Football season kicks off soon with the sport still mired in controversy over whether players should stand for the national anthem. A new NFL policy that would force them to do that is now in limbo while the league negotiates with its players. But the underlying debate over whether political protest belongs on the football field is a familiar story to the University of Wyoming.
Back in October of 1969, the UW Cowboys were twelfth in the country and undefeated. John Griffin was a wide receiver.
"The minute you step on any field you’re in for a fight for 60 minutes," said Griffin when he described his playing style. Sitting in UW's stadium, Griffin struggled to recognize the place. But he said he does remember the day he was kicked off the team as if it were yesterday.
It was the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. And the team was set to play Brigham Young University. At the time, the Mormon Church promoted the belief that black people were cursed with dark skin as punishment for Cain's murder of his brother. African-Americans were not allowed to elevate themselves in the Mormon church. That meant no church leadership, no missions, and no access to Mormon temples. Griffin and thirteen other black teammates wanted to protest the church's policy when they played the Mormon college's football team that fall.
"We're not going to be able put something on our helmets. Probably aren't going to be able to stick something on our jerseys," said Griffin. "But we can certainly wear a black armband."
The day before the match they met with their Head Coach Lloyd Eaton to discuss the armbands.
Griffin said, "[Eaton] comes in and he walks in front of us. Looks at us. 'Gentlemen, you're no longer Wyoming Cowboys.'"
Griffin and his teammates were shocked. That night the players met with the UW Board of Trustees and Wyoming Governor Stanley Hathaway to try and overturn the coach's decision. But UW ruled in favor of Eaton who said there was a rule that barred players from demonstrating. The next day, Griffin and his teammates watched the game from the stands.
"It was pretty surreal, we should have been out there," said Griffin.
And it didn’t stop there.
"We were blackballed by the NFL," Griffin said.
Fast forward to today and the NFL has effectively blackballed Colin Kaepernick. Christine Brennan is a veteran sports reporter with USA Today.
"They don't want this man who has brought this controversy into our consciousness and our lives," said Brennan.
The quarterback was the first player in the 2016 season to refuse to stand for the national anthem. He said he was protesting police brutality against people of color. Other players followed his lead. The league and many football fans called it a political intrusion. But Brennan said keeping politics out of sports has never been possible.
"You could never ever divorce, or separate, sports and Mohammed Ali, or sports now and Colin Kaepernick, or sports and Donald Trump," said Brennan.
At a rally in Alabama, President Donald Trump described any player that took a knee during the anthem as "a son of a bitch," and said he would like to see NFL owners fire those players. Whether or not the NFL can fire a player for kneeling is complicated. But the league is pushing a policy that says players on the field must stand for the anthem.
For their part, the Wyoming Cowboys have moved on from their Black 14 days. Athletics Director Tom Burman said the university no longer has a policy that prevents student-athletes from demonstrating.
"It's not as if that’s the role of intercollegiate athletics is to provide a platform for public discourse," said Burman. 'But we also don’t want to prevent it."
He added that the Cowboys have a team-first approach.
"They discuss it as a group. And not trying to limit their ability to be individuals and have an opinion, but just understand that everything has an impact on a team, and some of these issues can divide a team pretty quick," said Burman.
As for Black 14's John Griffin, he said he believes it comes down to what you feel in your heart, or "Where the injustice lies. In our case, the injustice was the ugly face of racism."
If the NFL policy does go into effect, it's likely fans will notice who's on the field and who's in the locker room during the anthem—probably a guarantee that this debate won’t go away.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.