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Syracuse 8 Recall Sacrifice for Racial Justice 50 Years Ago, Echo Today's Struggles

Social justice is one of the major issues on the forefront of public discussion in 2020. For many, though, the fight for equality has been taking place for much longer than this year.

“I think there is no finish line when it comes to racial and diversity issues, and social justice issues,” said Dana Harrell.

Harrell, a member of the Syracuse graduating class of 1971, played for the SU football team in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He is best remembered, however, as one of the ‘Syracuse 8.’

The ‘Syracuse 8’ were a group of nine African American football players that boycotted the Orange in 1970 to take a stand for equal treatment in athletics– among other issues.

Along with Harrell, the ‘Syracuse 8’ included Gregory Allen, Richard Bulls, John Godbolt, John Lobon, Clarence “Bucky” McGill, A. Alif Muhammad, Duane Walker, and Ronald Womack.

Last Month, six of the nine members (Allen, Muhammad, Womack, Harrell, McGill, and Lobon) spoke to WAER alumna Beth Mowins about their experiences with racial equality at Syracuse over a Zoom hosted by the Newhouse Sports Media Center.

Several of the members gave up prominent positions on the football team to urge the squad to change its values.

“I’m willing to play and give, but I want respect,” said Lobon of the motivation of the men to sit out. “I think that all we are looking for is respect.”

Some of the prominent issues the ‘Syracuse 8’ wanted to be solved were equal access to tutoring, African American representation on the coaching staff, and better medical treatment for all athletes.

The reception to these requests from those in charge, was far from supportive.

“The coaches and the athletic department was generally negative on the guys who boycotted,” said Harrell.

Ben Schwartzwalder, the head coach at the time, was intent on getting the players to return to the field. Members like Gregory Allen – who rushed for nearly 400 yards the previous season – played vital roles to team’s success. However, the coaches did not intend to concede to the demands of the ‘Syracuse 8.’

“Ben [Schwartzwalder] asked [Allen] … ‘what do you want to be, a football player or black?’” Lobon remembers. “Greg said, ‘I’m only going to be a football player for a little time in my life, but I’m going to black for all of it.’”

Despite the barbs of the coaches and athletic department, the ‘Syracuse 8’ did have some important allies.

“I don’t want to overlook the importance of our relationship to Chancellor John Corbally,” said Harrell. “He understood just what we’re saying tonight. He understood that 50 years ago. That we were trying to make Syracuse University better.”

Corbally decided to investigate the issues of equality on social justice the players were facing. On December 10, 1970, the Committee on Allegations of Racial Discrimination in the Football Program released a report that stated, “racism in the Syracuse University Athletic Department is real, chronic, largely unintentional, and sustained and complicated unwittingly by many modes of behavior common in American athletics and long-standing at Syracuse University.”

The acknowledgement from leadership at the school was important for the nine men, but it did not exactly have the effect they had hoped for.

“We were trying to get Ben Schwartzwalder moved out … and the Chancellor got moved,” Womack said.

Some concessions were made, like the hiring of an African American assistant coach, and a few members of the ‘Syracuse 8’ returned to the field in the following seasons. Not only did they sacrifice their college careers, but many were denied professional careers because they chose to speak out.

It was an immense sacrifice that did not yield immediate rewards. The personal loss each of the nine men took, however, resulted in gains minority athletes at SU in the future.

“What we did was we gifted Syracuse University,” said Allen. “We gifted Syracuse University our time, our effort, our aspirations, our dreams.”

Because of their sacrifices, future stars like SU quarterback Donovan McNabb (the third African American QB to start in a Super Bowl) were able to thrive for the Orange.