Latter-Day Protest? Proposition 8 and Sports

By Dave Zirin

x-posted from Edge of Sports with permission.

As supporters of Gay Marriage have discovered, it’s never easy to be on the Mormon Church’s enemies list. The Church of Latter-Day Saints backed the anti-Gay Marriage Proposition 8 in California with out-of-state funds, and gave the right a heartbreaking victory this past election cycle. But the Mormon Church has been challenged in the past.

Just ask Bob Beamon.

If you know Beamon’s name it’s almost certainly because he won the long jump gold medal in legendary fashion at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Beamon leapt 29 feet, 2.5 inches, a record that held for twenty-three years. Great Britain’s Lynn Davies told Beamon afterwards, “You have destroyed this event.” This is because Beamon was not only the first long jumper to break 29 feet, he was the first to break 28.

But you may not know that Beamon almost never made it to Mexico City. Along with eight other teammates, Beamon had his track and field scholarship revoked from the University of Texas at El Paso, the previous year. They had refused to compete against Brigham Young University. Beamon and his teammates were protesting the racist practices of the Mormon Church, and their coach at UTEP, Wayne Vanderburge, made them pay the ultimate price.

They weren’t alone. As tennis great Arthur Ashe wrote in his book, Hard Road to Glory, “In October 1969, fourteen black [football] players at the University of Wyoming publicly criticized the Mormon Church and appealed to their coach, Lloyd Eaton, to support their right not to play against Brigham Young University. . . . The Mormon religion at the time taught that blacks could not attain to the priesthood, and that they were tainted by the curse of Ham, a biblical figure. Eaton, however, summarily dropped all fourteen players from the squad.”

The players, though, didn’t take their expulsion lying down. They called themselves the Black 14 and sued for damages with the support of the NAACP. In an October 25th game against San Jose State, the entire San Jose team wore black armbands to support the 14.

One aftershock of this episode was in November 1969, when Stanford University President Kenneth Pitzer suspended athletic relations with BYU, announcing that Stanford would honor what he called an athlete’s “Right of Conscience.” The “Right of Conscience” allowed athletes to boycott an event which he or she deemed “personally repugnant.” As the Associated Press wrote, “Waves of black protest roll toward BYU, assaulting Mormon belief and leaving BYU officials and students, perplexed, hurt, and maybe a little angry.”

On June 6th, 1978, as teams were refusing road trips to Utah with greater frequency, and the IRS started to make noises about revoking the church’s holy tax-free status, a new revelation came …

Whether a cynical ploy to avoid the taxman or a coincidence touched by God, the results were the same: Black people were now human in the eyes of the Church. African Americans were no longer, as Brigham Young himself once put it, “uncouth, uncomely, disagreeable, and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind.” The IRS was assuaged, the athletic contests continued, and the church entered a period of remarkable growth.

Similar pressure must be brought to bear on the Mormon Church today for its financing of Proposition 8 in California. One nonprofit crunched the numbers and found that $17.67 million of the $22 million used to pass the anti-gay marriage legislation was funneled through 59,000 Mormon families since August. It was done with the institutional backing of the church, though many pro-gay Mormons have spoken out defiantly against the church’s political intervention.

The question now is whether this latest tale of social conflict and the Church of Latter-Day Saints will also spill onto the athletic field. Men’s athletics have been one of the last proud hamlets of homophobia in our society (although the attitudes of male athletes is more progressive than you might think). But women’s sports has been historically more open around issues of sexuality.

Will any women collegians raise the specter of Proposition 8 if they have to travel to the schools of Utah? Will we see the ghosts of Black 14 emerge from the past? If any athletes choose to act, the ramifications could be “Beamonesque.”

Chino Blanco

--- We are men of action, lies do not become us. ---

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11 Responses

  1. Hellmut says:

    I never knew the details of academic sporting boycotts against BYU. Thanks a lot.

    I may be wrong but BYU’s tax exemption was at stake rather than that of the Church itself.

    The precedent would be the revocation of Bob Jones University’s loss of tax exemption because of it’s prohibition of interracial dating.

