How Student-Athlete Activism Shaped the University: An Interview with Cameron Black

Cameron Black

In the wake of the Varsity Blues scandal and the NCAA’s changes in amateurism rules, the role of student-athletes at universities seems to be changing. This is only one new twist in a long-running question about the role of student-athletes at universities, according to Cameron Black, Assistant Professor of History at the City College of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies. Black, who completed his PhD in history at UC Berkeley in May 2023, studies the history of student-athlete protest movements in the 1960s through the lens of labor and management and the history of capital. In his research, Black has found that student-athletes were conceptualized, managed, and disciplined as labor. Through showing how student-athletes resisted the encroachment of management into their personal and professional lives, Black demonstrates how race, labor, and culture came together at universities in the 1960s. 

In this interview with Julia Sizek, Black discussed his research and its relevance to today’s university — and to our understanding of UC Berkeley’s radical past. 

Sports don’t take place in a vacuum, as your research clearly shows. How was student-athlete activism – and particularly Black student-athlete activism – linked to Black radicalism in the late 1960s?

Though sport does not take place in a vacuum, many historical and contemporary actors believe it should! Throughout the 20th century, athletic departments carved out a separate regulatory space, which I call “negative space,” that insulated them from university regulations for students, labor protections for workers, and even constitutional protections for American citizens. In this light, it makes sense why some commentators argue that sport should take place in a vacuum. In this space, coaches and athletic directors possessed extreme authority over student-athletes and held autocratic powers to enforce their policies — powers so immense that university presidents and chancellors felt they could not interfere in most department affairs — while remaining unaccountable to legal protections and social or cultural advancements.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Black student-athletes often protested as part of both the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power/Radicalism Movement. Similar to Civil Rights activists, Black athletes demanded full integration and representation within academic and athletic institutions. For instance, Black athletes at Berkeley, led by Bob Smith and John McGaffie Smith, argued that Black athletes deserved academic advising equal to that given to their white counterparts. At Syracuse University, Black athletes demanded the freedom to determine their own major; Clarence McGill, a Black student-athlete at Syracuse, recalled that, in order to take classes that he wanted to take, he had to cross out classes that the coaching staff had recommended for him. Student-athletes at both Syracuse and Berkeley also protested against playing segregated schools in the early 1960s, and argued for integrating student housing at their own institutions.

However, Black student-athletes straddled the line between the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, chronologically and ideologically. While many Civil Rights protestors pushed for integration, the Black Power Movement pushed beyond integration as a core component. To student-athletes who were influenced by the Black Power Movement, athletic departments did not simply oppress them by preventing integration and equitable treatment within their teams. Athletic departments prevented equitable outcomes because their hierarchical structures, fueled by racism, did not allow for Black people to influence policy decisions and denied their ability to express individualism as Black people. To remedy these injustices, Black student-athletes argued for hiring more Black people within and outside athletic departments, including more Black coaches, doctors, and administrators. They also protested for departments to allow unregulated cultural expression. For instance, a central pillar of protestors at Oregon State revolved around their ability to wear the hair, including facial hair, of their choice. Finally, they argued that Black student-athletes within the athletic department, and Black people in the broader university apparatus, should have more control over decisions made by the athletic department, including recruitment, hiring of staff members, and even coaches.

Black student-athletes’ financial demands also fit with national efforts to secure equitable pay for Black workers. Student-athletes at both Syracuse and Berkeley argued for more pay for jobs they worked, and for more equitable working conditions within the athletic department. At Berkeley, student-athletes clamored for scholarships, and, if the department could not provide full scholarships, they demanded more favorable jobs on campus as well as jobs for their wives, if they were married. At Syracuse, student-athletes wanted to be more aligned with students: instead of working a job at the athletic department, they wanted full scholarships like their fellow students received.

What drew you to research these protests, and which archives did you draw upon to research them?

