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The Impact and Evolution of College Football Player Protest

Protest in college football is nearly as old as the sport itself, but change has come slowly. Are the power dynamics finally shifting? And what can the experiences of groups like the Syracuse 8 tell us about the realities for player activists today?

Syracuse 8/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“Well, you’ve got a decision to make,” Greg Allen recalls his head coach telling him. “Do you wanna be Black, or do you wanna be a football player?”

Allen, now 70, was a running back for Syracuse preparing for spring practice in 1970. His head coach was Ben Schwartzwalder, who had become synonymous with the university during his two-decade-plus tenure, which included the 1959 national championship. Schwartzwalder heard that Allen had attended a meeting of students who wanted the school to implement an African American studies program. He didn’t approve. Allen says that Schwartzwalder called him into his office and asked, “What’s this I hear about you and this Black crap?”

“It was evident to me after that meeting that something had to be done,” Allen says, “and I had to participate in change.”

In mid-April, about a month after that meeting, Allen and eight Black teammates sent a letter to their coach with a list of grievances. Among them: double standards in disciplinary measures, a lack of academic advising and tutoring, and the use of racist language by white coaches. The players said the team hadn’t hired a Black coach in the 20th century, and that racism permeated the program and the staff.

“They told us not to date white women,” says Clarence McGill, a defensive end and another member of the group now known as the Syracuse 8. McGill says the team doctor “didn’t like to touch Black people. He was known to say that.”

Days after writing Schwartzwalder, the players began boycotting spring practice and said they wouldn’t return until the school addressed their concerns. Schwartzwalder responded by barring the players from team activities. The boycott ran through the 1970 season, and most of the nine players involved—the media undercounted when labeling the group the Syracuse 8—never returned to the team. They say Schwartzwalder bad-mouthed them to NFL types. None of the nine played in the league.

Throughout 1970, an administration-appointed committee investigated whether there was racism in the program. That December, chancellor John Corbally said racism in the 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.” However, Corbally said he saw no reason to make “personnel changes.” Schwartzwalder stayed on the job until retiring in 1973. Syracuse didn’t apologize to the boycotting players until welcoming them back to campus for an on-field ceremony in 2006, 36 years later. The nine players received the Chancellor’s Medal for Courage. “Apologies are soft-tissue stuff,” McGill says, “but nevertheless that was done.”

Since a white police officer killed George Floyd by putting his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine consecutive minutes in Minneapolis on May 25, protests against racism have spread across the nation and the globe. Members of the Syracuse 8 have watched as college football players have joined that movement. At Iowa, former and current players gave testimonials that led to the resignation of the country’s highest-paid strength-and-conditioning coach. At Clemson, players pressured the administration to remove John C. Calhoun’s name from the honors college. At Mississippi State, a player helped spur legislators into voting to get rid of a state flag that incorporates the Confederate battle emblem. Players have also taken stands at Oklahoma State, Florida State, UCLA, Texas, and Texas A&M, among other schools.

Protest in college football is nearly as old as the sport itself, but players and academics alike believe that today’s athletes have more power than their predecessors from any other era. That may be a reflection not only of how demands for systemic change are resonating throughout America, but of how this sport has evolved in particular.

In the early 20th century, the percentage of college football players who were Black was just above zero. In the 1960s, the percentage was still below the teens, according to Derrick White, a University of Kentucky professor and the author of Blood, Sweat, and Tears, a book about the history of the Black experience in college football. In 2000, the NCAA said that 42 percent of Division I players were Black. In 2010, Black players became a plurality at 46 percent. In 2019, the figure climbed to 49 percent. Though NCAA diversity numbers are not perfect, it’s clear that Black player representation in the sport has increased dramatically.

That has given Black college players more power than they had in the past, and the realities for demonstrators today are different than they were for those during the civil rights movement. The response to the Syracuse 8 is just one example of a program refusing to reckon with its role in perpetuating racism in the 1960s and ’70s. In 1969, 14 Black players at Wyoming approached head coach Lloyd Eaton about wanting to wear black armbands for a game against BYU as a protest against racism in the LDS church—specifically, the church’s policy banning Black men from its priesthood. Eaton dismissed the players from the team immediately. Months before the Syracuse 8, Wyoming had the Black 14.