  2. Ray Agostini says:

    That photo of Peter Norman, Tommy Smith and John Carlos brings back such sizzling memories to me. A runner myself in days gone by, I followed US Track and Field for many years beginning in 1968, and saw the magnificent John Carlos run in my home town. The white man to the left is the silver medallist Peter Norman from Australia, known then as “the man who split the Americans”. Many wondered what the white man on the rostrum may have thought of the protest. Well there’s an interesting story behind this.

    As reported:

    Smith and Carlos were thrown out of the athletes’ village and became pariahs in US sporting life until at least the early 1980s, by which time the damage to their lives was irreparable.
    In winning the silver medal, Norman clocked 20.06sec, still one of the oldest Australian records. Norman later said that when he began the race he was nervous he was about to run last in an Olympic final. But he put in a final spurt, edging Carlos out of second place by 0.04sec.

    As Norman waited for the medal ceremony, he made it known he believed in the cause motivating the Movement For Human Rights Project that inspired the Olympic protest. Smith gave him a button he wore on his tracksuit jacket during the ceremony.

    Carlos had forgotten his gloves and, at Norman’s suggestion, each of the Americans wore one of Smith’s gloves. The protest caused a worldwide uproar.

    But Norman was protected by his team manager, Judy Patching, who, “with a smile, told me to consider myself severely reprimanded”, Norman said. “Then she asked me how many tickets I wanted for the hockey.”

    For many years after 1968, Norman maintained contact with the men who shared the podium with him – more so with Smith, for whom he had a high regard.

    Norman died in 2006 and both Smith and Carlos attended his funeral. At the time the protest was thought outrageous and defiant, but it sent a message, and as Carlos put it: ““It wasn’t about black or white. It was just about humanity, faith in God and faith in making it a better world.” Now America has its first black president. Who in 1968 could ever have imagined that? Certainly not Tommy Smith or John Carlos.

  3. Chino Blanco says:

    Good stuff, Ray. Thanks for that.

  4. Hellmut says:

    Thanks, Ray. It is sad that administrators ruined the lives of athletes that merely asserted their humanity. Their treatment says a lot more about our fears than their aspirations.

    We need to celebrate Smith and Carlos more.

  5. Hellmut says:

    I am just so relieved that I do not have to justify any of this as the will of God any longer.

  6. rebecca says:

    This is great – thanks for the specifics of the stories.

    I have a Mormon friend (though the friendship has been mightily strained in the past few months) who says that the parallels between treatment of blacks and gays don’t hold up because ‘gay’ shouldn’t be a legally protected status (he has yet to give me a good reason for WHY). I so, SO hope his attitude will be looked on as shameful, even by the Mormon Church, in the very near future.

  7. chanson says:

    Interesting stuff. My mom attended BYU in the late sixties, but I’d never even heard about the fact that students at other schools had refused to play against BYU (because of the church’s racism) until I read about it in an article from the New Yorker archives from back then.

    I’ll look and see if I can find a link to the article, or maybe transcribe some quotes from it for another post here on MSP. The quotes from the BYU students (who at the time had no idea the priesthood ban would ever be lifted) were disturbingly similar to what one can read in the Bloggernacle today with respect to the church’s treatment of homosexuals.

  8. rebecca says:

    Chanson, I would LOVE to read that article if you can find it!

  9. kuri says:

    Here’s a reproduction of an AP articles that appeared in the Odessa American in 1969.

  10. Chino Blanco says:

    I was reading Zirin’s latest column over at The Nation today, and it reminded me that he’d let us x-post his Prop 8 piece here.

    This Day in History: When Muhammad Ali Took the Weight

    I probably shouldn’t have read that before commenting on this post over at Wheat & Tares:

    Elsewhere in Patriarchy (Part 2) . . . Political Oppression

    Why doesn’t the LDS church make any progress? Because the leadership is all pushing 80 and nobody is allowed to complain.

    Maybe it’s time the membership stopped waiting around for permission to speak truth to power.

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