I found many of these protests accidentally! Initially, I was working on a project that looked at how NBA athletes were disciplined and managed under the aegis of racial capitalism. While researching that topic, I stumbled across a small article that reported a protest by student-athletes at Berkeley in 1968. I found it perplexing and fascinating. In the history of Berkeley student activism, I had not heard of student-athlete protests. When I followed up on this particular vein, I discovered why: many Berkeley student protesters thought that the university should manage student-athletes more harshly than regular students. This was a regular occurrence in each of my case studies. When I looked further back, I discovered that, in the late 19th and into the 20th century, many coaches, employers, and social theorists argued that student-athletes needed to be treated not as students, but as labor. They argued that this would make student-athletes into better workers once they graduated.

I used a plethora of source material from archives at Syracuse, UC Berkeley, the University of Wyoming, and Oregon State University — including reports from the offices of the chancellors or presidents, legal briefs, oral histories from the student-athletes themselves, and newspaper articles from student newspapers— to demonstrate how athletic departments across the country, supported by their universities, viewed student-athletes as labor. Though some historians and journalists wrote about student-athlete protests at Wyoming and Syracuse, they did not really talk about how the structure of the university impacted how student-athletes were managed or disciplined. As a result, I wanted my study to deconstruct the institutions involved in these protest movements while unearthing and preserving the voices of student-athlete protest movements. Reports to the chancellors or presidents were particularly interesting because these records simultaneously demonstrated the power of athletic departments to maintain themselves as separate entities, unbeholden to university leaders, as well as universities’ desire to comply with the departments’ demands to manage student-athletes as they saw fit.

At the University of Wyoming, I focused on court records and administrative sources because, out of all my sampled universities, it was the only case where student-athletes took legal action against the university. The legal briefs submitted by the university to the Circuit Court demonstrated that the athletic department, the upper echelon of the university administration — including the president, the Board of Trustees, and even the governor of the state — all thought student-athletes did not, and perhaps more importantly, should not have the same constitutional protections that students did.

At Syracuse, I focused on oral histories from the student-athletes themselves, alongside administrative documents from the university’s archives. The highlight from the archives was a complaint from Black student-athlete protestors to the local Human Rights Commission branch in Syracuse. After numerous complaints to the coaching staff about racist abuse, a lack of jobs, and the complete absence of Black coaches (there weren’t any Black coaches on Syracuse’s staff), the athletes protested at a practice in the spring of 1970. During this protest, they filed their complaint to the Human Rights Commission arguing that the athletic department and the head coach had violated their constitutional rights and human rights. After an investigation, the commission ruled that the athletes’ complaints were valid, and that the football team, in particular head coach Ben Schwartzwalder, should be held accountable for their actions.

At Berkeley, the Office of the President engaged in a spirited debate with the athletic department about how to pay student-athletes, whether scholarships were ethical, and how much authority an athletics department should possess. And at Oregon State, the most notable archival document was a charter of incorporation filed by the athletic department in the late 1920s. This charter helped create a separate space for the athletic department, in which it managed and disciplined student-athletes through a process that was parallel to (but separate from) the university’s broader regulatory processes.

While we often consider student-athletes as labor through the sports that they play, your research underscores how athletes were laboring both on and off the field. How did universities reach into the lives of athletes beyond their time participating in sports? 

This is a bit interesting. In the early 20th century, many coaches and philosophers of sport, most prominently Walter Camp, who was the first person to note that the audience should understand the rules of the game they were watching in order to better understand the moral lessons of sport, argued that coaches needed to have extraordinary amounts of power over student-athletes’ lives off the field to properly train them. In particular, Camp, also known as the father of American football, argued that coaches should control even what student-athletes ate and when they ate, what jobs they worked, which classes they could take, and how they could spend their leisure time. His training manuals, which contained numerous tables and charts delineating how student-athletes should train, eat, and work, were instrumental to how coaching became institutionalized and professionalized at the college and professional levels.

Under the guise of properly preparing athletes for the workforce, universities borrowed tactics that employers had used to manage laborers during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The three most important continuities in my mind were how universities systematically underpaid student-athletes to fund other departments, how they prevented student-athletes from transferring to other universities or profiting off work outside of the university, and how athletic departments could claim immense amounts of authority over athletes’ personal lives because coaches were athletes’ “moral stewards.”

