Some 50 years ago, the “Syracuse 8” (there were nine players, actually) put their football careers on hold — and sacrificed potential pro playing careers altogether — to stand up for something greater than themselves. The demands were simple and reasonable, and centered on equality for college athletes, plus representation for black coaches on a campus that at the time had yet to hire a coach of color.
And yet, they weren’t met. Coach Ben Schwartzwalder had no interest in acknowledging race and how racism affects the experience of black athletes. Syracuse University did not strip the players of their scholarships, but didn’t fight Ben about his flippant disregard for their concerns either. Decades later, Syracuse would honor the players and apologize for not having their backs.
The story of the Syracuse 8 belongs to the nine players who chose to boycott, and their experience as a result of it is what’s most important. However, the apology and resulting honors for the players came in part due to some of their white teammates lobbying for it.
Those white players don’t deserve credit for anything the Syracuse 8 did or sacrificed, and their silence at the time was part of what allowed Ben and the university to act the way they did. Later on, they used their privilege to try and right a wrong, which is better than most ever do. It doesn’t remove what happened, though. Nor does it eliminate the ongoing issues the United States has with regard to race.
Just as the story of the Syracuse 8 doesn’t belong to those white players who eventually spoke up about apologies and recognition from the university, the story of this past weekend — or the injustices that birthed the largely peaceful protests — is not mine to tell, either. As a straight white male in this country, I cannot even begin to understand the struggles of its many marginalized communities. But I can empathize. I can listen. I can pledge to be better. I can speak up and utilize my privilege as a force for positive change where possible.
The same goes for many of you as well. Because stopping racial injustice and police brutality is every human being’s fight until these evils are eradicated from our society. That’s not a political statement as much as it’s a fact. As a country, we’ve failed people of color repeatedly for centuries. And we (the white majority) are all guilty of it to both large and small extents, whether intentional or not. This is about fairness, equality and treating people like people, regardless of the color of their skin.
I’m not claiming we’re fixing it tomorrow. But an inability to do so shouldn’t stop us from trying.
In the coming days, you’ll be hearing a lot of noise from the country’s leaders, both in Washington D.C. and your local area. Many of these messages will be well-meaning, but say nothing of substance, and provide no path for change. Others will be divisive, aiming to skew the message of what these protests were actually about.
Don’t let them drive these wedges between us. It’s everyone’s fight, whether you’re at home or on the front lines of the protests. Don’t allow narratives to erase peoples’ humanity any more than they already have.
Many people are sad and angry right now, and they should be. You should be sad and angry too. We have to do better, and it’s high time those of us not fearing for our well-being every day start speaking up and standing up to stop these injustices from continuing. It’s not our story, but we play a valuable role in helping make sure racially-fueled violence (especially perpetrated by police) is no longer an aspect of life in America.