A brief look into Syracuse’s exfoliated past with black football players

Colin Kaepernick’s iconic stance rears the ugly head of racial tensions in sports all across America forcing a retrospective gaze into our very own translucent past

We've all heard the story of Ernie Davis; the first man of color to carry a Heisman trophy (awarded to outstanding college football players). Hailing from the Syracuse squad of '61, his prominent statue watches us walk through the quad on our way to classes every morning. He even has a dorm named after him, which I happen to live in.

Davis garnered a strong legacy in helping build-up our football program, but sadly passed away at 23-years-old from leukemia before making star appearances in the NFL. It's a no-brainer as to why he's vigorously celebrated on campus.

As revered as Davis is, and was, for his athletic career, Syracuse University hasn't always treated its players respectfully. With the NFL's recent exploits over racial issues we look over Syracuse University's own looming past of race in football.

Little is known of the tensions faced in the spring of 1970 when a group of African-American athletes, labelled inaccurately as "The Syracuse 8" —there were nine of them— planned to boycott practice if their demands weren't met. Here's why:


Ben Schwartzwalder was the head football coach at the time — spare a second to let that sink in. He wasn't in cahoots with the "revolution" the black students were gaining traction for and only cared for their playing.

Many people felt the same way. The team doctor was hesitant to touch black bodies and would explicitly avoid having to do so, Southern schools wouldn't accept playing against teams who, in their eyes, fielded "lower class citizens" and unofficial rules were set in place regarding the number of blacks set on the field, including home games, according to WBUR.

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Times have changed as tides have turned

With the one-sided race war in full effect at the time, black students, athletes and faculty members raved about starting a black studies program here at 'Cuse. It was only natural to feel disenfranchised as the alienation transcended sports and school, extending into interpersonal relationships.

When Coach Schwartzwalder heard about Greg Allen's plans to spearhead such a program, he called the athlete into his office. ""You can't be black and be a football player," Schwartzwalder told him.

On a short ride from the airport to campus, Allen was told to stay away from white girls by the coach who had recruited him, which is a pretty strange piece of advice to lay on a nervous newcomer on the team. Situations like this were rampant and it was only a matter of time before it sparked a controversial backlash within the community.

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A. Alif Muhammad came to Syracuse from Rindge Technical School with a near-perfect math SAT score. His aspirations of becoming an engineer took a hit when he was told he couldn't take a calculus course because it clashed with practice. Being pressured into taking flimsy classes jumbled with the fact he was looked down on based on the student-athlete stereotype had him disillusioned as he felt boxed in and marginalized. He didn't wish to have his dreams take a backseat solely for the sake of his ability on the field.

Greg Allen suffered a similar fate. He was made aware that his biology major conflicted with his sports schedule and wouldn't have time for labs. This policy, however, didn't apply to white sports players. He saw that people like him were being exploited for their athletic abilities and weren't being attended to educationally.


The players drafted out a petition. It included giving black and white players the same amount of access to tutors and academic advisers as well as the signing of a black assistant coach. Seeing as the Syracuse 9 decided not to damage the program, they concluded that a failure to meet these demands would see them sitting out spring practice.

Once the coach refused to budge though, the players skipped practice the very next day. In a school as big as ours, that was sure to grab the headlines and the players knew it.

Unfortunately for them, the media's spin-off of the whole spectacle wasn't much too flattering of their actions and w/out the players getting their side of the story told, the noose tightened. In cherry picking the demand for a new coach, all attempts of equal access were sawed off. The worst part was, they never reached out to the actual players; they just made the stories up as they went along.

Touted as black militants and dissidents, their public images were shattered and it would go on to hurt Greg Allen later on in his career. At the time though, all nine players were suspended as fans threatened to boycott games if they were ever allowed to come back to the team. The white players on the team shared the same verdict as the fans and so did the alumni who wanted their scholarships revoked.

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All nine of the 'Syracuse 8' at their belated appreciation ceremony

Syracuse University has come to recognize that the Syracuse 8's punishments were crude and unjust. Rebels aren't made by their knack of disrupting the status quo, they arise from the need for change. Racism was running rampant in mainstream America and they played their part in helping it run its course in sports. Athletes are afforded the power to stick up for themselves as everyone should and awe-inspiring stories such as this must be proliferated for the sake of progression in equality across America.

The group's endeavor was celebrated in 2006. They had the courage to do what seemed like taking on the world in spite of the negative forces surrounding them. Receiving the Chancellor’s Medal as well as their Letterman jackets was the consolation prize given, but 36 years seems like an extraordinarily long time to honor such painstaking efforts.

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