By Daniel Bendtsen
Via Wyoming News Exchange
LARAMIE — Tom Burman, athletic director for the University of Wyoming, delivered history’s first apology from the university to the Black 14 on Friday evening. Those 14 black football players, many of whom were on campus this week, were kicked off UW’s football team 50 years ago for asking their head coach for permission to protest the Mormon church’s policy barring black priests.
“Please accept this sincere apology from the University of Wyoming for the unfair way you were treated and the unfair hardships that created for you,” Burman said.
At a dinner held with Black 14 members in the Wildcatter Suites atop War Memorial Stadium, Burman read publicly a letter that he and former UW President Laurie Nichols had previously sent to members of the Black 14 on May 21, 2019, once the administrators were certain there would be a on-campus commemoration of the Black 14 incident on its 50th anniversary.
“It has been an honor and a privilege to reconnect with you and hear your story, and that story is heart-wrenching,” Burman read from the letter. “The college experience should be a rich one, and one of the best times in a young person’s life. You were deprived of that experience for reasons not of your doing. Not to be heard, to be shunned, and to have your collegiate careers derailed as both students and athletes is a tragedy.”
That letter came after more than two years of discussions between UW officials and Black 14 members about an eventual passing of an olive branch between the two parties.
The phrase “olive branch” was exactly how several members of those parties put it Friday night.
“Past President Laurie Nichols and I had many conversations beginning in 2016 after I attended a (2016) event in Florida, where the Black 14 were honored for their courage and conviction to civil rights,” Burman said Friday. “When I attended that event, I said to myself ‘somehow, someway, the University of Wyoming needs to extend the olive branch,’ and with her support, we’ve been able to accomplish that in the past few years.”
“This has been a time of healing, and the healing started with Dr. Emily Monago bringing us in here last February,” said Tony McGee, a defensive end kicked off the 1969 team. “I want to thank you for allowing the Black 14 to heal, and for healing yourself.”
Monago is the university’s first chief diversity officer, a position Nichols’s administration created in 2017.
The past few “years of conversation,” Black 14 player John Griffin said, also have culminated in several new UW initiatives to honor the Black 14 and propel UW’s commitment to diversity as described in its five-year strategic plan, adopted in 2017.
Griffin said Black 14 members are working with Monago’s office “to develop programs that will encourage African-American students to consider the University of Wyoming as their college of choice.”
A UW Foundation endowment in the Black 14’s name is also being created to fund scholarships for black students to attend UW.
Griffin lamented the absence of Nichols on Friday night, who had helped initiate talks with Black 14 members in 2016.
“She was the first president to reach out to us and say, ‘How can we make this right?’” Griffin said. “I’m saddened that she’s not here with us, but she’s certainly here in spirit.”
On Oct. 17, 1969, the Black 14 players were dismissed for approaching then-head coach Lloyd Eaton to ask permission to wear black armbands for their game against Brigham Young University.
Eaton claimed the players broke two team rules, including one against protesting and another against creating factions. Several of the Black 14 players said during a Thursday panel on campus that they knew of no such rules.
After the dismissal, many of the state's residents, UW students, football teammates and even the governor and UW’s board of trustees at the time sided with Eaton’s decision.
The letter sent to the Black 14 members this spring was signed by Nichols and Burman. It was signed two months after it was announced that the board of trustees would not renew her contract, which expired at the end of June.
Griffin did thank the trustees Friday night for “for trusting in us and supporting the whole process.”
Burman said that interim President Neil Theobald, who was in attendance Friday, was fully supportive of that message of an apology.
“This doesn’t happen without the support of Acting President Neil Theobald,” Burman said. “He’s passionate about this project. He fully embraces and supports the events this weekend.”
According to Burman, Theobald wanted to the sign the letter, but also felt that it was Burman and Nichols who deserved the credit for their work to make amends.
After Burman read the letter aloud at the dinner, Black 14 members in attendance gave him a standing ovation.
The Black 14 players are also planned to be honored during halftime of UW’s football game against Idaho on Saturday.
“When we walk on that field, this will be the first time that these guys have walked on that football field in 50 years,” Griffin said. “Thank you for embracing us and making us feel like we’re back home.”