In 1970, nine Black Syracuse University football players became rebellious outcasts when they quit the team to protest racial injustice.
Now, 36 years later, the university has officially recognizing them for their courageous stand.
On Friday, they received Chancellor’s Medals, one of the university’s highest honors. Chancellor Nancy Cantor called the men “emblematic of the values we want for our students and for ourselves when we face critical issues of justice and equality.”
On Saturday, former National Football League star Art Monk, a 1980 Syracuse alumnus, gave them their long-denied letterman jackets at a halftime ceremony during the Syracuse-Louisville football game.
“Sometimes you have to make a stand for your principles if you want to believe in who and what you are,” said John Lobon, one of the former players and now a member of the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.
“Syracuse University I forgave long ago. I left my heart but not my soul. Today, you returned my heart. I can now allow you to be part of my soul,” Lobon said.
In 1970, the Syracuse campus was in turmoil. Classes were canceled that spring amid protests against expansion of the Vietnam War.
In an effort to inspire change and promote equality in the football program, Lobon and eight teammates walked out of spring practice and said they would boycott the upcoming season until their grievances were addressed. They were among 11 Black athletes on the team.
Although mistakenly dubbed the “Syracuse 8” by media reports in 1970, the group included nine: Lobon, Gregory Allen, Richard Bulls, John Godbolt, Dana Harrell, Clarence “Bucky” McGill, A. Alif Muhammad, Duane Walker and Ron Womack.
The boycott inspired fierce debate on campus. Some called the players disloyal malcontents because they wanted to wear traditional African clothes and wear their hair in Afros.
Harrell said the group — all 19 and 20 years old at the time — agonized over their decision.
“We were all mostly first-generation college students. Education was important to the hopes and dreams of our families. It’s a difficult decision to put not only your dreams, but your family’s dreams, in jeopardy. But this was something more important to us,” said Harrell, now a senior vice president for Axa Financial Inc. in Boston.
The players said they endured quiet slights and outright racism at Syracuse. They claimed the football program was insensitive to Black athletes.
They requested better medical care for injured players and stronger academic support for Black players, the right to compete fairly for any starting position and racial integration of the football coaching staff.
Allen said he and his teammates took action because they wanted the university to be a better place.
“That’s why we stayed and graduated,” said Allen, a regional manager for Liberty Mutual Insurance in Chicago. “It is important to see what the university has become. It makes our sacrifices worthwhile,” he said.
The players’ rebellion resulted in a university investigation that found widespread racial injustice at Syracuse and led to dramatic changes, including increased hiring of Black assistant coaches and a revised dress code.
The nine men gave up football, and their scholarships. They all have become successful as business executives, teachers and public servants.
Art Monk, one of the NFL’s all-time leading receivers and a member of three Super Bowl winners with Washington, sheepishly admitted that until last fall, he did not know the men’s story. Monk attended Syracuse from 1976-1980. He is now on the university’s board of trustees and helped gain university recognition for the former players.
Monk, deeply moved by their story, said their accomplishments make a larger statement than any record he set in sports.
“We have a false impression in this society as to what success really means,” he said. “Today, (young people) see success as glamour, money, possessions, cars and houses, and really those things aren’t worth anything. What really matters is the character of the person, your integrity, the standards that you live by.”
Reader comments on this story:
There are currently 3 reader comments on this story:
“shame on the university”
“principle, justice, and character”
“food for thought”
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