“The numbers have grown,” White says. “You’re talking about 14 players. You’re talking about [nine] at Syracuse. You’re talking about small numbers. You’re talking about a dozen or so at most, and what we’re talking about at the University of Georgia [today] is upwards of 70 percent.”

Over the past few weeks, several college football coaches have made statements supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and their players. Some have protested with them. “When I go into the home of a recruit, I tell them, their parents, that I’m here no matter what,” Appalachian State coach Shawn Clark says. “‘I’ll be there for your kid.’ Then that’s what I mean.”

If a coach doesn’t support players as they protest now, he could lose his job. “You always hear about coaches losing their team or losing their locker room,” Memphis coach Ryan Silverfield says. “If your players don’t respect you or can’t trust you or don’t feel like you have their back, then it’s gonna cause issues at some point during the season. It’s gonna cause locker-room dysfunctionality.”

When players at Appalachian State and Memphis marched against racism and police brutality this spring, Clark and Silverfield, who are both white, marched alongside them. In cases where athletes have protested issues at their respective schools, administrators have at least appeared to listen intently. When a cross-sport collection of USC athletes tweeted an open letter to athletic director Mike Bohn demanding that he affirm Black lives matter, Bohn did so almost instantly. The athletes also demanded that USC institute mandatory implicit-bias training, develop a pipeline to hire and train Black staffers, and more. Bohn said he would “take bold, decisive action to combat racial inequality and support Black students.”

“It’s righteous anger over this injustice in the Black community,” says Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA player who now leads the National College Players Association, which advocates for players’ rights. “You have white teammates, white titans of industry who are unified in saying this is an injustice, and they’re also angry. What coach is gonna stand in the way of that, that has any common sense?”

Historians say Black player-activists today also have more support from white teammates than those in prior generations. There are instances in past eras when white players stood in solidarity with their Black teammates: In 1917, Rutgers refused West Virginia’s request to hold out star Paul Robeson, the school’s first Black athlete, during a game as part of a “gentlemen’s agreement.” In such a deal, a team would agree to sit a Black player against an opponent that refused to play against one.

But solidarity between teammates wasn’t a given. The season prior, Rutgers accommodated an identical request in a game against Washington and Lee. “The colored boy knew his place and did not butt in or crusade,” one of Robeson’s teammates said, according to author Joseph Dorinson in Paul Robeson: Essays on His Life and Legacy.

“Especially before World War II, most whites and even many progressive whites had no problem with accepting the gentlemen’s agreement,” says Lane Demas, a professor at Central Michigan and the author of Integrating the Gridiron: Black Civil Rights and American College Football. “It was strong. Whites tended to see it as something like a compromise in their mind in terms of race. They thought it was fair. They used terms like ‘When in Rome.’ So when you go to Georgia, you don’t play Black players, and that’s fine, that’s OK.”

At Syracuse in 1970, white players stood overwhelmingly against their boycotting Black teammates, giving Schwartzwalder political cover. A group of 68 players signed a petition declaring, “As far as we are concerned, there are no racial questions involved. … It would appear 10 members of the squad and their advisors are attempting to dictate the football policy of Syracuse University. This we will not permit.”

“We were 10 out of 125,” says Dana Harrell, a safety and another member of the Syracuse 8. “Only a handful of ballplayers on that team had ever had Black teammates, and certainly didn’t go to grammar school with them. America was different.”

Contrast that to the protest at Missouri in 2015, when Black graduate student Jonathan Butler went on a hunger strike to combat racism on campus. Angered by an administrative response they saw as too weak, students sought the help of the football team, on which a reported 58 of the 84 scholarship players were Black. More than 30 Black players said they were joining the movement and would boycott their game against BYU if the school president remained in his job, leading to his resignation later that week. Along with their Black teammates and the coaching staff, Missouri’s white players publicly backed the effort.

“They got in the picture, you know? But they weren’t necessarily supportive,” says Ian Simon, a defensive back and organizer on that Mizzou team. “Everything we did was off the strength of the unity of that initial group.”

In 2020, Black players who have led on-campus demonstrations have garnered broad support from teammates, coaches, and fans. According to a Clemson official, the majority of the team’s roster marched from campus through the city for about two hours on June 13 to protest the police killings of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others. White players joined in the calls to change the name of the honors college, and Darien Rencher, a running back who helped organize the march, says support among fans in person and online broke “probably 75/25 or 80/20” in favor of the protest. The allyship is an encouraging sign, but will need to stay fervent to make a real impact.

