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Syracuse Football Fighting for Social Justice 50 Years Ago


Sports fields and courts have been the platforms for statements about social and racial justice since games resumed this year.  Struggle with quality and discrimination are not new, though for Syracuse University, which had to deal with the issues 50 years ago amid student-athlete protests

It’s May 1970. Syracuse Football is set to start spring practice, Ben Schwartzwalder at the helm for his 21st year. Something was different though. Nine football players - mislabeled The Syracuse Eight - boycotted spring practice. Why? To stand up for equality and advocate for a more diverse coaching staff. A decision made in 1969 that affected their playing careers forever. The Eight were eventually suspended from the team and never got to play in the NFL.

Only 36 years later, was the group honored by Syracuse for its courage to risk it all and stand up to social injustice. Fast forward 50 years, and some things haven’t changed as much as some would hope.  Dozens of biased related incidents were reported across campus last November.

Credit WAER File Photo
Students crowded into SU's Barnes Center during sit-ins that lasted weeks. Shown here, SU Chancellor Kent Syverud speaks to students.

  Students organized sit-ins in the Barnes Center to protest the hate and SU’s response. They called it the #NotAgainSU movement. Meanwhile, Dino Babers knew his crew still had games to focus on.

"I would like for them to stay locked in on the game and stay focused and even celebrate afterwards but when we go back, we're going back to campus and all that stuff is going to be there. And I’m sure they have their opinions and they have their rights by the first amendment and I'm all for it."

Like the Syracuse 8, the group created a list of demands for the University to improve upon. Chancellor Kent Syverud signed the demands. But protests continued into the Spring Semester, only ending after the COVID-19 pandemic forced classes online and students off campus.

With the #NotAgainSU movement still fresh, more racial unrest followed. George Floyd died after a police officer kneeled on his neck- for eight minutes and 46 seconds. His death sparked a nationwide awakening. Protests erupted in Minneapolis in the following days… along with nearly every major city. People fed up with a current system that perpetuates racial inequality. Coach Babers, one of 14 black head coaches in the CollegFBS, remained quiet. Until he spoke with his players on zoom.

"They really expressed, I would say the anger of what this whole purpose was, and they really moved me. They brought me to a point of growth."

In late August, more protests arose after the police shooting of Jacob Blake. This time Babers was adamant the team process it together as a family.

"They’re right there in front of me, so obviously we addressed it right away. And then we took another time when they could bring it up and talk about it. A little state of union ya know, what’s on your heart, what’s on your mind. Go ahead and bring it up, there is no subjects and let’s see if we can talk some of this stuff out. So, that was basically the biggest difference is that I could touch em, compared to the first time when they were all over the country." 

Some SU football players, arriving for Saturday's game against North Carolina, chose to make statements about social justice causes.

It wasn't just Coach Babers who was vocal on the subject though, Tight End Aaron Hackett also spoke out.

"Being able to get together with my teammates, guys from different backgrounds, who’ve had different life experiences, and just hearing and understanding the things they’ve dealt with, ya know helps us all move forward and  helps us grow as people and its just really important, and I know I got a lot from that."

This year has served as a reminder that hate isn’t dead. But when people unite like the Syracuse Eight and #Not Again SU, it shows us that change can and will happen.