Whether it be at the professional level or the collegiate level, you cannot tell the history of sports without mentioning civil rights. Prominent athletes such as Jackie Robinson and Muhammed Ali are often mentioned as civil rights leaders in the same breath as Martin Luther King Jr, Malcom X, and Rosa Parks. Sports pushed civil rights forward in many ways. Most sports were segregated until the postwar period. Even after the integration of sports, black athletes experienced racism and segregation off the field. In this essay, I will examine three case studies of sports and civil rights from the period of 1939 to 1966. Jackie Robinson at UCLA, Loyola football’s forfeit of a game against Texas Western in 1950, and the Texas Western basketball team in 1966. In the case of UCLA and Texas Western, they accepted black athletes into their universities because the athletes could benefit their athletic programs. Loyola University accepted black athletes to improve their athletic program as well. However, Loyola showed that they cared about their athletes off the field and stood up for their players basic human rights. All three of these examples tie in together and play a crucial part in understanding the complexities of civil rights in America.
Jackie Robinson’s athletic career is well known. He truly was a great athlete, but his legacy in American history is not as much about his play on the field as it is about breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball. What often gets overlooked, however, is that Jackie Robinson was already a path-breaking athlete at UCLA, where he played four sports in the year 1939. Los Angeles was a fairly progressive city when it came to civil rights. The fact that Jackie Robinson was able to play four sports and even enroll at UCLA in 1939 expresses that. This does not mean, however, that UCLA was a model for social justice. Black students were restricted in almost every way on campus and were not really allowed to participate in campus activities outside of class. As Arnold Rampersad describes,
As usual black athletes had it the hardest. They could not live in the village of Westwood; they were also not expected at any socials or student parties and certain jobs, such as work in the campus store were also denied to them. And there were no black professors or instructors as the university. Still In comparison to many other places UCLA was a friendly place for the black student, and the gifted black athlete was welcome.Arnold Rampersad, Jackie Robinson : A Biography (New York: Knopf, 1997), 67.
Jackie Robinson was valued at UCLA because of his athletic ability. Black athletes were allowed to attend big universities, because these universities exploited these athletes for their talent. There were rewards to be had by accepting black athletes, including an improved athletic program, translating into wins and money. These athletes were accepted into schools at this time period, but this by no means meant racism had gone away at these schools. Racism was still present at these schools even if segregation was not.
In 1950 then Loyola University (Loyola Marymount University following the merge with Marymount college in 1968-1973) was scheduled to play against Texas Western College in a football game. LMU had three black players and a black trainer on the team. It was not uncommon for black athletes to attend colleges in California. In 1950, black people still faced racism and de facto segregation similar to what Jackie Robinson had experienced at UCLA. But it was different from the legal racism and segregation of Texas. There were massive differences in how the state of California and the state of Texas treated black people in the 1950s. Nonetheless, a game had been scheduled between Loyola University and Texas Western. Red Hopkins was the LMU football team manager. He had the responsibility of making the accommodations and scheduling games. He was responsible for scheduling the Texas Western game and also made the hotel reservations for the team at the Hotel Cortes. Loyola University was put in a tough situation by the fact that the Hotel Cortes would not allow black players to stay there. The Hotel Cortes said they would make accommodations for the black athletes to stay elsewhere in the city but under no circumstance could stay at the hotel. In addition, there was a standing rule in the state of Texas that prohibited black athletes from playing:
The Board of Regents of the University of Texas, of which Texas Western was a member, would not budge from its longstanding rule that blacks could not play for or against football teams in its division.Aaron Smith, “No One Left Behind,” LMU Magazine, 2017.
This rule plus the black athletes not being able to stay at the same hotel as the rest of the team did not sit well with members of Loyola’s team, athletic program, or faculty. Loyola University had to decide whether to play in this game without their black athletes and trainer being able to go. Loyola University stood by their Jesuit values when it came to defending the black players and trainer. From a Jesuit perspective, it would be unethical to allow such discrimination just to play in the game and for the success of an athletic program. It was not a simple decision, though, because if you cancel the game you lose money, and it also looks bad for your football program. The hotel was already booked for the whole team as well as airfare. The following is a direct quote from Red Hopkins to the Hotel Cortes in El Paso dated September 25,1950 weeks before the game “Please cancel our reservation this weekend. Thanks.”
