Decades before taking a knee was a statement on social justice, black athletes at the University of Colorado raised concerns about racial discrimination.
The late 1960s and early 1970s were turbulent years of student activism at CU, as they were at many American universities. Young people gathered with placards on campus for sit-ins and rallies against the Vietnam War, against President Nixon, against tuition increases, for more child care, for financial aid, for women’s rights and minority rights, and for increased diversity in the faculty.
In the spring of 1968, CU’s black athletes charged the athletic department, in particular CU athletic director and head football coach Eddie Crowder, with discrimination, the Daily Camera reported. Among the complaints were intolerance regarding interracial dating, the absence of black coaches, and discrimination in position assignments, recruiting and housing.
Carol Taylor Boulder County History
Claims of racial discrimination in campus athletics were nationwide. The issue became an international controversy at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, when two African-American track athletes each raised a black-gloved fist in support of human rights.
Back at CU, a committee of students and faculty was formed to study the matter, according to William Davis’s comprehensive history of the University, ” Glory Colorado! Volume II.” In the fall of 1968, the group made a number of recommendations, including that a black football coach should be hired as soon as possible.
Crowder issued a statement assuring the athletes that CU intended to work toward an integrated staff and better communication, and further he said that the athletes could conduct their social lives as they saw fit. In the spring of 1969, Crowder brought on a part-time black special assistant, William Harris, a former CU player (1965-1967), according to Ronald James in “Our Own Generation: The Tumultuous Years, University of Colorado 1963-1976.”
By June of 1969, Crowder announced the hiring of Cottrell B. McGowan, the first full-time black coach at CU. McGowan, a high school football coach, former star athlete at Texas Southern University and former minor league baseball player, soon became an important resource in recruiting Texas athletes to CU.
Relations with black athletes seemed to be moving in a positive direction and things went smoothly for a while on the gridiron. On campus, protests and sit-ins were still frequent, including marches and sit-ins at Regent Hall.
But in the spring of 1971, tensions in the athletic department flared again. Black football players sent a formal letter of complaint charging Crowder with insensitivity and indifference toward black people. Athletes claimed, among other charges, that they were not treated equally in the department and that white players were given better jobs than blacks during the summer and off-season. The letter made the declaration that “We will not shave off our mustaches while racism prevails because to do so would be to deny our black culture,” according to “Glory Colorado! Volume II.”
Players held a brief press conference at Stearns Hall in Williams Village, affirming that 10 of the 12 (later 11 of 12) black players were boycotting practice.
The Daily Camera learned that Crowder had the boycotting players’ lockers cleared out. Crowder refused to comment on the situation. Shortly thereafter, both parties agreed that the problems had been resolved. The five-day boycott ended and players returned to practice.
Crowder stepped down as head football coach in 1973 and retired from CU in 1984. In 1977, McGowan left the CU coaching staff, but remained a resource for recruiting.
CU continues to add diversity to its coaching staff. These days, many of CU’s most celebrated athletes and coaches have interracial families.
Carol Taylor and Silvia Pettem write about history for the Daily Camera. Follow Carol’s Instagram @signsofboulderhistory. Email Carol at email@example.com, Silvia at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to the Daily Camera, 2500 55th St., Suite 210, Boulder, 80301.