Nearly 50 years ago, in 1969, 14 black football players at the University of Wyoming wanted to protest a racist policy.
The team was set to play Brigham Young University, a university affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which at the time had a policy prohibiting black people from becoming priests. Students were planning a protest outside the football stadium, and the players wanted to wear black armbands during the game in support.
When the players approached their coach to ask for permission, they were immediately kicked off the team.
The campus fell into disarray – there were protests calling for the reinstatement of the players, and the situation garnered national attention. The team, though it beat BYU 40-7, lost its last four games of the season and went 1-9 the next season. Though three of the players came back to play for the team in 1970, three others transferred to all-black schools. Two eventually went on to play in the NFL.
None of them ever received a public apology. Until Friday.
The University of Wyoming held a commemorative week in honor of the 14 players, dubbed the “Black 14,” this year, marking the 50th anniversary of the incident. The week, attended by eight of the 11 living players, culminated in a dinner Friday, when the university’s athletic director Tom Burman read from an official apology letter from the school.
The letter applauds the former students for their actions and says they were “deprived” of their college experiences because of events that weren’t their fault.
“To have your collegiate careers derailed as both students and athletes is a tragedy,” it says.
It concludes with the following: “Please accept this sincere apology from the University of Wyoming for the unfair way you were treated and for the hardships that treatment created for you. We want to welcome you home as valued members of this institution, and hope you accept our old Wyoming saying, ‘Once a Cowboy, always a Cowboy.’”
“It was extremely emotional,” Kevin McKinney, a senior associate athletic director at Wyoming who helped organize the weeklong event, told CNN. “I can only imagine that was something they wanted to hear, and they hadn’t heard that for 50 years from the school.”
Lionel Grimes, a member of the Black 14, called it “mind-boggling.”
“I never thought I’d see that happen at the University of Wyoming,” he told local media.
“That’s all I ever wanted was an apology,” Tony Gibson, another member, said. “That’s it.”
It ‘should’ve been done 20 years ago’
The Black 14 spent their week meeting with students and athletes at the university. They spoke in classrooms and in a panel discussion about First Amendment rights and constitutional issues.
McKinney called the support from students “outstanding.”
“The students didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “(They) were very interested in it. They wanted to hear the story.”
McKinney continued, “Honestly, (the commemoration and apology) should’ve been done 20 years ago, or longer.”
Earlier Friday, the university unveiled a plaque at the football stadium honoring the players.
The next day, the Black 14 were honored at halftime during the football game against the University of Idaho. They received a standing ovation from the crowd, McKinney said.