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Legally Speaking

 

Issue: October, 2009
Author: Robert C. Jarosh

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BOOK REVIEW: Black 14 – The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Wyoming Football

On the morning of Friday, October 17, 1969, all 14 of the black players on the University of Wyoming football team walked into head coach Lloyd Eaton’s office wearing civilian clothes and black armbands. Although they could not have known it at the time, they were about to become an indelible part of Wyoming’s history.

The players, who would later become known as the Black 14, hoped to convince Eaton to let them wear the armbands the following day in their game against BYU to protest the Mormon Church’s policy against blacks in the priesthood. Wyoming was undefeated and nationally ranked, and the players saw the game as an opportunity to make a statement about something bigger and more important than college football. Instead, Eaton led the young men out of his office and to the Memorial Fieldhouse bleachers, where he dismissed them from the team. As Eaton later told State and University officials, the players had violated team rules prohibiting factions and student demonstrations, and he would not tolerate it.

In the days that followed, the national press descended on Laramie, and groups from both inside and outside Cowboy Country rallied – some behind Eaton, and others behind the Black 14. When the University did not reinstate the players, they filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Cheyenne. Legendary judge Ewing T. Kerr denied the players’ request for injunctive relief and eventually dismissed their case. Although the dismissal was partly vacated by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1971, Judge Kerr’s subsequent dismissal on remand was upheld by the Tenth Circuit a year later.

In the Black 14 – The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Wyoming Football, Wyoming native Ryan Thorburn marks the 40th anniversary of the Black 14 by helping us understand the incident through the eyes of those who were there. To do so, Thorburn interviewed most of the Black 14 (all of those who he could find and who would talk to him), as well as coaches and others who were in Laramie at that very confusing and tumultuous time. What results is a story that everyone in Wyoming – from lawyers to laborers – should read, learn, and understand. It is, after all, forever a part of our history.

Thorburn’s Black 14 is compelling on many levels. For the football fan, Black 14 explains the impact of that autumn 1969 day on the future of Wyoming football. One short year after the Black 14 incident, and just three years removed from consecutive 10-1 seasons, the Wyoming Cowboys finished 1-9. Although they had won the Sun Bowl in 1966 and nearly upset national powerhouse LSU in the Sugar Bowl in 1968, Wyoming would not win another bowl game until 2004. And as Thorburn explains, while there were arguably glory years in the interim, Wyoming football has never been the same.

For the historian and the academic, Black 14 takes the reader back to a fascinating time in our state’s and our country’s history. Eaton was a larger than life figure in a state that bleeds brown and gold; a war hero from WWII, who had overwhelming support in Wyoming because of what he did on the gridiron. Ultimately, it may have been his success on the field that garnered Eaton the support of the University’s Board of Trustees, which sustained Eaton’s dismissal of the Black 14. Then again, other social forces in 1969 may have played a role as well.

For lawyers, Black 14 begs questions beyond what is included in the book itself, including why Judge Kerr denied injunctive relief, why he dismissed the players’ federal lawsuit and why, eventually, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Judge Kerr’s ruling. This is not a criticism of Thorburn’s work, but is instead a compliment – only a very gifted author can tell a story that makes the reader thirsty for more. Many of those answers can be found in the four published legal opinions that evolved from the Black 14 incident: 1) Williams v. Eaton, 310 F.Supp. 1342 (D. Wyo. 1970); 2) Williams v. Eaton, 443 F.2d 422 (10th Cir. 1971); 3) Williams v. Eaton, 333 F.Supp. 107 (D. Wyo. 1971); and 4) Williams v. Eaton, 468 F.2d 1079 (10th Cir. 1972).

However, what makes Black 14 truly special is Thorburn’s ability to tell the story through the voices of the players themselves. Although many assumed otherwise, the Black 14 came from varied upbringings and social classes. They were from southern California, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and everywhere in between. They were 18, 19, and 20 year old kids. And from the moment that they were dismissed, Thorburn tells you, they became embroiled in a controversy that would change their lives forever. In the beginning, they met with the University’s athletic director and president, and then with the Board of Trustees and Governor Stan Hathaway. Over time, and after all of the powers that be in the state sided with Eaton, most went their separate ways. Three returned to the football program in 1970 when the Cowboys won a single game. And many eventually went on to successful careers throughout the country. Today though, 40 years later, many of the participants in the Black 14 incident still become emotional when discussing the subject. That emotion, those insights into what the players were seeing and feeling and hearing in 1969, is something that no author before Thorburn has ever put so eloquently into words.

Black 14 is a relatively quick read as books go – it fills 150 pages with large text. But its relative brevity is also its charm. Over the course of a lazy afternoon, you can read Thorburn’s story of the Black 14 and become acquainted with its participants. You can begin to feel what they felt. For those of you who were alive during the Black 14 and witnessed it, the book is sure to evoke memories, passions, and emotions that may be long forgotten. For the rest of us, Black 14 is a reminder that things have not always been as they seem in the world, or even on a football field in Laramie, Wyoming.

Robert C. Jarosh is a partner with the law firm Hirst Applegate, LLP, in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Copyright © 2009 – Wyoming State Bar

     

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