From the late-19th century to the mid-20th century, universities paid student-athletes for jobs provided by the athletic department to help subsidize their admission. This was standard practice, and universities systematically underpaid their student-athletes to help fund either the athletic department, or other departments in the university. For instance, Oregon State’s football and basketball teams saved both the university’s student newspaper, The Barometer, and the College of Arts and Sciences from bankruptcy during the Great Depression in part by paying the players on the basketball team a measly $290 for an entire semester. In an investigation into the athletic department’s payment practices in the 1950s, a Berkeley administrator noted that, in a comparison of Berkeley’s and UCLA’s work programs, 45 athletes at UCLA had received a sum that, when divided among them, would amount to $346.94 each as compensation for caring for UCLA’s athletic fields and other areas on campus over the nine-month school year. This work cost UCLA “the equivalent of eight men working full time,”  and was a price that, in his opinion, would destabilize athletics at the UC system because it paid athletes too much money. The administrator recommended a pay reduction to UC President Sproul, and UCLA complied, at least temporarily. Employing student-athletes at various places throughout the university saved universities a lot of money in labor costs. In conjunction, student-athletes could not work on campus outside of their work contracts, nor could they work for corporations outside of the university unless their wages were severely regulated. They were, in many ways, leased employees to the university where they signed. Thus, when student-athlete protestors argued for academic scholarships, they directly pushed against earlier forms of cash payments, which undervalued their contributions to the university and to the athletic department and categorized them as a form of hybrid labor.

Universities treated student-athletes like labor in many other ways that transcended payment. Most prominently, universities employed transfer rules, which mirrored non-compete clauses from the late-19th century, to restrict student-athletes from moving to other universities. Non-compete clauses were specific legal instruments implemented to prevent skilled workers from competing with master craftsmen who trained them, and they applied to a localized geographic area, like a county. The jurisdiction of transfer policies for student-athletes far exceeded non-compete clauses’ jurisdiction. Transfer rules applied across the United States, and in order to transfer, student-athletes required their coaches’ consent. By passing these policies, universities, conferences, and the fledgling NCAA strengthened their hold over student-athlete transfers, who were called athletic “tramps.” This appellation was an intentional reference to the word’s common meaning: in the late-19th century, a growing class of wandering male laborers became known as tramps. Tramps were considered a socio-economic threat to Victorian ideals about work ethic, and many coaches argued that student-athletes who moved away from their home universities posed a similar threat to Victorian ideals.

Universities also provided athletic directors and coaches with enormous latitude pertaining to on-field and off-field matters like housing, student-athlete wages, and disciplinary policies. Thus, by the 1960s, coaches had long established the power to interfere in the lives of student-athletes off the field. For instance, in one particularly dramatic and saddening instance at the University of Wyoming, an assistant coach ordered a Black player to break up with his girlfriend (who was white) or else he would lose his scholarship. The coach did not want any trouble from alumni or conservative groups because of an interracial relationship, and the player complied because he did not want to lose his scholarship.

How did coaches and athletic directors think about the relationship between themselves and the athletes, and how did it relate to the academic mission of the university? 

Coaches’ ideas about the relationship between themselves and the academic mission of the university remained rather consistent throughout the 20th century. Universities from the late-19th into the mid-20th century argued that sport helped reinforce values that would prove useful to the new industrial economy.

In the early-20th century, coaches argued to university presidents that they were best suited to teach athletes and the audiences that watched them how to adapt to the massive shifts that industrialization caused in the labor market. John Heisman’s statement “You play until the whistle blows” eerily mirrors a training pamphlet by the Industrial Harvester Corporation in 1913, which commanded their labor force to spend their time according to the company’s audible signals. The pamphlet depicts such compliance in the first person: “I hear the Whistle. I must hurry. I hear the five-minute whistle. It is time to go to the shop.… The Starting Whistle Blows. I eat my lunch. It is forbidden to eat until then.… I work until the whistle blows to quit.” Student-athletes, coaches argued, needed to learn how to maintain self-discipline and focus, work on a team, obey authority figures, and handle the loss of autonomy in the newly industrial workplace. These values, in the minds of coaches, athletic directors, and many administrators, were essential to a university’s academic mission because they provided forms of training that a traditional classroom could not provide. For instance, timed drills, in the mind of coaches, simulated multiple different types of workplaces; whistles simulated new forms of surveillance and evaluation of work, and the position of the coach itself would mirror that of a manager or foreman.