By canceling the reservation, Loyola canceled the trip to El Paso. This was the first step in forfeiting the game against Texas Western. Loyola did not stand for segregation and stood up for their black athletes and trainer. According to the article from the LMU Magazine, the school lost roughly $10,000 dollars from forfeiting this game. It also was harder for Loyola to schedule games with other teams going forward. Knowing a team canceled a game within a season was unsettling to some schools. Red Hopkins had trouble getting scheduled to play games outside the state of California. All the players and coaches supported the decision, which was ultimately made by Loyola University president Charles Casassa. Loyola suffered financially and athletically from this decision, but they placed their Jesuit values above winning.
Sixteen years after Loyola University forfeited a game against Texas Western because of segregation, Texas Western ironically became the first team to start an all-black lineup in college basketball history. Not only were they the first team in college basketball to start five black players, but they also won the National Championship that year, beating a historically great Kentucky basketball team coached by Adolph Rupp. Kentucky was a team of all white players and was a perennial blue blood in college basketball, while Texas Western was unheard of in college basketball. If a school like Texas Western could beat Kentucky with five black players against five white players, it would be groundbreaking for black athletes across the country. Pat Riley, who went on to play in the NBA and become one of the best head coaches in NBA history, played on the 1966 Kentucky team. At the time of the game Riley didn’t realize how meaningful that game was for black athletes across the country; for him, it was just a heartbreaking loss.
When he came to the Lakers, Bob McAdoo told me how much the game meant, how it changed everything, how it opened up the world for black kids in the South. I guess I never really thought of it that way, that we were such a big part of history. The loss remains. I’ve never felt emptier. It was the worst night of my basketball life, but I’m proud to have taken part in something that changed so many other people’s lives.Curry Kirkpatrick, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down: In 1966, an All-Black Lineup from Texas Western Beat All-White Kentucky for the NCAA Title. College Hoops Hasn’t Been the Same since,” Sports Illustrated 74, no. 12 (1991): 70.
The fact that Texas Western was able to win on such a massive stage had huge ramifications for black athletes all over the country. From a talent perspective, other schools started recruiting more and more black players. If teams didn’t recruit black players, they would not be able to keep up with teams like Texas Western. Secondly, it was an inspiration to young black kids across the country. It showed them that a group of black players could come together and succeed and that ultimately their talent could be appreciated and succeed at the top level. The fact that they beat a blue blood program like Kentucky shows the significance and importance of the game. It showed that black athletes could not be turned down and discriminated against much longer.
The case studies of Jackie Robinson, LMUs football team and Texas Western’s basketball team are all significant stories in college athletics, and each case study advance rights for black athletes in some way. In the case of Jackie Robinson, he played four sports in as a black athlete in 1939. Loyola showed in 1950 that a school was willing to stand up for their black athletes against segregation. Texas Western’s basketball program was probably the most significant. It showed a team of five black athletes could win a national championship. But did these cases help to advance the rights of black people in general? While Robinson played four sports for UCLA, his rights as a person off the field were restricted. Texas Western made history, but it is not clear that much changed for these players off the court. UCLA and Texas Western did not sacrifice their athletic programs in any way to improve the rights of their black athletes off the field. That’s why the Loyola football example stands out because Loyola sacrificed wins. They gave up money and damaged the future of their football program for standing up for what was right. Their black players could physically see that the people at the university cared about them and wanted to better their lives off the field. Sport in America was a vehicle in which African Americans in an era of Jim Crow laws and segregation could rise above. The story of civil rights in America cannot be written without sports as a central part.
Written by Brennan Campbell, History, 2021
For Further Readings
Kirkpatrick, Curry. 1991. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down In 1966, an All-Black Lineup from Texas Western Beat All-White Kentucky for the NCAA Title. College Hoops Hasn’t Been the Same since.” Sports Illustrated 74, no. 12 (1991): 70.
Rampersad, Arnold. Jackie Robinson : A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1997.
Smith, Aaron. “No One Left Behind.” LMU Magazine, 2017. Available at: https://magazine.lmu.edu/articles/no-one-left-behind/ [Accessed 12 Oct. 2019].