The University of Wyoming apologized this weekend to 14 black athletes cut from the football team 50 years ago for wearing black armbands in protest of a racist Mormon church policy.
Then head coach Lloyd Eaton kicked the players off the team when they showed up at his office wearing the armbands on Oct. 17, 1969, one day before a game against Brigham Young University, according to an account on the website Wyo History, a project of the Wyoming State Historical Society. The players hoped to wear the armbands during the game to protest a then Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ policy banning black men from the priesthood.
The 14 former players sought to join black athletes at several other universities using their platforms as football players to draw attention to the now-obsolete policy, according to Wyo History. But Eaton warned players at UW against protesting. When the players tried to meet with the coach, Eaton kicked them off the team.
The UW Board of Trustees at the time backed Eaton. Fans at the subsequent BYU game, where the Black 14 players watched from the audience, chanted “we love Eaton,” according to the Wyo History account. Fans at a later football game wore “Eaton” armbands, the account said. The UW student senate, and the editorial board of the student newspaper the Branding Iron, however, supported the players.
“When it was over, I had more hurt feelings from how the Wyoming people reacted and the way I was treated than the whole thing with BYU,” Tony McGee, one of the dismissed players said in 2009, according to Wyo History. McGee went on to play professional football, and his career included two trips to the Super Bowl.
Last week, McGee and seven other of the surviving 11 players returned to UW. They were honored on the field at War Memorial Stadium during a halftime ceremony in a game against Idaho. The players received letterman jackets and wore UW football jerseys with their old numbers, according to a Casper Star-Tribune report. The former players’ trip to UW included breakfast with UW players and coaches, and a Friday night dinner where they received an apology letter signed by UW athletic director Tom Burman and former president Laurie Nichols.
The letter gave the players credit for developing the school’s mission statement.
“We embrace the University’s mission of nurturing, ‘an environment that values and manifests diversity, internationalization, free expression, academic freedom, personal integrity and mutual respect,’” the letter said. “We believe that mission rose in part from your courage and sacrifice.”
The university also unveiled a plaque at War Memorial Stadium that honors the players and commemorates the events of 50 years ago.
Laramie-based photographer Mike Vanata shot these striking portraits of seven of the players during their visit as a part of his Faces of Wyoming project.