By the 1960s, the use of language about industrialization had faded, but its impact on the ideology of athletics hadn’t changed much. Instead of industrialization, many coaches argued that sport was a necessary bulwark against growing radicalization throughout the 1960s and 1970s, something that they felt should be an essential piece of a university’s mission. Thus, coaches argued that they should be able to prevent student-athletes from joining clubs that they wanted to join (in particular Black Student Unions, but also other clubs like fraternities were excluded as well), keep them from attending or participating in protests, or restrict the hair styles that they could wear. These actions were all framed as part of fulfilling the university’s mission to protect its students.

Part of your research involves understanding how the university changed during the mid-20th century, and how that impacted not only student-athletes, but students in general. How were the goals of the university changing during this era, and how were the students enrolled in these institutions changing? 

Universities changed rapidly from the late 1940s to the 1960s. From the mid-19th to the early-20th century, universities were less draconian than many spaces in American society, but they were still quite authoritarian. They exerted this power over students because universities adopted a motto of in loco parentis (in place of the parent). This was a traditional responsibility established in the 19th century in which universities took legal and social responsibility for students in the place of their parents, giving universities an enormous amount of power over students’ academic and political lives on campus. From the mid-19th century, universities and other schools possessed numerous ways to exert authority over students. Universities had the power to prevent different sexes from living together, control when students could enter and leave dormitories, and, in some cases, physically discipline students. These are just a few examples of how universities could insert themselves into the lives of students on campus.

The in loco parentis arrangement came under immense strain in the late 1950s, and even greater strain in the 1960s. Across the country, universities were integrating and serving Black, Latino/a, and, particularly at universities in the western United States, Asian students. As a result of the G.I Bill, universities saw a massive increase in veterans who had served in World War II; many administrators found it improper to manage these students under in loco parentis after they had fought in the war. These two integrative forces pushed universities to loosen restrictions placed upon students’ political, academic, and social lives. After the 1960s, students could express socio-political views more freely, restrictive policies like dress codes were largely removed, and undergraduates and graduate students alike were provided with more transparency regarding their grades. As a result, students began to freely express political activism, often at odds with official university positions. Though the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley was the most famous and recognizable student-protest movement, it certainly was not the only one: students upended the status quo throughout the country, and questioned the legality of in loco parentis, as well as the university’s active participation in the United States’ military industrial complex, and they engaged in broader social questions like integration and the Black Power Movement.

In this context, college sport, particularly college coaches, were seen as a conservative bulwark against rapidly encroaching liberalism. The autocratic policies that coaches espoused were actively transformed into a proxy for conservative arguments against liberalism, and athletics’ separation from broader university accountability structures needed to be maintained. Coaches were well aware of how rapidly the university was changing at the time; Ben Schwartzwalder, the head coach at Syracuse University, actively lambasted the liberal tide, and argued that sport was a last haven for students to learn hard-worn American values like obedience, sacrifice, and hard work. At Berkeley, athletic director Pete Newel argued that student radicalism intrinsically damaged the university, and that college sport was a salve for this particular form of unrest. Thus, when coaches and administrators argued that student-athletes could not be managed within this rapidly liberalizing environment, as the lessons about work ethic, citizenship, and masculinity would be swept aside, they were taken very seriously by university chancellors, presidents, and other administrators.

One of the protests that you studied was at Berkeley, where a student refused to cut his Afro hairstyle to be in accordance with his team’s policy. How and why was this seen as a political act at the time? 

