Nearly 50 years after Washington football players protested what they considered racial injustice under coach Jim Owens, two former UW players weigh in on the protests in Missouri.
To former Washington wide receiver Ralph Bayard, the incident at the University of Missouri this past week was hauntingly familiar.
The allegations of racial injustice. The African-American football players who decided they couldn’t tolerate it any longer. The turmoil that resulted when those two forces collided.
“It hit home,’’ said Bayard, now 66 and nearly half a century removed from the unrest that erupted at Washington in 1969 under coach Jim Owens.
The resignation of Missouri’s president and chancellor has been deemed a potential revolutionary wielding of power by student athletes.
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It may well be so. The almost instant capitulation by the school’s leaders could easily be traced to the players’ threat of boycotting Missouri’s next game, against BYU. Fellow major-sport athletes around the country had to have had an epiphany about their potential to influence change.
But to a group of former University of Washington athletes, there was also a strong sense of déjà vu. They lived their own version of the Missouri incident, 46 years ago.
“When I saw what had occurred at Missouri, it felt so much like what happened during my days in college at the University of Washington,’’ said Gregg Alex, Bayard’s former Husky teammate. “Because there were much bigger issues in the country, and on campus, you couldn’t ignore.”
The unrest at Washington erupted midway through the 1969 season after an African-American running back, Landy Harrell, was punished for fumbling in the previous game, a loss to Oregon. Many of the black players felt the punishment was both unfair — a white running back had also fumbled with no repercussions — and excessive. Harrell was made to run stairs at Husky Stadium into the night.
“The catalyst was blatant abuse of one player, and the way the coaches responded to it,’’ recalled Alex. “The coaches laughed at the fact one player had been left running the stadium in the dark. It was wrong.”
Black players threatened to boycott. Eventually, Owens held meetings in which he asked players to pledge 100 percent loyalty to the team. Four of them, all black — Bayard, Alex, Harvy Blanks and Lamar Mills — refused to do so, and were suspended by Owens.
Bayard and Alex both believe strongly that not all players were asked the same question by Owens.
“The question he asked me was, could I be loyal to him?” said Bayard. “Basically, I told him loyalty was earned, and I couldn’t be loyal to someone allowing racial injustice to occur.”
It’s important to put all this in the context of the time. The Vietnam War was still raging. Martin Luther King had been assassinated a year earlier. The Olympic black-power protest by John Carlos and Tommie Smith had taken place in 1968 as well. Civil-rights protests were erupting around the country. And charges of discrimination within Owens’ program had been first raised a year earlier.
After the suspensions — which the players involved learned via radio, rather than from Owens — most of the rest of Washington’s black players decided to boycott when the team’s charter bus bound for the airport was blocked by about 200 protesters, black and white.
Fielding virtually an all-white team, the Huskies were crushed by UCLA. After a subsequent loss to Stanford, three of the four suspended players were reinstated by Owens for the Apple Cup. With Bayard scoring two touchdowns, the UW picked up its only win of the season.
Nearly a half-century later, Bayard regrets that similar racial issues still exist, prompting the Missouri action. But he also sees signs of progress after Missouri’s players threatened to boycott.
“We were somewhat isolated in terms of what happened, and kind of vilified,’’ he said. “But at Missouri, in terms of response, you see that the coaches were very supportive of the players. Faculty was very supportive, and a number of students rallied to support the athletes. To me, that shows progress.”
Bayard said it was “heartwarming” that the Missouri players stood up for a cause they believed in.
“They showed you can be a student, a ballplayer, and also stand up for what’s right,’’ he said.
Dr. Matt Wilson, associate professor of sport business at Stetson University, told me Thursday, “Probably at no other time have college athletes been as empowered as they are right now.”
Wilson believes that young people today, in contrast to the so-called “me generation,” have more of a social conscience.
“They want to feel part of a bigger cause,’’ he said. “Kids are speaking up now. I think it’s generational.”
Certainly, the Washington athletes in the late 1960s keenly felt the turmoil around them. But Alex said they didn’t have any grand designs to change the world.
“We were people thrust into a moment,’’ he said. “None of us went through it with any intention other than to get things right.”
After the 1969 season, UW president Charles Odegaard established a commission to investigate racism charges in the athletic department. As a result, black coaches were added to Owens’ staff and Don Smith, an African-American, was appointed assistant athletic director. Arbitrary discipline was eliminated, and a trainer who made racist remarks was fired.
More turmoil erupted during the 1970 football season, however, when three key players — Calvin Jones, Mark Wheeler and Ira Hammon — quit the team because of what they denounced as discrimination within the program. Jones eventually came back after Smith, two black assistant coaches, a black baseball coach and black administrator Gertrude Peoples were hired at Washington.
Owens resigned after the 1974 season, paving the way for the Don James regime and new heights for the Washington program. One of James’ assistants was Gary Pinkel, the current Missouri coach who instantly threw his support behind his protesting black players.
In 2003, when Owens came back to Washington to be honored with a statue, he met with several former players — including Alex and Bayard — and apologized for his actions in the late 1960s, admitting they “caused a lot of pain.” Owens died in 2009.
Both Bayard and Alex are supportive of the current Husky football program and have been closely involved with the athletic department. Bayard served a stint as the UW’s compliance director, while Alex spent 13 years as the team’s chaplain.
All four of the suspended players, in fact, have had highly successful careers after college. Bayard is now senior director of systems improvement at the Casey Family Foundation, headquartered in Seattle. Alex is executive director of the Matt Talbot Center, which works with the homeless, addicted and mentally ill. Mills is an attorney, and Blanks is an accomplished actor, playwright and director.
“I can look back 45 years and say, ‘Yeah, what we did was right,’ ’’ said Bayard. “At the time, I thought it was right, but you’re not always sure when you’re 19 years old and just starting out in life. Hindsight being 20-20, I believe it was the right thing to do. No second thoughts.”