52 Years of Recognition Cemented
In 1970, a grouping of nine African-American Syracuse Football players formed to boycott the clear University-wide social and racial divide implemented athletically and academically. This group was known as the Syracuse 8. As a collective, the athletes sacrificed their potential collegiate and professional playing careers in order to fight injustice for generations to follow.
The nine who fought for this cause that spanned way behind their individualistic concerns include Greg Allen, Richard Bulls, John Godbolt, John Lobon, Clarence McGill, A. Alif Muhammad, Duane Walker, Ron Womack, and Dana Harrell. All of which are very outspoken about the protest and continue to further the narrative that occurred over half a century ago.
“You know there were the usual challenges when you step out and confront an institution,” Harrell said. “An institution that we loved, but we felt that there were issues surrounding race, diversity, and just fair play, so as a group, and individually everyone on the Syracuse 8 made an individual decision, that something had to be done.”
That thought process resulted in a boycott from Spring practice, with many in the area calling for the University to revoke the athlete’s scholarship, kick them off the team and even boot them out of the school. But even with those lobbying efforts, the Syracuse 8 didn’t waver from its ultimate goal of demanding the University to work on its social injustice problem toward all races, ethnicities and genders.
As a part of the 8’s message, they formulated a list of four demands for the University to abide by in order to put an end to the boycotts. The demands included: better academic advisement, expert medical care for the team, an assistant coach of color to diversify the staff, and playing time being doled out because of merit rather than racial priority.
“If you look at our demands that we were asking, there was nothing really unique about them,” Muhammmad said. “I mean this is not profound or dynamic stuff (we were) asking for.”
Either way, the group was dismissed from the team, although a pair of players were invited back in the following years. This abbreviated version of SU’s pillars of anti-discrimination and those who sacrificed to selflessly open up opportunities for those who came after is well-chronicled to the point that the University created a “Syracuse 8 Courage Award” in 2007. On top of that, the 8 were honored at a Syracuse football game during halftime, as well as recognized with the Chancellor’s Medal, the University’s most distinguished honor.
But the crew wasn’t alone in their efforts to grow their mission statement and the actions they took because of it. People like Muhammed Ali and Ernie Davis indirectly played a huge role in the process of fighting for what was right in the moment, and directly, Jim Brown, arguably the best collegiate running back ever, made a speech during that halftime ceremony calling it “one of the greatest nights [he had] been involved in.” This ceremony alone shows the immense growth in University policies, noted by members of the 8.
“[The difference is] incalculable, when I look at the University and the diversity of the student body, the football team and diversity of all sports and athletics,” Allen said. “All that he changed, I think it has just made Syracuse a better place… it’s night and day.”
As Syracuse has revolutionized its way of thinking, both athletically and academically, growth has led to progress which has led to a higher level of recognition. Prior to the 2022 season, Syracuse surprised each member of the Syracuse 8 with a permanent spot where the nine of them would be forever cemented on a Dome wall. A mural that Professor Rick Burton, a professor teaching in the Sport Management program, adds is much deserving.
“I think the Syracuse 8 is one of the most significant moments in Syracuse history,” said Burton.
Burton also touched on the fact that he’d seen the mural and thought it was incredibly well-done and well-represented. He lauded the amount of space given on the wall and its location being in a high-traffic zone. For the members of the Syracuse 8, its reaction occurred last weekend and added to the emotional toll of the events over the last 52 years.
“It was indescribable, there were a lot of old guys with watery eyes or just sweating from their eyes (facetious of course),” Allen said. “Wow seems like such a trite expression but it [that’s what the reaction] was, it was a deep sense of honor, a moment of satisfaction and gratification that all hit you at once.”
An overall sacrifice from half a century ago that paid off in the grand scheme of impacting the University’s trajectory and cementing their legacy in the halls of what was Archibald Stadium in the 1970s.
“Every moment that we thought about it, we hoped that people would recognize what we did as our own badge of courage,” Allen said. “To see it physically was just an awesome moment, it’s hard for me to describe it now of all the emotions I was feeling then.”
From a group of nine student-athletes that chose to strap their helmets against an internal issue that hadn’t been addressed at Syracuse University, to a grouping of older men, 52 years later, chatting about the past’s continued impact on the present, speaks volumes to the overall legacy-based impact that the Syracuse 8 enacted. In a time where the status quo ruled, nine go-getters and passion minded individuals find themselves etched in SU football more permanently than they already were.