Racism and collegiate athletics – a look back

In April of 1970, nine black Syracuse football players refused to report for spring football, in order to protest what they believed was a racist athletic establishment at the University.  They and their representatives (remember, this is still during the Civil Rights movement) tried to discuss their concerns with the school’s chancellor, but to no avail.

Their complaints:

  • They were not scheduled to play regularly, despite their talent
  • They were denied access to medical and training facilities made available to white players
  • They were routinely subjected to taunts and racial slurs from other players and the coaching staff (including the head coach, Ben Schwartzwalder)

This is only 11 years after Syracuse’s Ernie Davis became the first black football player to win the Heisman Trophy- an event still celebrated and honored by the University and its fans.By the summer. By the summer, one of the players had been injured, but the remaining eight continued their boycott of practice when it began in August.

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The issue continued to percolate as the Orange began their season in early September, and spilled out into the streets after the last game in Saturday of that year.   Protestors began to march on University Avenue and Marshall Street (the retail/entertainment area) on the northern edge of the campus.

Marshall Street 1970

By the time the police calmed the campus, several buildings had been damaged, windows were broken on Marshall Street, and the image of the University as a leader in providing athletic opportunities to minorities was significantly damaged.

Of course, this wasn’t the first riot to break out that year on the hill;  earlier in 1970, student protestors had occupied the school’s administration building, demanding that students have more say in the governance of the university.  Eventually, the administration did allow this to happen.  Yet, the same administration refused to concede that racism and prejudice were endemic, particularly in the school’s athletic department. However, after the media and civil rights group put pressure on the school’s chancellor after the Marshall Street riot, he did authorize the creation of a commission to investigate the black athlete’s complaints.

In December of 1970, this commission released its report and it was damning.  Although the commission could not prove that black athletes were denied playing positions just because of their race, the report cited numerous examples of black players being called names, denied medical attention, and not having access to certain training facilities.  The head coach himself was implicated in these activities.  Schwartzwalder had been head coach since 1949 (and was credited with Ernie Davis’s success at Syracuse, at least by the writers of “The Express”), but his reputation was also tarnished.  He retired in 1973, and it would be several years before Syracuse University would rebuild its football program.

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