Why 1969 was college football's season of discontent.

The stadium scene.
Sept. 3 2009 12:15 PM

College Football's Season of Discontent

How today's game was shaped by the racial strife of 1969.

Rich Rodriguez. Click image to expand.
Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez 

College football's centennial year, 1969, also happened to be my senior season at Notre Dame. I played against three teams that year—Georgia Tech, Tulane, and then Texas in the Cotton Bowl—that had not yet integrated their varsity football teams. This was actually a mark of progress. By 1969, the integration of the Southeastern Conference and the old Southwest Conference was finally well underway. It started in the SWC in 1966 at Baylor and SMU and in the SEC with Kentucky in 1967; it ended with Texas and Arkansas in 1970, then with Georgia, LSU, and Ole Miss in 1972.

That was college football's quiet racial revolution. The noisy one took place on northern campuses. At Oregon State in February 1969, a black linebacker named Fred Milton was suspended from the team after an assistant coach spotted him on campus with a moustache and goatee, in violation of the team's ban on facial hair. Black students on campus responded with a boycott of classes, many of them left the university, and both the football team and the institution struggled for years afterward against a reputation for racial intolerance. Two months later, 16 black players at the University of Iowa boycotted a spring practice and were suspended; seven were reinstated in August. That summer, John Underwood wrote a three-part series for Sports Illustrated titled "The Desperate Coach," describing the incidents at Oregon State and Iowa, along with dozens of lesser ones in athletic programs throughout the country, as a full-scale assault on coaches' authority. "In the privacy of their offices," Underwood wrote, "over breakfast in strange towns, wherever two or three coaches get together, they talk about The Problem."

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Then came the season itself. At the University of Wyoming, coach Lloyd Eaton suspended a group—what became known as the "Black 14"—that pushed to wear armbands at a home game against BYU to protest the Mormon Church's racial doctrines. Next, at the University of Washington, Jim Owens suspended four black players for a lack of commitment to him and his program. Finally, at Indiana University, coach John Pont, with considerably more reluctance, suspended 16 black players (eventually reinstating four) after they boycotted a practice.

In each situation, what were matters of team discipline to the coaches were concerns of fairness or human rights to the players. Fred Milton insisted that his beard and moustache were expressions of black culture. The "Black 14" at Wyoming insisted on their constitutional right to political protest. The complaints of the black players at the other schools involved playing time, treatment by coaches, the absence of black assistants, and the practice of "stacking"—playing black players at only certain positions.

In all of these cases, boosters and alumni sided overwhelmingly with the coach. Students and faculty were divided, as were the community members who wrote in to their local papers. At Wyoming, the president emphatically supported the coach; elsewhere, athletic and institutional administrators tried to support their coaches publicly while privately seeking a workable compromise that would minimize damage to the institution.

The protests of black athletes in the late 1960s hit college football at its heart. While white boys like me might still respond to fatherly coaches, racially conscious black athletes were growing less inclined to submit to the paternalism of white father figures. Before the 1960s, black athletes struggled for the chance to be treated like everyone else. By the early 1970s, with 14 or 16 or 22 black players on a single team, they were insisting that their special concerns deserved attention. And in the South, by the early 1980s more than 40 percent of the players in the SEC were black.

Coaches everywhere had to adjust. They relaxed their rules on personal grooming. They hired black assistants and became more sensitive to the economic and cultural backgrounds of their black recruits, and consequently to the individuality of all the players on the team. In each case the protesters "lost," but over time they won more personal freedom for all players, black and white alike.

The racial revolution of 1969 changed college football, but it did not change everything. Partly as a consequence of what happened in the late 1960s, we no longer look to big-time college coaches to be teachers of life lessons. Instead, we pay them millions to win national championships. While coaches lost their cultural authority after 1969, they did not lose their fundamental power over the lives of their "student-athletes." In January 1973, the NCAA quietly passed legislation replacing the four-year athletic scholarship with a one-year renewable grant. With scholarships guaranteed for only a year, college athletes are accountable first and foremost to their coaches, not their professors. Coaches have the power to demand that their players make a much greater commitment to the game than my generation did. The NCAA limits in-season devotion to football to 20 hours per week, off-season hours to eight, but this mandatory allowance is supplemented by dozens of allegedly "voluntary" hours.

Because of the one-year scholarship, as well as the millions waiting in the NFL, a reprise of 1969's protests is unthinkable. But this does not mean that today's athletes don't think about protesting. The recent complaints by University of Michigan players that the coaching staff forces them to exceed the NCAA's practice limits were remarkable in the age when a coach can terminate scholarships at his discretion. The Michigan players spoke out, but anonymously.

While coaches today earn millions, athletes have not received a "raise" since the 1960s. Instead, athletic departments make increasing demands on their time at the expense of their education, and without giving them any compensation. Another revolution in college football is likely coming—not another racial one but rather a movement for "athletes' rights."

Michael Oriard’s books include a memoir, The End of Autumn, and Brand NFL. He hopes that his co-produced film, Saving Football: America’s Game at the Crossroads, will soon be forthcoming.

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