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The landscape included high-profile athletes protesting racial injustice, overheated rhetoric and push-back from hallowed institutions.
While those flashbacks are from a half-century ago, they could easily have been from last summer. Which is why the recent civil rights demonstrations by sports stars resonated with a group of former Black Syracuse football players, dubbed the Syracuse 8, who made a courageous stand against inequality, with troubling parallels to what’s transpiring 50 years later.
“Some of the same issues, some different issues, but every generation in America is going to have to deal with racial injustice and diversity-type issues,” said Dana Harrell, a member of the Syracuse 8.
“It’s not going away. It rears its head in different ways generation after generation. America is very diverse. There will always be a segment of our population who don’t want to share America with everybody. So what goes through my mind is I am really proud of what we did.”
A full season boycott
While NBA players refused to take the court for several games in late August in support of the Black Lives Matters movement, the Syracuse 8, which actually encompassed nine players, boycotted the entire 1970 season.
As pioneers in athletic protest, the group — Harrell, Greg Allen, Richard Bulls, John Godbolt, John Lobon, Clarence “Bucky” McGill, Alif Muhammad, Duane Walker and Ron Womack — paid a heavy price, with just two ever suiting up for Syracuse again. But six of the former athletes who participated in a recent video conference arranged by Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communication all agreed it was worth it.
“It’s very heartbreaking to see the same kind of racial tensions, that go all the way back to our day and before us,” Womack said.
The 1960s were a volatile moment in American history. Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War, while trackmen Tommie Smith and John Carlos had to give back their medals from 1968 Olympic Games as a result of their post-race protest.
The Syracuse 8 was fighting for the integration of the coaching staff, access to the same academic tutoring as white players, starting assignments based on merit and better medical treatment for all players.
“I had worked my whole life up until that point working on trying to position myself to get to the NFL,” Allen said. “Here I was at a school like Syracuse University, which had produced so many running backs that had gone to the NFL. When we decided to boycott I was first string on the depth chart, so I knew I was walking away from a childhood dream. But I also knew that my teammates were doing the same thing and they were also talented ballplayers.
“Collectively we just decided what is more important. The short game would have been us doing what was beneficial to ourselves. The long game was doing what was best for those who were coming after us, and for the university as a whole.”
Syracuse 8 became outcasts
When San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee during the national anthem in 2016, it was to protest police brutality and racial inequality for Blacks. He became a lightning rod for supporters and critics, with his actions taking on added importance when viewed through the lens of the Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police officers in May.
It was a similar situation for the Syracuse 8, who became outcasts as they stood their ground against tremensous opposition.
“(Syracuse coach Ben) Schwartzwalder was the Nick Saban of that time,” McGill said. “He was a national champion coach and he was very influential among the NCAA dignitaries, so we were challenging his authority to a certain extent. We realized that Ben coached the first black Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis. There was a real dichotomy. There was real conflict and a real effort to understand what we were talking about and what Ben was trying to defend.”
“The reaction was generally negative on guys who boycotted,” Harrell said. “Alumni letters, notes and telegrams to the chancellor expressing their displeasure with us and a few choice names, because I saw some of the correspondences. And under their signatures they would write how much they contributed every year. One said ‘I don’t care if we don’t win a game, don’t lose to those black boys this year,’ so it was a very vitriolic time.”
Syracuse showed ‘unwarranted insensitivity’
Syracuse did commission a report that was completed in late 1970. It found the existence of institutional racism.
“Racism in Syracuse University athletic department is real, chronic, largely unintentional and sustained and complicated unwittingly by many modes of behavior common in American athletics and longstanding at Syracuse,” the report said.
The 39-page report also said the Athletic Department “showed an unwarranted insensitivity to attempts by black players to question (offensive) treatment.” The school hired its first black assistant coach shortly thereafter.
As with Kaepernick, who was effectively blackballed by the NFL, the backlash against the Syracuse 8 was profound.
Allen, who returned to the field for Syracuse during the 1972 season, recounted a meeting with an NFL scout prior to the start of the season.
“He said that the 49ers were interested but that he had talked to the coaching staff and I had this reputation of being a troublemaker, and if I wanted to advance to professional football I was going to have to do something to quell that rumor,” Allen said.
NFL dreams ended
“I got drafted by the Ottawa Roughriders, so I went up to Canada. I had a pretty good preseason,” Allen said. “Then I got called into the coach’s office and he said they were releasing me. I said I thought I did decently, and my position coach said ‘well Greg, you did,’ and the head coach told him the reason I was being released was because I had too much baggage. And I said ‘baggage?’ And he said yes and referenced the Syracuse 8.
“I had a call from another coach to come down to Hartford, Connecticut to play on a semi pro team and John was on the team. The head coach sat down with John and I and he just told us “you guys are welcome to play on my team, but just so you are aware you will never get to the next level. You’ve been blackballed to play in the NFL. And I know that Alif and Bucky have a similar story.”
So as LeBron James and other sports stars push for change, it’s important to remember a group of athletes who weren’t household names, but whose contributions were invaluable.
“I think there is no finish line when it comes to racial and diversity issues and social justice issues,” Harrell said. “I think every generation, both black and white Americans, are going to have to deal with that issue, and I feel confident that our generation and succeeding generations, they will do that so I am not surprised that currently some different issues, but some of the same issues. are being dealt with by America right now.”
Follow Stephen Edelson on Twitter: @SteveEdelsonAPP.