This is a really interesting case! On January 19th, 1968, head basketball coach Rene Herrerias suspended Bob Presley for, in his words, lateness to practice. Herrerias argued that Presley needed to be more disciplined to continue playing for the team, notably telling the press that Presley’s suspension was “in the best interest of the player.” But two days later, Herrerias reinstated Presley, stipulating that reinstatement would be for “the best interest of the player.” Therefore, in a two-day period, Herrerias attempted to argue that suspending Presley for the season was beneficial for him, and revoking the suspension was also good for him. On closer examination, it seemed that Herrerias’ problem was with his Afro. As Newell recalled in an oral history, “Herrerias suspended Presley for two reasons: his hairstyle and his lateness to practice. He (Presley) had the Afro and wouldn’t cut it…. Rene’s point was ‘He was always testing me, he’s always doing this, and late for practice….’”

Black hairstyles rapidly became a socio-cultural and political demarcation line for Black students at universities, particularly for Black women. Historians and cultural theorists have argued that aesthetics, like hair, were vital to the construction of Black identity, and contributed to white anxiety about Black people. During the 19th and 20th centuries, cartoons, children’s stories, and advertising often depicted African Americans as beady-eyed and thick-lipped, with wild unkempt hair. White designers often portrayed the hair of the Black subjects as symbols of their supposed disillusionment with modernity, simplicity, or savagery.

By the 1960s and 1970s, the socio-cultural construction of Black hair had fundamentally shifted with the introduction of the Afro. Perhaps most critically, many Black Power philosophers argued that natural Black hair, in particular Afros, symbolized their revolutionary struggle against white oppression, global capitalism, and imperialism.  Finding inspiration in the global struggle of the African Diaspora, activists in the Black Power Movement argued that Black people across the country should eschew European aesthetics; Afros signified defiance against the system and association with the movement, while straight or short hair represented conformity with systems of oppression. Black student-athletes at Berkeley grappled with this intellectual tradition and its larger implications, to the chagrin of the coaching staff.

A case that you studied at the University of Wyoming highlights how the obligations of student-athletes to the university were seen in contradiction to their free speech rights to protest. How were their rights as student-athletes adjudicated in relation to the university? 

Their rights as citizens and students were subsumed by their status as representatives of the university. This was not a normal constitutional arrangement for students. This arrangement worked for universities because student-athletes were encapsulated in a space outside of the law that had been legitimized by legal decisions made throughout the 20th century.

These Wyoming student-athletes, nicknamed the Black 14, were part of a broader movement of college athletes in the western U.S. who decided to bring attention to injustice by protesting when their teams played Brigham Young University, which is owned and operated by the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS). Until the late 1970s, the LDS Church prevented African Americans from becoming priests or entering into their socio-religious life; in particular, the LDS religious doctrine viewed Black Americans as spiritually inferior. These policies extended into BYU’s socio-religious life. To protest LDS and BYU’s treatment of African Americans, Black students competing for university teams across the West wore black armbands when playing BYU. Black football players at Wyoming had a particularly salient reason to protest. One of their own, Ted Williams, wanted to join the Mormon church. As a result, the 14 Black players approached Lloyd Eaton, their head coach, to ask his permission to wear Black armbands when they played against BYU that season.

Protesting for any reason violated Eaton’s rules for the football team. Though the athletes attempted to meet with Eaton to discuss how they could properly protest, Eaton did not attempt to listen to the athletes’ request; he dismissed the student-athletes unilaterally, without any type of hearing. After their dismissal, the 14 Black football players, led by Joe Williams, appealed to the university administration. They argued that Eaton violated their rights as students and U.S. citizens; in a radical step, some of the players told the university that if Eaton wasn’t fired, they’d never play for the university again. After meeting with the players, the Board of Directors ruled that Eaton was within his right to remove the players from the team. As a result, Joe Williams filed suit in Wyoming District Court, and later appealed the case with the Wyoming Court of Appeals. Their appeal fell on deaf ears, however: none of the Black 14 ever played for the University of Wyoming again.