“Sympathy feels bad, but solidarity stands up,” Rencher says. “That’s the biggest difference. In the past, people, especially white people, have felt bad. Nobody can look at [current events] and feel great about it, but at the same time, it hasn’t necessarily made the transition to stand up and stand with. In all this madness, that’s the beauty of what’s happening right now. It’s not just a Black fight. It’s become a humanity fight against racism.”

Clemson University Football Team Lead Protest March After Death Of George Floyd
Darien Rencher (microphone) and Clemson football players Trevor Lawrence, Cornell Powell, and Mike Jones Jr. at a protest on June 13
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Changes among roster demographics and an increase in school support aren’t the only factors that have altered the dynamic of college football player protests. Players have also grasped their value in a system that brings schools tens of millions of dollars per year in TV money. That realization started setting in decades ago, and reached new levels with Mizzou’s protest in 2015.

“We understood the power that we had by the amount of money we bring in,” Simon says. “Football is the no. 1 sport in America. It brings in the most money. Especially in college football, it’s huge, obviously. Us being in the SEC, we understand our value, and our value to the school and how much we help the school, how much we promote the school, and all those good things. When you understand your value, you can use it to flex your muscle. That was a huge realization for us. Like, ‘Man, the best way to get their attention is to affect their pockets,’ ’cause clearly they’re not listening.”

Football has always paid the bills for the rest of college sports, a reality that has only grown more apparent as TV contracts have swelled. Each Power Five conference nets around $70 million annually solely from the College Football Playoff rights deal with ESPN. Blue-blood football schools reap windfalls from the sport; in 2018, for instance, LSU reported $145 million in athletic revenue, $87 million of which was generated by football. The contribution was actually even higher: LSU classified $39 million as coming from “media rights,” an amount that mostly was attributable to football, but put less than a third of that in the football column of the ledger.

Recent studies have also shown the immense value of individual players, particularly stars. They’ve made clear just how impactful it can be when one speaks out. In 2020, stars at several Power Five programs, including Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill, Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard, and Florida State defensive tackle Marvin Wilson, have said they would boycott unless changes were made. It’s easy to see the power that even mentioning one holds.

“You could do that without a union. It’s been shown,” says Kain Colter, the former Northwestern quarterback who led a push to unionize his team in 2014 and 2015 before the National Labor Relations Board blocked it. “Missouri didn’t have an official collective bargaining unit. They could certainly strike without a union, withhold their labor, and try to get their demands met. It’s a really, really powerful tactic.”

The leverage isn’t just financial. There’s also the way that players now influence public opinion. Today’s stars are regularly in the public eye from the time they’re 16 or 17; many top-rated recruits are widely visible even earlier. By the time players get to campus, they know how to speak to the press, and then they receive extensive media training. They know how to effectively communicate their message.

“There are athletes at every school that I don’t think they realize how good of a communicator they are until they’re given the toolbox to use it, and they have the biggest platform,” says Chris Yandle, a PR professional who’s worked in athletic media relations at Baylor, Miami, and Georgia Tech. “As we saw with Missouri, as we’re seeing now with a lot of other schools—and not just colleges, but celebrities, athletes, et cetera—you have a platform. You’re not just merely an entertainment product. You are a human. You have a voice. You have a skill. People are gonna listen.”

During the civil rights movement, White says, Black players often had to lean on the Black press to tell their stories, because the college-town newspapers wouldn’t. The beat writers instead would focus on the school administration’s talking points. “They would tell their story, and it was up to us to react to it if we were given an opportunity to react to it,” Allen says of his media experience with the Syracuse 8. “Most of the time, we weren’t given the opportunity to react to a story that was written about us.”

Allen says the rise of social media is “the difference between our actions [then] and the actions today.” Hubbard can see his coach, Mike Gundy, in an OAN T-shirt and express his outrage within seconds. Hill can tell the world that he won’t represent a Mississippi school if the state doesn’t remove the Confederate battle flag from the state flag. Days later, the Mississippi legislature acted to do just that.

“In most of these college towns, the local newspaper is not trying to win a Pulitzer Prize by undermining the athletic department. They’re basically on thread relations,” White says. “They become in many cases a mouthpiece for the athletic department. When they want information, they tell these stories. The student-athletes rather quickly understand that they cannot go to the local news and tell their story. And so social media now has provided an outlet.”

