past time he has had some good colored boys. Some good negro boys. But now he is dealing with black men, and he doesn’t know how to cope with it,” player Guillermo “Willie” Hysaw said at a press conference documented in the film. 

The film was released on the heels of another, more contemporary protest: NFL player Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the National Anthem. Kaepernick said he was protesting police brutality and the disproportionate number of unarmed black men killed by police. Other NFL players, predominantly black, followed suit, and athletes and professionals in other arenas have done the same. The protest sparked national outrage from people who though Kaepernick was disrespecting the American Flag. Kaepernick opted out of his 49’ers contract and hasn’t been able to sign on with another NFL team since.

In an interview with The Guardian, Hyshaw said the NFL’s current movement is different than his. Today, sports are the platform. For him, sports were the playing chip. “For us, it was about football,” Hysaw said.

Still, he added, “The same types of things that are being experienced by black folks today was also being experienced by black folks in the 60s, though. That’s the connection.”

Monroe released his documentary on Topic.

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