How Muhammad Ali’s Influence Changed the University of Wyoming Football Program Forever [Commentary]
Just as Jackie Robinson helped integrate sports a generation earlier, Muhammad Ali's courage inspired athletes to risk their careers and stand up for their beliefs. Including a legendary group of football players at the University of Wyoming.
1967 was the greatest year in the history of Wyoming's football program. Coach Lloyd Eaton's team went undefeated and earned a top five national ranking before a heartbreaking loss to LSU in the Sugar Bowl ended their perfect season.
While Eaton was establishing Wyoming as a national powerhouse, Muhammad Ali had been stripped of his boxing title and jailed for refusing to fight in Vietnam. The undefeated champion wouldn't return to the ring for another four years.
Although his conviction on draft evasion charges would later be overturned by the United States Supreme Court, Ali's bold stand cost him millions of dollars in the prime of his career and propelled him as the face of the anti-war movement. Ali was also hailed as a spokesman for the African-American community and became an outspoken advocate for racial equality.
By the fall of 1969, Wyoming was coming off their third straight conference title and was ranked 12th in the nation after winning their first four games. Then, on October 17th, the fate of the Wyoming football program changed forever.
The day before their game against Brigham Young University, 14 African-American players on the Wyoming roster informed Eaton of their plan to wear black armbands to protest the racial policies at BYU and within the Mormon church.
Eaton forbid his players from participating in the protest and promptly dismissed all 14 African-American players for the season. In the meeting, Eaton allegedly referred to them as "good negro boys" and encouraged them to transfer to historically black colleges like Grambling State and Morgan State.
After the incident, which became known as the "Black 14" controversy, the remaining players on the team wore multi-colored armbands to protest their coach's decision. Meanwhile, rival schools in the Western Athletic Conference demanded that Wyoming be dropped from their schedule .
Wyoming would eventually lose their final four games of the season. The next year, Eaton was fired after finishing with a 1-9 record. Over the next decade, Wyoming only had one winning season and the football program has never regained the level of national prominence it enjoyed in the late '60s.
Ali eventually returned to boxing in 1971 and is widely regarded as the greatest fighter of all time. However, his importance as a cultural icon transcends his reputation in the ring.
Whether you agreed with him or not, Ali's impact was felt all over the world; even here in Wyoming.