It certainly appeared as if the athletes’ case had merits. Coach Eaton’s rule that prevented protest for any reason was constitutionally suspect; it violated student-athletes’ First Amendment right to protest prima facie. Eaton’s rule forced the student-athletes on the team to approach him individually, preventing any type of group meeting, which also violated the First Amendment’s freedom of assembly. Finally, the decision conflicted with the University of Wyoming’s disciplinary policies for students. Usually, dismissed students were granted an automatic disciplinary hearing if they were expelled, and students could not be expelled for simply suggesting a protest against a community or organization. However, both the District and Circuit Courts ruled that, as a public university, the University of Wyoming could dismiss the protesting athletes because their protest would have created a First Amendment conflict between student-athletes’ free speech rights and spectator’s freedom of religion. Therefore, the Mormon audience’s public freedom of religion superseded the student-athlete’s freedom of speech and expression in a private setting.

Yet, based on the testimony of the protesting athletes, and a close reading of case law established during the 20th century, I argue that the justices did not rule on the facts at hand. Rather, they imagined a constitutional conflict between the First Amendment rights of Mormon spectators and First Amendment rights of student-athletes, and their final decision stripped the Black athletes’ constitutional protections. I argue that  the justices imagined that the protest occurred in a public setting, in front of Mormon spectators, rather than in the private setting where it actually happened. By reimagining the location, they could create a conflict between First Amendment protections, rather than evaluate how Eaton’s actions violated student-athletes’ First Amendment protections that had been established in various previous decisions, including  Tinker v. De Moines, Pickering v. Board of Education and Cox v. Louisiana. Thus, the judges reframed Eaton’s actions not as suppressing protest, but rather as attempts to protect the spectators’ First Amendment right of religion. As a result, the justices argued that the department was justified to use extraordinary power to prevent this violation of religious freedom from occurring.

Today, the question of freedom of speech is more relevant than ever, especially considering contemporary movements by athletes and teams to support Black Lives Matter (in the case of the WNBA), or to brand playing fields and uniforms with social justice messages (in the case of the NFL). What do you think your research can help us understand about the broader history of social justice and sports? 

I think my research reinforces the fact that sports, politics, and debates over labor are not separate, and that artificially separating them can perpetuate inequities. Though we might think of sports as a form of escapism, its ability to provide an escape is a political and socio-cultural construction with some pretty important stakes. My research also looks at how different power structures, in this case universities, framed sports as apolitical to delegitimize arguments about social justice. Coaches used a variety of strategies, from immediate dismissal to delegitimizing local government rulings, to prevent student-athlete protesters’ demands from being fully realized. Often, coaches and athletic directors argued that they used their power for the student-athlete’s own good, arguments that are often used to delegitimize activism by younger people.

To return to the question of student-athletes as laborers, the NCAA dramatically changed their rules on amateurism in 2021 when they allowed student-athletes to profit from their own likeness. How do you think this fits into a broader history of student-athletes as laborers? 

I think it’s a really interesting and much-needed initial push in the broader history of student-athletes as laborers. In some ways, the new rules did fundamentally transform the socio-cultural and legal status of student-athletes at all levels. The changes, which allow student-athletes to be paid and loosened restrictions on whom student-athletes can work for, are really important changes that benefit student-athletes.

However, I think that these rule changes also are taking place in a context that mirrors industrial capitalism because both universities and athletic conferences operate with a startling lack of regulatory oversight. We can’t separate these changes from NCAA deregulation at the conference level. Universities shift conferences with growing regularity, and coaches are moving despite massive buyout clauses that aim to prevent them from doing so. Perhaps the most poignant example in recent weeks was how the PAC 12 conference nearly disintegrated in a 72-hour timeframe. The lack of regulations and broader protections can potentially allow for greater exploitation of student-athletes. Student-athletes can be recruited and offered image and likeness agreements at younger ages, which drives a sense of professionalization among athletes who have not entered college. Additionally, female athletes, who were generally excluded from the capital/labor nexus in the 20th century, are increasingly a part of these agreements, but with much lower pay and benefits than male athletes. These new rules have further transformed student-athletes into laborers, but I don’t think we have really thought about the short- and long-term ramifications; simply paying student-athletes does not end the inequities they experience.

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