Review of Leveling the Playing Field

Marc, David.  Leveling the Playing Field: The Story of the Syracuse 8.  Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2015. 344 pages, 25 illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth $39.95. 

Reviewed by Matt Follett

levelingLeveling the Playing Field: The Story of the Syracuse 8 tells the story of how African American football players at Syracuse University protested discrimination in the football program amid antagonism from coaches and university officials in 1970.  Leveling the Playing Field has challenged a previous narrative that Syracuse was a harbor for African American football players—such as Jim Brown and Ernie Davis—and also reminds readers that racial prejudice in college football occurred north of the Mason-Dixon line after the apex of the 1960s Civil Rights movement.  Author David Marc, who has taught at Syracuse and has written for the alumni magazine, has written a more popular account instead of an academic monograph. The fact that Syracuse University Press published the book is evidence of the university acknowledging its previous mistakes and facilitating a healing process to move forward.

Part One traces the history of racial hostility at Syracuse from the early 1930s with quarterback Wilmeth Sidat-Singh through the boycott from the Syracuse 8 in 1970.  Wilmeth Sidat-Singh became the first Syracuse African American football player in 1937, but he was discriminated against and was benched during a 1937 contest at the University of Maryland when playing in the segregated southern city, Baltimore.  To mask his true African American identity, athletic director Lew Andreas promoted Sidat-Singh as having an Indian heritage.  During his reign as football coach, basketball coach, and athletic director, Marc argues Lew Andreas treated African American students as second class citizens.

Leveling the Playing Field delves into the complexities of head football coach Ben Schwartzwalder’s relationship with African American athletes.  Syracuse’s football program at the time was considered a place that welcomed African American athletes, but Marc also documents racial prejudice and discrimination during Schwarzwalder’s tenure.  Ben Custis was the starting quarterback in 1948 when black athletes were viewed as mentally incapable of understudying the complexities of the position.  But in 1953 Avatus Stone, who was explicitly told by the coaching staff to stop dating white co-eds, was prevented from playing in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama, whose president fought to uphold the gentlemen’s agreement of benching black players against southern opponents.  Jim Brown, after school officials tried to deny his application and refused to offer him an athletic scholarship, began the tradition of excellent African American running backs at Syracuse that continued with Ernie Davis and Floyd Little.  Other notable African American players included fullbacks Art Baker and Jim Nance, tight end John Mackey, and wide receiver Billy Hunter, who in 1964 organized a petition that was signed by all Syracuse black athletes against segregated seating in stadiums that included the 1965 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Marc attributes the Syracuse 8’s boycott to the black power movement and its intersection with athletics.  Members of the football team participated in rallies on Syracuse’s campus clamoring for African American support groups, and players were influenced by previous boycotts from black athletes.  Sociologist Harry Edwards, who organized the 1968 Olympics boycott as part of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), also planned the boycott of the1968 football game between San Jose State and Brigham Young University, which excluded African American students.  Wyoming University players also boycotted BYU in 1969.   In 1970, the Syracuse 8— Gregory Allen, Richard Bulls, Ronald Womack, Dana Jon “D.J.” Harrell, Clarence “Bucky” McGill, Abduallah Alif Muhammad, John Lobon, Duane “Spoon Walker”, and John Willie Godbolt—decided to take action by submitting a letter protesting unfair practices with the football team.

The players sent a list of grievances to Schwartzwalder specifically protesting bias in academic support, bias in the depth chart, an all-white coaching staff, and bias in medical attention as black players who complained about a lack of playing time were suddenly declared medically ineligible to play.  Whereas Coach Schwartzwalder supported Billy Hunter’s leadership for racial progress in 1964, he emphatically denied all the accusations and suspended the players from the team after they refused to practice.  He wrote a letter to the players indicating they could rejoin the team if they scheduled a meeting with him before August 1st, but the players never received the letter.  The Syracuse Post-Standard reported Schwartzwalder told all the players directly they would not be admitted back on the team, but those six players deny that claim.  Only Greg Allen and Robin Griffin were invited by the coaching staff to rejoin practice, with Allen being the only one to join the team after Griffin refused in support of the others.  While Schwartzwalder hired Carlmon Jones, an African American player form Florida A&M, as an assistant coach for the 1970 season, Marc argues nothing was done regarding the other grievances.  Eventually Chancellor John E. Corbally announced that all eight players will be at the Sept 23 practice.  Yet four of the players were declared academically ineligible, and the others ruled ineligible for a Sept 26 game because they needed NCAA regulated practice time.  As a result, Marc concludes The Syracuse Eight’s collegiate careers were essentially over, as was any hope for a fair shot at the National Football League.

Part Two is an edited transcript from oral interviews with the players.  Marc provides a brief biographical summary before the first-hand testimony.  While some academics may scoff at a non-traditional monograph, the players’ account reads as a reflective essay documenting what happened in 1970 that also benefits from forty-plus years of contemplation.  While the players describe Coach Schwartzwalder as antagonistic toward their list of grievances, most have forgave the university and seem at peace with their decision to give up football.  The majority of the players have excelled in academics and their professions.  In 2006, all nine players received an official apology, the Chancellor’s Medal, and were honored with Letterman jackets by Chancellor Nancy Cantor.

Leveling the Playing Field builds off scholarship centered around racial animosity and college football in northern states.  John Carrol’s Fritz Pollard: Pioneer in Racial Advancement cites prejudice against the African American halfback at Brown University.  Lane Demas’ Integrating the Gridiron documented the 1969 boycott at the University of Wyoming.  Essays examining football players breaking the color line at northern state institutions include Charles H. Martin’s “The Color Line in Midwestern College Sports, 1890-1960” and John Matthew Smith’s “Breaking the Plane’s; Integration and Black Protest in Michigan State University Football during the 1960s”.  However, Leveling the Playing Field is a book centered around athletics at Syracuse University.  Sport fans and academics interested in the intersection of race and college football will enjoy this book, but the in-depth detail about Syracuse University might be unappealing to those without ties to the Northeast.

Matt Follett is a Public History PhD student at Middle Tennessee State University, where he focuses on modern southern culture.  Feel free to contact him with any questions or comments at mfollett618@gmail.com.

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