The players also have more power now because of their increased ability to transfer. The transfer process is still far from straightforward, but it’s better than it was even a few years ago, as the NCAA has handed out more waivers to undergrads and allowed graduate students to play immediately after transferring. Yet it remains to be seen whether some coaches will treat protesting players like Allen was when he explored a transfer in 1970. He found that the coaches who had recruited him no longer wanted him.

“When I contacted those schools, they’d just shut it down completely, right away,” Allen says. “‘Sorry, nope, we’re not interested.’ No conversations. Or coaches that had called me a hundred times when they were recruiting me, I made a phone call to, and none of them returned my call.”

The evolution of protest in college football has empowered players more than ever, but there’s still a long way to go. Oklahoma State coach Gundy appeared to quiet cries for his job by filming a nonapology within hours of Hubbard sending his tweet. (Gundy apologized explicitly in a video released a day later.) Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, the longest-tenured head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision, stayed in control after a wave of former and current players said that they had experienced racism in his program. Ferentz’s strength coach lost his job after several players gave accounts of mistreatment, but that didn’t lead to a firing; the school and coach reached a separation agreement that paid him $1.1 million to walk away. College football players are demonstrating more power than at any point in history, but the structures shaping the sport remain largely in place.

“I think it has changed, but not enough,” Demas says. “I think more profound change is coming, and I think it’s been percolating for a generation.”

While players can transfer more easily than in the past, for example, they still don’t have the ability to change schools as freely as coaches do. In addition to controlling playing time, coaches still frame players’ evaluations for NFL scouts and maintain sweeping control over their academic and athletic futures. Players on four-year scholarships can be run out of a program if a coach doesn’t like them. The situation for those on one-year scholarships is even more tenuous. This can have a chilling effect on player activism.

“Some guys, all they have is this one big-time Division I offer, and that’s been their dream, and they’re deathly afraid to lose it, and I completely understand that,” Simon says. “The coaches still hold a lot of power, and that’s a very intimidating thing. They can take your scholarship away, and then you’re just kind of left out in the cold to figure out your life from there.”

In other cases, protesting players might encounter an entity even more powerful than a coach or school president—a state government. While Hill was able to effect change, others have met resistance. That’s been a challenge for player activists at historically Black colleges. “You don’t have the obvious targets like the John C. Calhoun Honors College,” White says. “That makes it harder for athletes at HBCUs to find a particular kind of targeted area.”

In 2013, players at Grambling State forced the cancellation of a game after saying they would boycott over terrible working conditions and a chronic lack of funding. Their protest attracted national attention and prompted a onetime boost in donations, but White says it didn’t change the school’s long-term financial picture.

In 2020, though, player protests may be able to bring about a more lasting shift. The coronavirus pandemic has further exposed college football’s systemic inequities, as schools have invited players back to campus while designing online learning and social distancing plans for many of their student peers. The established power dynamic makes it unclear how voluntary players’ participation is, particularly as schools ask them to sign safety pledges that look a lot like liability waivers. Pair those developments with players’ enhanced awareness of their economic value, ability to shape and share their message, and desire to be part of a global movement for justice, and the conditions seem ripe for change. “What we’re really seeing is that athletes are joining in a wave that is already in progress,” White says. “We see this in the 1960s in both the civil rights movement and Black power movement, and in what we’re seeing now.”

Player protests have not historically fed off of each other, according to the participants interviewed for this story. But that, too, might be changing as national uprisings bring more athletes into the fold. One of Rencher’s close friends plays quarterback for South Carolina, and they’ve been in touch as they’ve organized with teammates. Today’s players grow up following each other on Twitter and talking in group chats. It’s not hard to see how one player’s actions could directly lead to another’s. “I think it’s a domino effect,” Rencher says.

Despite the long history of protest in the sport, college football’s structures have ensured that change has come slowly. But the scales of power may be balancing. The Black 14 and Syracuse 8 helped set the stage for the last 50 years of player activism. The protesters right now could set the stage for the next 50.

“There’s a lot of things that are going on this time,” Huma says. “It’s gonna be hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube.”

Alex Kirshner is a college football writer and editor who lives in Washington, D.C. He is the coauthor of a forthcoming e-book, The Sinful Seven: Sci-fi Western Legends of the NCAA.

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