Looking Back: Black athletes challenge standards

This story was originally published in The Easterner Vol. 19, No. 32 in 1969 and has not been changed except for AP style. This story contains a racial slur that we would normally not include in an article but it is retained here for historical accuracy.


THE DIE IS CAST. Athletes clench their fist and raise them aloft in a vote to prohibit black athletes from displaying the same political gesture in football, basketball, track and baseball games. A code of conduct relating to the basic appearance and conducts of all the athletes was discussed by the athletes in a meeting last Wednesday. | Easterner, Vol. 19, No. 32, April 30, 1969

By The Easterner, Archives

Athletes, coaches and college administrators at Eastern are continuing informal talks this week regarding, in general, a code of conduct for athletes and in particular the clenched fist salute of the black athletes.

Several white athletes, mostly football players, first broached the subject of an athletic code to Brent Wooten, director of athletics, about a month ago.

Wooten, who immediately endorsed the idea of a code, suggested the reason for establishing one was to prevent a recurrence of the recent Oregon State flare-up, triggered by a black student’s refusal to shave his beard.

After hassling over the particulars of the code with various coaches, a meeting of all the athletes was called Wednesday to ascertain their views on the proposed code, which covered basic areas of appearance and conduct and recognized that an athletic team is an autocratic society and is therefore under sole authority of the coach.

The clause relating to the raised clenched fist of the black athletes read: “The athletic arena will not be used as a platform for actively expounding political, religious or philosophical views.”

Discussion was long and sometimes heated on that point, with the blacks insisting their closed fist salute is valid means of expressing their inequality and some whites refuting that by labeling the clenched fist a black power symbol.

Black Student Union member Jim Bell explained the blacks viewpoint in this manner: 

“We won’t raise our fists if the national anthem isn’t played, both are political gestures.”

Elaborating further, Bell said, “Athletics is the only field blacks have been able to compete in equally against whites. Using that vehicle is the best means blacks have of forcing whites to realize the injustices dealt us.”

“College is supposed to give students a chance to be leaders. The only places a black can lead and express his opinions with authority are in athletic arenas.”

“We are not advocating separatism but are simply trying to bring about equality. There would be no need to raise clenched fists if there wasn’t racism in the country.”

“The athletic department will be denying us equality and perpetuating racism if they abolish the clenched fist symbol,” Bell said. “We feel it is not asking too much for them to show some empathy to blacks in view of the present turmoil in the country.”

Asked what actions would be taken if the clenched fist was outlawed, Bell replied, “I can assure you black athletes will play in every contest they qualify to play in next season.”

Asked if that meant blacks would accede to the rule he simply replied, “No.”

Bell and BSU President Al Sims questioned the integrity of the athletic department in dealing with the black athletes on this issue.

They cited an instance at the time of the OSU controversy, when one Eastern coach reportedly advanced the often used racist solution of “lining up all those n—– and shooting them.” 

Athletic director Wooten expressed hope the differences of opinion could be settled amicably.

Wooten called for a show of hands at the Wednesday meeting for or against the clenched fist proposal, “Just to see how the athletes felt about it,” and it was accepted with little opposition.

It was Wooten’s opinion the discussions indicated the ballplayers wanted team unity, voting for abolishing the clenched fist because it would disrupt that unity.

Wooten added that the coaches, himself included, share that view. He said, however, further discussions with athletes would be necessary before he could make a recommendation to President Shuck concerning the athletic code.

Shuck sent a letter to Wooten, which Wooten read at the three hour meeting, commending the discussion process the athletic department was adopting in handling the situation. •